So gross! A few days ago, I received a message from a purchaser of honey. She had just acquired her very first sample of honey-in-the-comb from her local farmer’s market. Based on her description, I would say it was “chunk honey,” a piece of comb in a jar surrounded by extracted honey.
When she got home, she opened the jar to find three larvae floating on top of the honey. Not only floating, but swimming. They were still alive! She said she returned the jar for a refund, but she wanted to know how the larvae got there and how common it is to find them.
A customer lost
This turn of events irked me no end. I have been eating comb honey since I was in diapers, yet I have never once shared it with larvae. Furthermore, I have spent the last decade preaching the virtues of comb honey, producing it, writing about it, and giving it to anyone willing to try a sample.
In fact, my friends in school called me “Johnnie Comb Honey” after “Johnny Appleseed”, the early American nurseryman who tirelessly extolled the virtue of apples and gave away seeds and seedlings. As many of you know, I even include printed “instructions” on how to eat comb honey, and I often provide substrates as well: crackers, muffins, nuts, and cheese—anything to persuade people to have a taste.
So after all that hard work, some slapdash bee possessor comes along and sells comb honey with a protein supplement he doesn’t even disclose. He labeled the product “raw,” a claim of which I have no doubt. Still, raw does not mean “currently inhabited” or otherwise “fortified.”
Who floats within?
The purchaser of the honey seemed to think the larvae were bees, but more likely they were wax moths. Nearly any how-to on producing comb honey recommends that you freeze the honeycomb after removing it from the hive. Freezing will kill all stages of wax moth, including the tiny eggs, if any happen to be there. In truth, however, wax moths are seldom interested in freshly made honeycomb.
The wax moth female is looking for a protein source and is delighted to find shed bee cocoons, bits of pollen, or other hive debris to feed her young. Such delectable items are usually found in comb that has been used for brood rearing, but they are seldom found in freshly secreted wax like the kind we prefer for comb honey.
To freeze or not
Several weeks ago on this site we had a discussion about the definition of “raw” when used with honey. Most sources agree that raw honey is honey that was never heated. However, some people say that to be raw, honey should not be frozen either.
I can see their point, although freezing does not degrade honey the way heat does. And since honey is only about 20% water, the honey doesn’t even expand enough to break the cells. Personally, I doubt that freezing does much damage at all, but that is a separate discussion.
According to the Mid-Atlanic Apicultural Research and Extension Consortium, the eggs of the greater wax moth, Galleria mellonella, will hatch into larvae within 5 to 8 days. So if you are a comb honey producer who does not want to freeze your honey, you can simply protect your combs from further infestations while you hold them at room temperature for this period. After the eighth day, check the comb for tunnels beneath the wax cappings and broken or leaky cells. If no damage is present, you can sell the comb honey without worry.
Not dangerous, but really?
Yes, I get it. A few larvae won’t hurt you. But honestly, a trio of synchronized swimmers splashing in your jar of breakfast spread can be off putting, especially to someone getting up the nerve to try comb honey for the first time. I would hope that beekeepers have enough pride in their product to prevent this kind of sloppy business dealing and half-fast beekeeping.
In any case, the beekeeper should have given the buyer a free jar of honey. Or maybe he did and she declined. I don’t know. But if I knew where she lived, I’d send her one myself.
Honey Bee Suite