Both beekeepers and their customers are often confused about the best way to store honey at home. To many, crystallization, which is also called “sugaring,” means the honey has gone bad. “My honey granulated. Should I throw it out?” is one of the most frequently asked questions about honey.
Worse, some consumers think that visible crystals means the honey was mixed with table sugar or contaminated in some other way. Ironically, the truth is that honey that remains liquid for long periods may have been more highly processed than the crystallized stuff. But not always.
Cappings protect honey
When honey is properly cured, it contains about 18% water. Since nectar is about 80% water to begin with, this is a daunting task. The honey bees do this tricky conversion by adding enzymes and fanning their wings to drive moisture-laden air out of the hive. When the honey reaches the proper moisture content, the bees seal the tops of the cells with a thin layer of beeswax. The cappings, as they are called, act like food storage lids, protecting the honey from the atmosphere.
Capped honey comb has excellent keeping qualities and can be stored at room temperature for years. All you have to do is keep it clean and dry. Depending on the source of the nectar, however, even capped honey may crystallize.
Given a little platform or “seed,” sugar molecules can organize themselves into neat, compact patterns we call crystals. The platform that gets the process going is usually a small particle of some sort, such as a grain of pollen, a speck of dust, or even another sugar crystal. This is a completely natural process.
Natural but not inevitable
If the process is natural, then why does it happen to some honey and not others? The answer lies in the components of the original nectar.
Nectar contains several different kinds of sugars, but the main ones are sucrose, glucose, and fructose. When the honey bees collect nectar, they immediately add enzymes to it. One of these enzymes, called invertase, breaks down most of the sucrose into glucose and fructose. After the conversion, which happens quickly, the nectar is mostly glucose and fructose with only a little remaining sucrose.
The structure of glucose and fructose are different. Glucose is very quick to granulate, while fructose is resistant to granulation. The difference is due to their solubility in water. Glucose is much less soluble in water, meaning it will quickly leave the solution and granulate. Fructose is easily soluble in water, so it will stay in solution for long periods.
Based on the original composition of the nectar, the proportions of sugar types will vary from one honey to another. Although the sucrose breaks down to 50% glucose and 50% fructose, you have to add these to the amounts of glucose and fructose found naturally in the nectar. That means some honeys have more fructose than others, and that is an important difference.
Honeys with high levels of glucose crystallize faster than honeys with high levels of fructose. And the proportions matter. The higher the proportion of glucose to fructose, the faster the granulation occurs.
Some honeys are famously fast to granulate, such as oilseed rape (canola). Others are remarkably slow, like gallberry and black locust. Although there are exceptions, as a general rule, honey from forbs granulates much faster than honey from trees and shrubs.
Keeping it liquid
To slow the rate of crystallization, store extracted honey in a tightly lidded container at room temperature. Honey can also be frozen, which stops crystallization, but it should never be kept in the refrigerator, which speeds it up. Heating, even a little, can degrade the honey, so heat should be avoided whenever possible.
It is also best to keep the honey in a dark place, such as a cabinet or pantry because light can degrade the flavor and aroma components. Since honey is very acidic, it is best to keep it in either glass, ceramic, or stainless steel containers. Regular metal containers may corrode, and honey stored in plastic can easily take on the flavor and aroma of plasticizers.
Too much moisture in honey can cause fermentation, and since honey is hygroscopic, it readily pulls moisture out of the atmosphere. So no matter what type of container you chose, keep a lid on extracted honey. Mason jars with rubberized seals are perfect for liquid honey. For comb honey, I like glass containers with snap on lids.
Doing battle with crystals
North American beekeepers know they can sell honey in its liquid form much easier than they can sell crystallized honey, so there are a number of things they do to slow the rate of crystallization.
One of those things is filtration. By filtering honey, you remove those little particles where crystallization starts. The finer the filter, the more particles you can remove. Ultra filtration, where honey is forced through very tiny holes under high pressure, has come under fire because it filters out the pollen. And honey without pollen has been considered “not real” by some jurisdictions.
Other things beekeepers can do before going to market include keeping the honey frozen or keeping it in a warm room. If this happened to the honey you just bought, it may crystallize soon after you bring it home. Consumers who buy liquid honey frequently ask “What did I do wrong?” when their honey granulates a week after purchase.
Another thing a beekeeper can do is make whipped or creamed honey, which is also ironic because creamed honey is honey that has been crystallized deliberately, but in a controlled fashion. By adding a small bit of already crystallized honey to a batch of liquid honey, the honey will crystallize quickly. By seeding the honey with tiny crystals, the honey crystallizes into more tiny crystals, giving the honey a pleasant, smooth, spreadable consistency. Although we don’t call creamed honey “crystallized,” that’s exactly what it is.
In some regions of the world, crystallized or creamed honey is the preferred format. It’s great as a spread because it won’t flow off your toast or knife, and it re-liquifies as soon as you put it on anything warm. Crystallized honey is also easy to use in cooking, and it will dissolve quickly when added to the wet ingredients.
How to store honey in frames
Full honey frames are a little harder to store. I often have a lot of comb honey that I store over the winter. People often wrap these in plastic, something I do from time to time, especially if I’m going to freeze the frames before storage.
But if you get a leaker inside a plastic wrap, you can get fermentation or mold in the puddles. These can taint the flavor of the entire comb, and they smell nasty too.
After I remove frames from the freezer, I let them return to room temperature with the plastic wrap still in place in order to prevent condensation on the surface of the combs. Afterward, I check them for leaks every few days for a week or so. If there are no leaks, you can leave them wrapped and store them for months. But any dampness inside the wrap needs to be removed before long-term storage.
Look for uncapped cells
In my experience, it is the uncapped cells that cause the problem. I may have an entire frame of perfectly capped honey with just a few uncapped cells on the perimeter. These uncapped cells can take on water and ferment, or just leak out and ferment. It only takes a few, so be on the lookout for these.
It depends on how much patience you have, but I sometimes just arrange these frames on the counter, standing them upright. I stretch a piece of plastic wrap over the top to keep out the dust, but I leave the sides uncovered. Then I wait for a couple of weeks so the uncapped cells can dry out or finish draining. Only then do I wrap them for long-term storage.
It always makes me sad, but many people have reported storing honey frames in those large plastic storage containers, only to discover every frame covered in mold come spring. If you think about what makes mold happy, it’s usually a cool, damp, dark environment with a good food source. A lidded plastic container stored in the garage and filled with honey frames, even with minimal leaks, can provide a rich life for mold and mildew.
Crystallized honey as bee feed
On a side note, crystallized honey can also be fed to bees. It’s strange to me, but there’s a whole culture of beekeepers out there who say that bees won’t eat crystallized honey because it’s too hard or too dry. Yet these same beekeepers feed their bees candy boards, sugar cubes, or fondant, most of which is both harder and drier than crystallized honey.
I’ve fed crystallized honey to bees as long as I’ve been beekeeping. I used to put it in feeders, but then about six years ago Phillip at mudsongs.org recommended just laying a jar of crystallized honey on it’s side above the top bars and closing up the hive. Since then, that’s what I do.
One caveat, however, is that bees overwinter better on light-colored honey than dark-colored honey. The reason is that darker honeys have a higher ash content. The ash in honey collects in the honey bee gut because it is indigestible. If bees accumulate too much waste in their guts, they may get diarrhea, otherwise known as honey bee dysentery (not to be confused with Nosema disease which is caused by a pathogen).
I believe the rumor that “crystallized honey causes dysentery” comes from beekeepers who fed dark-colored crystallized honey to bees in the dead of winter. Light-colored honey isn’t a problem.
If I want to feed crystallized honey to my bees, I give them the light-colored stuff just before or during the coldest months when they can’t get outside. Once the weather begins to warm in spring and the bees can fly from time to time, I give them the darker stuff.
Planning ahead makes sense
Whether you are storing honey for yourself or your bees, a little common sense goes a long way. It pays to check on the honey occasionally, especially if you’re storing it in the comb. If your honey crystallizes easily, consider making creamed honey in future years. Alternatively, experiment with the many delicious ways crystallized honey may be used as is.
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