muddled thinking

What’s really in your bottle of honey?

I was called on the carpet last week by a beekeeper who insists that bees can turn sugar syrup into honey. Maybe the letter is a hoax. Maybe the writer is a troll just trying to stir up controversy. On the other hand—and this is much scarier—maybe he is serious:

Ughh! I really enjoy reading your website and in most cases I do not argue differences because I accept how many views are out there especially with beekeeping. That is why it pains me to refute this point because some things are false no matter what. I don’t expect to change someone’s view but hear me out.

The notion that bees cannot turn sugar or syrup into honey is false. Just plain and simple. Okay, perhaps not so simple. Let me explain.

Honey has an intrinsic characteristic aside from other natural sugars of being a predigested form of different monosaccharides such as sucrose/fructose in an invert state accomplished outside of the reaction under heat. It is rather, a manipulation of enzymes. This I know you agree with.

However, there are so many different types of nectar that no definition of honey can be derived from the word “nectar” alone. The molecular composition of some nectars far exceed the nutritional content of others. Some nectars are so basic in structure that they resemble little more than pure sucrose. Even given the fact that some minerals and nutrients exist in all nectar, these vary from one to the other. In truth, if humans were to mechanically extract nectar from flowers on a large scale similar to maple syrup, agave etc. they could not add the same enzymes, minerals, or processes to recreate what we call honey.

Also take into consideration what is occurring during the conversion process of honey in the beehive. Enzymes play only a minimal role, bacteria cultures are crucial in the way sugars ferment. Glucose oxidase is one byproduct of fermentation and has little to do with properties found in nectar.

In summary, it should be pointed out that bees are the primary factor in honey production and a study of syrup after it has been converted by a bee is fully functional in its characteristics of honey. Its mineral content may be less, but its ability to make mess as well as offer H2O2 as a diluting byproduct itself stands to suggest that what a be makes is honey no matter where the bee got it.

This is not a complete explanation but I hope it offered a little food for thought.

In spite of the fact that parts of this make no sense whatsoever, another reader, Nick from here in Washington, took the time to write a competent response in which he demonstrates that, by definition, honey must come from either nectar or honeydew.

As mentioned in an earlier thread concerning honey definitions, here in the States, that duty falls to the FDA apparently. The USDA has issued the grading standards, but successfully dodges the responsibility of the definition. The FDA was charged by the Senate Appropriations Committee to get the definition done promptly, a couple of years ago.

“ . . . Senate Committee on Appropriations has called on the FDA to address a standard of identity for honey in the reported agriculture appropriations bills for 2010 and 2011. In the Fiscal Year 2011 Senate Report, the FDA was directed to respond to the citizen petition from the American Beekeepers Association within six months and provide monthly status reports to the Senate Appropriations Committee on this effort until a response has been provided.” Source:

Here in Washington State, we do have a definition. Other states have ‘other’ definitions as does the World Health Organization.

WA state
“Honey” defined.
The term “honey” as used herein is the nectar of floral exudations of plants, gathered and stored in the comb by honey bees (apis mellifica). It is laevo-rotatory, contains not more than twenty-five percent of water, not more than twenty-five one-hundredths of one percent of ash, not more than eight percent of sucrose, its specific gravity is 1.412, its weight not less than eleven pounds twelve ounces per standard gallon of 231 cubic inches at sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit.
[1939 c 199 § 14; RRS § 6163-14. Formerly RCW 69.28.010, part.]

The WHO, as cited here:
World Health Organization (WHO) Codex Alimentarius (CA) for Honey, “Honey is the natural sweet substance, produced by honey bees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant-sucking insects on the living parts of plants, which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of there own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in honeycombs to ripen and mature.”

Merriam-Webster conscise encyclopedia:
“Sweet, viscous liquid food, golden in colour, produced in the honey sacs of various bees from the nectar of flowers. Honey has played an important role in human nutrition since ancient times; until about 250 years ago, it was almost the sole sweetening agent. Honey is often produced on a commercial scale from clover (Trifolium) or sweet clover (Melilotus) by the domestic honeybee. The nectar is ripened into honey by inversion of most of its sucrose into the sugars levulose (fructose) and dextrose (glucose) and the removal of excess moisture. Honey is stored in the beehive or nest in a honeycomb, a double layer of uniform hexagonal cells constructed of beeswax and propolis (a plant resin). The honey is used in winter as food for the bee larvae and other members of the colony. Honey extracted for human consumption is usually heated to destroy fermentation-causing yeasts and then strained. See also beekeeping.”

There is some variation in these definitions, and some points could be argued as being wrong, such as whether or not ‘honeydew’ should be allowed or not or what moisture percentage is allowable as ‘honey’. However, these are consistent in that bees harvest nectar from living plants . . .

Comb-stored sugar syrup fails this test and should not be referred to nor labelled as ‘honey’.

Kent, WA

I offer this to you because, as the commenter asserts, it is “a little food for thought.” I often advise people who want pure, unadulterated honey to find a local beekeeper. But after reading this, I wonder if that is always the best advice. I assume this person is an exception, but wow.

Honey Bee Suite


  • I can buy a 25 lb. sack of cane sugar at my local Costco for less than $9. Local honey in my area can go for $7/lb. That is a scary thought if beekeepers get into it just for the bottom line!

  • The Canadian food inspection agency allows for honeydew.

    I thought honey had to have some pollen in it to help trace whether it is truly from nectar and/or honeydew.

    I would refer folks to buy raw unfiltered or coarse-filtered honey from local
    beekeepers who leave the traces of pollen in the honey.


    Sweet, viscous liquid produced by bees from the nectar of a variety of plants as well as from secretions of sap-feeding insects. The bees collect the nectar into their honey stomach and take it back to the colony. In this process, certain enzymes are added and sugars altered. The nectar is stored in cells in the combs and the bees work to evaporate the moisture until it is at 16-18 percent. At this stage it becomes honey. Because of its very high sugar content (> 80%), it keeps very well.

  • I get that there are legal definitions of what the term “honey” can describe. And for beekeepers, there seems to be an almost religious aspect to what some refer to as honey (similar to what people say “marriage” describes and what it does not describe). So for this discussion, I’ll try to refer to what bees produce as “bee product” so as not to offend people’s beliefs of what “honey” should be used to described.

    What is the product of sugar or corn syrup given to bees from a technical/chemical standpoint? I don’t know enough about the biology of bees to know just how much they can modify sugars like nectar, sucrose, corn syrup (glucose aka dextrose), and HFCS when they are given that substance, they digest it, and dry it in comb. So I’m asking…

    I agree with what he’s saying that sugar/corn syrup based “bee product” won’t have the same mineral or protein content as honey from nectar. And it probably doesn’t have a few other things (don’t know what those would be). So, what are the chemical differences between what bees make from each of sucrose, corn syrup, HFCS, and nectar? And how similar are they in taste? I get that it likely won’t be as flavorful as stronger honeys given the minerals and pollen won’t be there, but would sugar/corn syrup/HFCS “bee product” even remotely taste like honey? Or would it literally taste like what it tasted like before the bees got a hold of it?

    It also makes me wonder about some beekeeping videos of people extracting and canning thick “honey” that was almost perfectly clear. I wondered at the time if it was clear because it was mostly from sugar water and thus had little to no pollen or other natural ingredients. Or in all fairness to them, is there some nectars that bees digest & dehydrate into nearly clear honey?

    • Chris,

      Nectar has literally thousands of components, mostly in very small quantities, that affect its taste, aroma, color, and health benefits. There are minerals, vitamins, various phytochemicals, antioxidants—a soup of various plant goods, including pollen. Refined sugar has none of these. As a result so-called honey made from sugar will taste sweet, but nothing more. Honey from nectar is a highly complex substance with varied tastes, colors, and aromas. Plus, all those optional extras are good for you. Honey is much more than empty calories.

      However, honey varies by species and some, known as water white, is virtually colorless. The color, like the flavor, is dependent on the plant it was collected from.

  • I think I am fortunate to live in the European Union where there are fixed standards for a vast range of produce. This always seems to annoy the majority of Americans with whom I have corresponded or the few I have met, so I put it down to cultural differences, but we have had a legal definition of Honey since 2002. It is the same as that given by Nick when he quotes the World Health Organization (WHO) Codex Alimentarius (CA) for Honey (with the exception of the grammatical error made by the

    As well as this strict definition it is forbidden to remove anything except “inorganic foreign materials”, so honey obviously should contain pollen.

    I thought that only the Chinese ‘honey farmers’ produced “honey” by feeding sugar to their bees.

  • I would like to add a little bio and chemistry into the blog.

    The plant through photosynthesis takes the sun’s energy to break carbon off of CO2 and release O2 back into the atmosphere. The carbon is added to water from the plant in the chloroplasts making C6H12O6 also know as glucose, the most basic sugar.

    Plants naturally make glucose and the next higher sugar called fructose. Glucose and fructose is 1:1 in honey.

    When we feed sugar water/syrup to the bees, this is the next level sugar called sucrose. The bees do not break down sucrose to lower level sugars like glucose and fructose. They use this sugar immediately as a food source.

    Bees will store excess sucrose (sugar water) if we feed them an over abundance and the potential to mix sucrose into the raw honey is a possibility.

    • The amount of glucose and fructose in nectar varies by plant; there is no set ratio. Honey made from nectar high in glucose granulates quickly. Those higher in fructose granulate slowly. The ratio makes all the difference.

  • From the definitions above I agree that refined white sugar (nearly pure sucrose) processed by honey bees and stored in the hive can not be technically classified as honey. I think the critical point is whether anyone can know if the capped “honey” in the hive is derived from a nectar source or is it coming from your neighbor’s hummingbird feeder. I believe the honey making process used by honey bees can invert white sugar sucrose into fructose and glucose which once stored and capped in the hive is difficult to distinguish from actual honey.

    • Red,

      I agree with you. I didn’t elaborate on that point because I wanted to look it up first, but my recollection is that bees do invert sucrose into fructose and glucose. Tests can detect cane sugar in honey because it is C4, but I believe beet sugar (C3) can remain undetected. Again, I’m going from memory. I have to look this up again.

  • At least one other state, Utah, agrees with Washington’s definition of honey. You may remember last summer a commercial bee keeper in Utah fed the bees crushed candy cane in open feeders. Bees in two counties picked this up and produced red “honey”. This red honey was tested at a university and found to not meet the definition of honey. It could not be sold as honey.

    We could argue all day about sugar passing through a bee, but the laws in place are clear. If that sweet sticky stuff in the comb didn’t come from a plant it’s not honey. And shame on anyone for trying to pass off anything that isn’t.


    • @Wayne Davidson: “If that sweet sticky stuff in the comb didn’t come from a plant it’s not honey. And shame on anyone for trying to pass off anything that isn’t.”

      @Rusty: “Exactly right.”

      If sugar and corn syrup and HFCS does not come from a plant, where, pray tell, does it come from???

      Rusty, while you may be attributed with having the patience of Job, your love of bees is more in question.

      We highly discourage ANY supplemental sweetener other than PURE CANE sugar (not “pure sugar,” nor corn syrup in any form, because of the pesticides used on those plants, as well as genetic modifications to the plants (sugar beets and corn) used to produce other products.

      We (as well as many beekeepers the world over) feed our bees sweetened water throughout the year, particularly during the early Spring and Autumn months, for the VERY simple reason that the BEES (not the beekeepers) need this sweetened water to LIVE.

      The bees are well able to convert this PLANT sweetened water into HONEY, regardless the pedantic arguments, and the hive utilizes this honey throughout the Winter months, to survive and live.

      Now, in regards to the “clear color” of honey, or non-nectar honey – This is a prime example of people over-thinking Nature.
      Clear honey (or bee-product), is simply honey that has not aged. Like fine wines, honey ages, due to the bacteria and enzymes in the bees’ pre-digestion. Honey that is in uncapped honeycomb cells has not sufficiently dehydrated enough to be capped and age.
      Once capped, the “bee-product” darkens over time. Our sugar-syrup fed bee colonies produce HONEY from early Spring, as soon as the worker bees can get out and find some sweet liquids to bring back to the hive. They then make honey until the cold temperatures force them to ball up and keep the queen warm over the Winter, when the cycle continues. During this period, the bees consume the honey stores they have produced since early Spring.

      Honeycomb that we have harvested in Fall (we have Top Bar, not Langstroth hives) shows all shades of color, from pale and almost water clear, to deep amber, almost brown. This is not due to the chemical make up of the honey, be it nectar or sugar produced. This is due to the aging of the bee product itself, and uncapped honey cells that contain a higher water content. Please stop over-thinking the color situation. Pure nectar honey would display the same thing.

      If sugar water (from plants), did not make honey, the BEES would not be able to survive Winter. The fact that humans harvest the food that these insects produce for their personal survival is secondary, regardless the monetized commercialization of the product.

      I, along with cgray8, who posted further up, would love to see the chemical breakdown of the supposed “bee product,” in comparison with “nectar honey,” as I suspect little to no difference, beyond the aforementioned minerals and protein content…

      I would also love to see the survival rate of bees on the planet increase, not for the consumption of honey or “other bee product,” but for the survival of humans and plants. Any efforts that contribute to bee populations should be encouraged, not discouraged over the semantics and sources of the sweetened liquid bees consume to produce HONEY.

      While I cannot speak for any large, commercial operations attempting to sell and profit from “non-plant sweetner-fed bee product” (and while there is “sugar-free honey,” this discussion is not about that), I can, as a private, small-scale, beekeeper, speak for the bees, in that sugar water (and ONLY pure cane sugar water) is FAR from being a money maker. Thirsty bees can drink gallons a day, and at a 1:1 ratio, a 50# bag of sugar only makes a little over 6 gallons of sugar water.
      That sugar water then has to dehydrate and be capped by the bees, and then age to become honey. Time is money, you know…
      And not all of the honey produced can be harvested. Sufficient stores of the sugar-water produced honey must be left for the hive to consume over the Winter.
      Harvested honey then has to be processed, whether by centrifuge, as is the case for Langstroth hives, or by crushing the comb, for Top Bar hives. Labor is money.
      So, the snarky worry about profiteering from sugar-water fed bees is utterly needless.

      Bottom line, folks, if you are beekeeping in any form, it should, first and foremost be for the bees. Wasting your energies over stupid semantics, instead of focusing on the bees is not helping the cause.
      Evil profiteers will always be evil. But looking for evil in every little thing, and pedantically castigating sugar water feeding as not being honey, or somehow contributing to the evil men do in the name of money is truly missing the forest for a chipped piece of bark on a very small tree.

      Love bees.

  • There isn’t much there to be scared about really … you are all saying essentially the same thing. It comes down to definition and frankly a lack of adequate terminology. The point was best illustrated by referring neutrally to “bee product” … that liquid stuff the bees store in the comb. The original author is making the point of using the term “honey” to describe the totality of the liquid bee product, regardless of the source. This is in contradiction to the definition that others are using, which is a subset of liquid bee product, derived only from plant exudate (another imprecise word, by the way). This is more restricted definition of “honey” what is the word for the liquid bee product that isn’t honey? Is there a different word for the bee product that is derived from sugar and that which is derived from nectar but still not evaporated to the legal definition of honey? The topic would be a lot less controversial if we simply had the language to support the variances, but we don’t, so we’re legislating the definition … but only one part of it. Someone should propose a full dictionary of words describing bee products.

      • Oh lord no. I certainly would not pretend to be someone that actually fixes problems … I just like to point them out. 😉

    • “Is there a different word for the bee product that is derived from sugar …. ?”

      In my house, we call it “capped syrup.”

      • “Syrup” though is also the term used to describe plain sugar water, unprocessed by the bees. It is not simply deposited in the cells and capped by the bees. The point, though, is still that we just don’t have sufficient terminology … and so the confusion and variance in how people use broad terms is understandable. And legislating just one word doesn’t fit that. So nothing to get your panties in a bunch over … it just is.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I read the ‘sugar syrup to honey’ article with interest and my comment is related to the fact I am in the U.K. and to our honey legislation which can’t be far from that in the USA.
    So in my mind your gentleman orovides a very ingenious, and convoluted, argument, but for me it doesn’t totally work.

    For information, when Borage was first introduced as a U.K. crop, the resulting honey was rejected by the bottlers (Gales I think) on the grounds that the sucrose content was above the legal limit for honey. In general the legislation was the honey must contain not more than 5%, i.e. 5g/100g, but for Borage and Lavender not more than 15% i.e. 15g/100 g” (see :- Annex II to EU Honey Directive 2001)

    However U.K. beekeepers found that if they stored it for a year the enzymes the honey contained had been at work and it then came within legal limits!

    So this guy is technically right; but sadly it still isn’t ‘honey’ as defined in law. Perhaps it is a very superior Golden Syrup?

    In the U.K. we have legislation for honey that must be adhered to. I quote , “Honey” means the natural sweet substance produced by Apis mellifera bees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant-sucking insects on the living parts of plants which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of their own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in honeycombs to ripen and mature;” The Honey (England) Regulations 2003 — see

    See Also UK Food Standards Agency Guidance Notes

    And it’s not only UK & EU where we have see complications in what is honey, but the USA has had its own problems see:-
    “Most honey sold in the US does not meet FDA guidelines”
    “Of the honey samples tested, more than 75 percent consistently tested as not meeting food-safety standards. The majority of this ‘honey’ contained no pollen and a significant portion of it contained artificially manufactured syrup made from corn, rice or barley. The tests did not cover any of the honey that is imported and used in baked goods or processed foods.”
    That’s from a news report at

    I look forward to reading further comments on this thread.

    Graham Robinson

  • Back in the day, the some of the Moonshiners would cut their un-bonded whiskey with different things to make more money off a run….their reputation would soon find them out and they would soon be out of business. Same today, be educated and know your farmer and your beekeeper in this case. The way we spend our dollars will bring about change in the supply quicker than anything. Thank you Rusty for helping educate us so we can educate the rest of the market.

  • An interesting discussion. However, I was surprised to see it stated: ‘The term “honey” as used herein is the nectar of floral exudations of plants, gathered and stored in the comb by honey bees (apis mellifica)’ (Washington State). The correct name is Apis mellifera (= honey-bearing), the first name given by Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae in 1758. Although he later tried to change the name to Apis mellifica (= honey-making bee, a more accurate description), this was invalidated by the International Rules of Nomenclature in which 1758 is chosen as the date after which properly applied names can not be changed.

    • Brian,

      I noticed that too, but I didn’t correct or “sic” it because there are certain regions where, right or wrong, “Apis mellifica” is still used (although Washington isn’t one of them). I run into it quite frequently. In this case, I figured we all know who we were taking about. Nonetheless, a good point.

      • Pssst, Rusty, Brian’s right. That was indeed out of the WA state RCW. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the only blooper in the code cited. The 25% limit on moisture is well off the USDA charts which go to 18.9% if memory serves.

        That said, it looks like that code goes back to 1939? Time to update?? 🙂

        Kent, WA

  • Some have also been feeding bees extracted honey for them to store in ross rounds or other comb honey. If it’s the real deal, diluted or adulterated, illegal chinese honey, hfcs, no one really knows until labs get involved.

    Or its smuggled in, and mislabeled.

    Feeding or medicating of any kind, should not happen while honey supers to be extracted are on.

    There was also the colored honey “bee product” in France.

    Don’t set up hives near a candy factory, is a possible lesson.

    Even doing everything right, few people can reliably say what is or isn’t in honey from their hives. But there are definitely people and companies, who knowingly in small ways or grand schemes do things that shouldn’t be done. Greed is involved in many aspects of beekeeping / honey production, is the reality. I don’t think it is too far fetched that rules, laws, or regulatory agencies are being manipulated, skirted, circumvented, or completely ignored. It’s not a new thing. It’s buyer beware as with anything.

  • My grand farther had over 30 hives, He use to say it is very important that
    your hives must always face ? ? ? ? ~ ~ ~ ~ N, E, W, S, I will leave it to the experts ! The SUN WAKES UP IN THE EAST !
    I WILL BE 88 YO, 10 / 23 / 14, And if I don’t remember HAY! I HAVE A PASS GO CARD ! What is your excuse if you forget : )

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