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Uncapped honey fermenting in the comb

To produce honey, bees collect nectar from flowers and add enzymes from their honey stomachs. Once the mixture is stored in cells, the bees fan it with their wings until it dehydrates to a moisture content of about 16 to 18.5 percent. If the moisture content is higher than that, the bees simply won’t cap it. If cold weather arrives before the honey is capped, it will sit open in the hive and may eventually ferment.

Fermentation is the process of changing carbohydrates to ethanol and carbon dioxide. Fermentation in honey is no different than the process used in brewing alcoholic beverages. The yeasts that cause this biological process are found naturally in the environment and are called “wild” yeasts. The alcoholic content of fermented honey is not high—perhaps one or two percent—but knowing what to do with it is problematic.

Bubbles and a yeasty odor

Uncapped honey that has not fermented looks like normal honey. Once it starts to ferment, the cells are filled with bubbles and the odor of yeast can become quite rank. Sometimes foam oozes out of the cells and collects under the frames.

As a general rule, beekeepers who extract and bottle honey like to keep the uncapped cells to about 10 percent of the total. However, some go as high as 33 percent, which may require further dehydrating of the honey in order to keep it from fermenting in the bottle.

A lot of controversy surrounds the question of how harmful fermented honey is to bees and whether it can be fed back to bees. Alcohol is poisonous to them (as it is to most living things) but bees probably eat a certain amount of it in the normal course of hive life. I’m quite sure a small amount of fermented honey will not harm a hive, and many beekeepers agree.

What to do with it

However, if you have gallons and gallons of the stuff, I wouldn’t use it as a primary food source. Again, if you imagine bees in nature, you can see that they might encounter some fermented honey—but not barrels of it. The amount they eat should be a small part of their total diet.

Some beekeepers deal with the problem by extracting and boiling the honey which drives off the alcohol and kills many of the yeast. The downside is that boiling changes the properties of honey and increases the percentage of hydroxymethylfurfural.

For hobby beekeepers with only a few frames that contain uncapped honey, you can often give them a good shake and most of the uncured nectar will fly out of the cells. What little remains will probably not affect either the bees or the extracted honey. Use the “10 percent” rule and you shouldn’t have any problems.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Honey fermenting in the comb. Photo by Rusty Burlew.
Foam dripping from fermenting honey comb. Photo by Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Michael
Reply

I was in Hawaii recently and at a farmers market I saw fermented honey being sold for health reasons. It was being sold for 30 dollars for a pint sized jar of honey comb. I was told to eat it in half teaspoon doses. I can find no comments on the health benefit of fermented honey comb online. Does anyone have a comment on the health benefits of fermented honeycomb. Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Michael,

Sounds like it’s good for the financial health of the seller. It’s quite creative because most beekeepers don’t know what to do with the stuff. Just as in beer and wine, yeast that lands on the honey causes the glucose to break down into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Luisa
Reply

I have a whole medium super with sealed comb that somehow fermented. I would like to save the drawn comb, how to i get the fermented honey out of it. I don’t want to feed it back to the hive as it would cause dysentery

Rusty
Reply

Luisa,

I don’t see how capped honey could ferment. Was perhaps only part of it capped? In any case, if you have an extractor, uncapped what’s not already open, extract it and toss it. Or, turn the frame upside down and try shaking out the open cells. It’s probably just the open cells that are fermenting anyway. Or just let it keep fermenting. Eventually it will mostly bubble out of the comb and then you can shake out the remainder.

aqeel
Reply

Hello

We like share a new in the activity of bees and honey; we 20 years ago in this activity.

Aqeel

Marion
Reply

What if you just have a quart the has started smelling a little winey? Must have gotten water in it somehow. Do you just throw it away? I hated to waste it, if it is safe to feed back to the bees.
Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Marion,

A little honey that has begun to ferment will probably not hurt your colony, but instead of feeding it to them and worrying about it, I would just use it for cooking. Think of it as using beer (or wine) and honey in the same recipe. If you use it for something spicy like barbecue sauce, you will never notice.

John finsh
Reply

Hello,

I am a new beekeeper and recently I harvested the honey. I had 70-75% capped cells and when I shook the frames no honey leaked from the cells. But now after bottling the honey it looks like it is watery!! It is so thin. Does that mean that it is uncured honey?

I have about 40 pounds of it . . . what I can do?

Rusty
Reply

John,

Most beekeepers keep the number of uncapped cells to less than 10% of the total. Some go higher, but that usually requires some dehydration before bottling. I don’t know what you can do except take it out of the bottles, dehydrate it, and then re-bottle. Obviously, if you are going to try to dry it more, you have to do it before it ferments.

Then again, if it is not fermenting, you may be okay. See this post.

John finsh
Reply

Rusty,

Thanks for your answer, and I have another question…
How can I dehydrate the honey?
It have been almost a week since bottling the honey and there are no signs of fermentation (smell, taste). So usually how much time does it take for uncapped honey to ferment?

Thanks again for your help 🙂

Rusty
Reply

The beginning of fermentation will depend on when and how much yeast is in there. You would have to heat the honey to dehydrate it, but you don’t want to get it very warm because that degrades the flavor. You could pour it into pans and put it in a dehydrator or put it in an oven that has a drying cycle.

Nabila
Reply

Hi there. I purchased a jar of honey that now has that fermenting alcoholic smell. Is this ok to consume?

Rusty
Reply

Nabila,

The fermenting alcohol smell comes from the alcohol that was produced by yeast. The honey had too much water in it when it was stored. It would be similar to drinking mead, hard cider, beer, or wine, all of which contain ethyl alcohol. Some people like it, some don’t.

Erin Ingram
Reply

Rusty– would it be possible to use your photos with permission for a high school lesson plan that will be made available on the National Ag in the Classroom website? Please let me know! I haven’t seen any other images as good as these!

Rusty
Reply

Erin,

Yes, you may as long as you include a credit. Thank you.

Deb A.
Reply

Hi, I live in northern Ohio. My new hive has grown large and strong. They have two healthy brood boxes and a capped medium super, for winter. With Ohio’s cooler and cloudy summer, the ladies have filled another medium super, but is completely uncapped. I brought the super into the warm house. It shows no fermenting and is not running, out of the cells. Is this safe for human consumption? Or can or would they cap this honey? We are now in the first week of October. Thanks for your guidance.

Rusty
Reply

Deb,

It is absolutely safe for human consumption, but it may ferment. Fermentation doesn’t happen instantly, but it may very well happen in the months ahead. You can do several things. 1. Put the uncapped honey back on the hive for the bees to consume. This is what would happen in nature when no one is supervising. 2. You can save it in the freezer or refrigerator until you are ready to eat it. 3. You can extract it and keep it in the fridge for eating or for feeding back to your bees at a later date.

My preference would be to give it to the bees. It will stay relatively cold in the hive and they will probably have it gone by spring. Put it under the other medium so they eat it first.

Christy
Reply

Brand new to beekeeping. Did not even think to check the hive over the winter, lest I disturb them in stressful weather. Realized two months ago that there was no activity in the beehive and peeked. All gone. Harvested our first bath of honey. Not sure if anything was capped or not. Smelled fine, albeit had a bit of a chemical smell to it. No foaming or oozing. Looked like honey, but very dark (not quite like molasses). Put it in glass jars, in the comb for about a month, then decided to try and strain the honey out of the comb. It has an odor to it. Not “bad” but distinct. Honey strained out nicely. It has the slightest foam on top. I cannot quite describe the smell. MAYBE slightly fermented. Taste is strong, as any dark colored honey would be, but it has a mild aftertaste. Again, not “bad.” We prefer sourwood honey, so could just be the difference in pollens. Is this honey likely safe to eat? Thanks in advance.

Rusty
Reply

Christy,

I’m not sure how you harvested your first batch of honey without noticing if it was capped or not, but in any case it is probably absolutely fine to eat. I’ve never heard of honey, fermented or not, making someone sick. Just enjoy it.

Christy
Reply

Thanks, Rusty. I know I am uneducated. No honey dripped out of the frames when we removed them, but they were not all solidly “sealed” in my view. The bees had all left; I’m not sure why. Some of the frames had what my daughter called “brood.” One thing I noticed was that the top of some of the frames had what looked like wax deposits on it. Now I am concerned it may have been dysentery. It was wax-colored (see the third photo down at http://www.talkingwithbees.com/nosema-advice-required). The bees LEFT; very few we dead in the bottom of the hive. The best correlation for the smell is that it reminded me of flea powder my mom used to put on a neighborhood cat when I was a child.

Annie
Reply

So I have about 20 lbs of fermented honey. I was considering giving it back to the bees but after reading comments here have changed my mind. Can I use it to make mead? 20 lbs. is so much to just throw away!

Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Annie,

When you make mead you want to control the yeast that is used. Since your honey is already fermented, you have no idea what kind of yeast is in there.

Carol
Reply

I had a hive rescued from a stump of a tree cut down.

All was well and were filling out most of the frames. Then last time I checked them not a bee in sight. I had recently requeened them. The tops of the frames were real wet. They left honey and brood of all stages in the cells. That was about 2 mo ago. I see no sign of disease. Should I have them inspected? Any idea what happened?

Carol

The honey is fermented. Can I safely put some of the frames on another hive? Or put a nuc in there in the spring?
Any idea what might have happened?

Thanks for any help.
Carol

Rusty
Reply

Carol,

I can’t tell where you are writing from and whether you are going into summer or winter. If you are in the northern hemisphere and going into fall, I would check the frames for evidence of a Varroa mite infestation (check for guanine deposits). A little bit of fermented honey won’t hurt the bees, but don’t give them a lot. They get drunk and disoriented just like humans. So if a frame is solid with just some fermenting on the edges, that is safe to feed. But not an entire frame of it.

Anyway, I could be more helpful if I knew where you are.

Chris Southard
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Thank you SO MUCH for this wonderful site, and all of the information (and entertaining stories!) you’ve posted here. I’m so glad to have found you! This was my first summer beekeeping (I’m in Colorado) and I’m undergoing the usual trials and tribulations, and exhilarations, of a new beekeeper. Quick question – is it ok to put frames of capped and uncapped honey from a lost hive (I think I lost my queen and didn’t realize it until too late to save the colony, don’t think it was mites or disease) onto a surviving hive? Specifically the uncapped? It seems to be dripping down onto my bottom board. Too cold here right now (minus 5 degrees today) to open up the hive and see what’s going on. No other insects, no mice (I have a mouse guard on) that might be causing damage, so not sure what’s happening. But maybe I shouldn’t have given them the frames with so much uncapped honey?

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

I don’t think you are doing any harm, just making a mess. The uncapped honey may be fermenting inside the hive, which causes it to bubble out of the cells and drip down on the bottom board. As long as your bees have plenty to eat they will ignore the fermenting stuff. I wouldn’t worry too much, since you don’t believe it’s mice or other visitors.

Isaac
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I have a bit of a conundrum. I had my very first hive last year. I have been following you and your amazing blog for quite some time. You are the primary reason I decided to go foundation-less in my hive. Last year was great, and a great learning experience, however sadly my hive died sometime in early October. I am not certain why. There are many possible reasons, but that is not the purpose of this comment/question. As a result of the hive dying I was left with an abundance of frames filled with brood comb/pollen/honey and many frames of honeycomb that had not been completed. After my hive postmortem I cut up all of the mostly capped honeycomb and packaged it up for giving away and selling.

I was left with about 15 frames of the other non-edible stuff that contained portions of brood comb or mostly empty or partially filled cells. I put all of these in a nice airtight container to hold for this year when I start up my hives again (I decided to do 3 hives this year). Sadly, upon opening this nice airtight container I was met with a very strong yeasty smell. Clearly the nectar has begun to ferment. Now to my question. As I run foundation-less frames I was counting on using these mostly completed frames in my 3 new hives to help them get started in the proper frame building formation. How much of these fermented frames can I risk putting into my hives with the new package of bees?

Thank you in advance for your insight and response!

Isaac

Rusty
Reply

Isaac,

Okay, I won’t lecture you about putting uncapped honey in airtight boxes, since it’s clear you understand the problem. What I would do is take the fermenting frames outside, turn them upside down and see if you can shake out some of the honey. I know it will be hard to do since they are foundationless, but support them somehow with your hands and try to get out as much as possible. Then take the frames and divide them up between colonies. As I said in the post, a little fermentation won’t hurt, but a lot isn’t good. Give each colony maybe one of the shaken frames to start. Later on, as the colony begins to build up, you can give them another. Continue until they are used up. A lot depends on how much shakes out. If nearly all the fermented cells are almost empty, you can give more frames than if quite a few cells are still full. I would just go slowly until the problem is resolved. Feral colonies deal with fermentation as well; it’s not a modern invention.

Isaac
Reply

OK, that was along my line of thinking, but I hadn’t thought to turn them upside down to try and empty out the fermented nectar. Thank you!

Isaac

Monty Brown
Reply

Rusty, I am new to beekeeping. I lost my bees due to starvation half of all frames are uncappped and I believe to be fermented. Do I shake the frames out or will they be able to work with the uncapped honey. Don’t know really what to do.

Thanks
Monty

Rusty
Reply

Monty,

I would shake out the excess nectar, then give the frames to the new bees.

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