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How to store honey at home

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.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

A container of honey beginning to crystallize.
This honey has started to crystallize. Crystallized honey is lighter in color, and streaks of it can be seen in this container. © Robert Lunsford.

Comments

JoeC
Reply

Typo…Although the sucrose breaks down to 50% glucose and 50% sucrose, (should read fructose ) have to add these to the amounts of glucose and fructose found naturally in the nectar

From 4th paragraph after “Natural but not Inevitable “….may be picky but non chemists might get confused!

Rusty
Reply

Joe,

Picky? Are you kidding? I always monitor my computer for the first hour after I post, hoping that if I did something really stupid (a regular occurrence) that someone will catch it and tell me.

You are my hero and I can’t thank you enough.

Picky, indeed!

Lynne Jones
Reply

“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.”

Honey that was previously frozen is prone to crystallize sooner than honey that has not been frozen?

Rusty
Reply

Lynne,

No, I don’t mean to say that it is more prone to crystallization after freezing, only that freezing may have kept it liquid. In cases like that, it may crystallize soon after it is thawed. The freezing doesn’t make it more likely, it just keeps the process on hold until it’s thawed again. Once thawed, the crystallization process re-starts.

For example, let’s say I notice some crystals forming in my jars, just a few. In other words, the honey is right on the verge of crystallizing. If I throw the jars in the freezer, the crystallization process won’t advance further until I take it out. So I take it out just before I set up at the farmer’s market. I sell it. Consumers take it home and immediately it starts to crystallize.

Ken Sikora
Reply

I also really enjoyed your in-depth chemistry info on honey in the Dec. issue of the American Bee Journal. Because of the hydrogen peroxide in honey, I take a tablespoon at night after brushing my teeth and slosh it around, letting the hydrogen peroxide catch what I missed. I’m not sure how effective it is, but I seem to have few cavities. Good Job!
Ken Sikora
Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Sent from my iPad

Lynne
Reply

Whew! I have some honey that I knew would be a while before I could sell, so I put it in the freezer early on – my thinking was that I’d put the potential for crystallizing on hold. After reading today’s blog I was concerned that freezing was going to have the opposite effect. Thank you for clarifying.

Renaldo
Reply

Good subject and conversation. Honey is a mystery product. We have jars that have been stored for years. That’s good as we no longer push for honey production. Some of them settle out in different colors and then some, maybe half, sugars up and the other half or so, stays liquid. When we drag them out, it’s always good. Just a little different in taste and texture for the different parts. Separate then and treat them as individuals. A certain amount stays liquid and some all sugars up. Always good, just different good!

Rusty
Reply

Renaldo,

I’m the same, except with comb honey. I don’t always get a crop, but those years I use what’s in storage. I have ten-year-old comb honey that’s perfectly liquid. But then I live in the forest, so it’s mostly tree honey.

frances I Moore
Reply

I always enjoy reading what u have wrote u are great. Please explain a bit more to me about what/how u store the full frames of honey just say I have 10 frames of full honey all capped I have froze it I thought u had to just leave it in the freezer till u need it. I did not know u could take it out thaw it and store it. do u put it back in the box u said u stand them up on counter to check for leaks but how do u store them what do u do how do u store them Thanks and Merry Christmas

Rusty
Reply

Frances,

How long you leave honey in the freezer depends on your purpose. If you want to kill the eggs of wax moths or beetles, it only needs to freeze hard for a short time. Depending on how cold your freezer is and how much you put in at once, that might be overnight or over a couple of nights. The freezing destroys any eggs and larvae, so you are done.

However, if you are freezing to avoid crystallization, you have to keep it frozen until you are ready to sell it or use it.

I freeze mine for wax moths, so after I thaw the frames and check for leaks, I just wrap each frame in plastic (or leave it in the plastic it was in if there are no leaks) and store it in a super or in a cupboard in a cool, but not cold, place. I keep mine in an outbuilding that is kept at about 60 degrees F, but my honey seldom crystallizes. You may want to go closer to 70 degrees if your honey crystallizes easily.

frances I Moore
Reply

Thanks u are great Merry Christmas

Göran
Reply

“In some regions of the world, crystallized or creamed honey is the preferred format.”

Here in Sweden creamed honey is the norm. I guess its because of our fauna. But sometimes the problem is kind of reverse. The late season honey can be quite hard to crystallize.

Rusty
Reply

Goran,

And the fauna is doing what?

Kirsten Redlich
Reply

Just curious about darker honey’s “higher ash content”, can you explain what you are referring to as ash, in this context please?

Rusty
Reply

Basically, ash is made of mineral nutrients. From Wikipedia, here is a typical analysis of honey:

Fructose: 38%
Glucose: 31%
Sucrose: 1%
Water: 17%
Other sugars: 9% (maltose, melezitose)
Ash: 0.17%

In this example the ash would include all the minerals in honey. Also, I describe the ash in sugar in this post.

Ghazwan
Reply

Thanks Rusty for this post, what about dissolve the crystallized honey with a water bath.

Rusty
Reply

Well, it’s a personal preference, but I don’t like to see honey heated about hive temperature, which is around 100 F. Degradation in flavor, aroma, and antiseptic quality can occur with even slight elevations in temperature. For this reason, I think crystallized honey is the better option.

Dan G
Reply

I didn’t want to mix the capped and uncapped honey so I spun all my honey frames that had any uncapped honey that was not sealed (late season goldenrod/aster…) and ran it through a sieve. I put most of it in quart jars and some in squeeze bottles in the refrigerator. I wanted to extend its shelf life while I used it, but didn’t have room in the freezer. I keep my refrigerator at 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Because of it’s higher moisture content I didn’t expect it to crystallize or at least not so quickly, but it did as a very fine crystal and is very spreadable like cream honey.

So far the refrigerator is working better than expected for this higher moisture honey.

Rusty
Reply

Dan,

Thanks for telling me about this. I was curious how effective it would be to extract just the uncapped cells, but it sounds like it worked well. Interesting about the crystal sizes. I wonder if the higher moisture had anything to do with the size of the crystals.

Göran
Reply

Ops, I mean flora not fauna.

Cheryl Gavin
Reply

Hint for peeling pomegranate: Immerse in a bowl of water in the sink. No splatter, no mess. The white membrane floats to the top while the seeds sink.

Rusty
Reply

Cheryl,

It seems everyone knows pomegranate tricks except me. I’ll have to work on that.

Liz Beavis
Reply

The crystal size also depends on the temperature, lower temperatures (for example in the fridge) will delay crystalisation and the crystals will be smaller. Concentration of sugars will also affect crystal size and crystalisation rate.

I’m a chemical engineer who studied lactose crystalisation at uni, its a very complex process and hard to control in honey as the conditions are so variable. Makes sense to feed it back to the bees if you can’t sell it (still good for eating and cooking at home though).

Donna Walcott
Reply

My daughter and I just had our 1 year anniversary as beekeepers. We extracted some golden honey in late spring and immediately extracted it. It was wonderful!
Then we pulled sealed honey in the fall and stored it in frames in a deep hive body in the house in a stairwell from Nov until Feb. The honey didn’t leak other than a few drips, and we didn’t see any mold, but the honey was mostly dark and has an odd smell. Is darkening a sign of fermentation? Is there any way to test for spoilage or other issues? We have about 3 gallons of this batch and I hate for it to go to waste but it’s taste is nothing like our first batch. Any ideas? Thanks for your work and advice!!

Rusty
Reply

Donna,

Nothing is wrong with your honey. The color and flavor of honey is dependent on the flowers that produced the nectar. Your fall honey comes from different flowers than your spring honey. That is one of the reasons honey is so fascinating—the flavor changes as the year progresses. You can think of it this way: carrots don’t taste like beans and beans don’t taste like raspberries. Nectar is no exception. Different plants have different tastes.

Fall nectar often contains dandelion and goldenrod nectar which is dark and has an off-putting aroma that some people equate with dirty socks. Try to ignore the smell and see if you like the taste. Many people say the odor dissipates over time. In any case, it should never go to waste because it can always be used for bee feed.

cynthia wiancko
Reply

What about feeding the bees fermented honey?

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