- Concentrated flower nectar -

Summary: Honey bees collect flower nectar and turn it into honey. Humans harvest some of this honey for use as a sweetener. The best sources of honey are small beekeepers that can carefully control the floral sources of their product.

Jack DeAngelis, PhD
OSU Ext. Entomologist (ret.)

What is honey?

Honey is concentrated flower nectar. Honey bees, and a few other insects, collect flower nectar for food. Some plants produce this nectar in order to entice insects to visit their flowers where they pick up pollen thereby facilitating pollination of the next flower they visit.

Honey may contain a small amount of this plant pollen and other contaminants so some honey is filtered to remove these materials but many people actually prefer unfiltered honey.

Bees collect nectar and bring it back to the hive where it is placed into storage to feed the colony. Since plant nectar is very liquid the bees concentrate the nectar to stop microbial growth (bacteria do not grow well in concentrated sugar solutions) and to reduce storage volume. The end result of this bee activity is what we call honey.

Beekeepers extract honey by removing the honey storage cells of a hive, or comb, and spinning it in a centrifuge. The honey is then sometimes filtered and pasteurized. Honey connoisseurs generally prefer raw honey which is unfiltered and uncooked.

The color and flavor of honey varies by floral source. Honey made from clover flowers, for example, looks and tastes different than honey from blackberry flowers. Small scale beekeepers are better able to control the floral source of their honey and hence offer a more distinctive product. Inexpensive honey is usually a blend of many floral sources.

Since honey serves as the food reserves of the hive we essentially rob the hive when we collect honey. As such, beekeepers must sometimes feed the colony sugar water throughout the winter months, when flower nectar is unavailable.

Where can I purchase high quality honey?

Local beekeepers are your best source for high quality honey. Check with your county agricultural Extension office or state agricultural university for a list of beekeepers in your area. Another good place to find a local beekeeper is the nearest Farmers Market. Keep in mind that there are usually two types of beekeepers. Those that maintain bees mainly as commercial pollinators, and harvest honey as a by-product, and those that maintain bees mainly for honey and beeswax production. The latter group typically have fewer hives and thus can control honey quality better (see Commercial and Hobby Beekeeping).

The next best honey source is a retailer that specializes in honey and honey related products. Online stores can be very useful here because you get to sample honey from different geographic areas, and floral sources, by mail order. Honey is sold by weight or volume. As a rough estimate 1 gallon weighs about 12 pounds (roughly 1.5 times the weight of water).

An important reminder to parents about honey

Do not give honey, in any form, to children under 1 year of age. Honey may contain spores of a bacterium that infants are unable to tolerate.

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