Occasionally, we take honey from the hive too early. It’s bad honey – some beekeepers call it “green”. High in moisture, and maybe not fully enzymatically converted by the bees. Nectar is ‘wet’ – sometimes 90% water and just 10% sugars. Also, some varieties of flowers have really high sucrose levels – bees add enzymes to reduce the disaccharides (sucrose) into monosaccharides (fructose and glucose), turning nectar into honey. Honey is not honey if the bees haven’t finished drying out nectar’s excess moisture or if the enzymes added by bees have not finished hydrolysizing the sucrose.
Beekeepers dread pulling immature honey from their hives. I’ve been in shops where dehumidifiers are roaring, blasting hot dry air at supers stacked in staggered piles so that the honey gives up some of its excess water. Sometimes high-moisture honey is blended with appropriately dry honey to come up with a product that meets honey’s definition – 18.6% moisture or less. Canadian and American beekeepers hate the extra work and especially hate the inferior product that results, so dehumidifiers are rare and the problem is usually fixed by leaving honey on hives until it’s ready. But surprisingly, wet honey seems to be a business model in parts of China.
Traditionally, Chinese beekeepers have kept bees differently than beekeepers in most other parts of the world. Many Chinese do not own supers. Instead, they open the brood chamber and remove frames close to the brood nest where fresh nectar arrives. To your left is a picture which I took years ago near the Montana-Saskatchewan border. Frames taken from the red-coloured brood nests are often very, very wet. (For us, ‘red’ meant STOP). Green boxes were used as supers. Brood nest nectar (from the red boxes) splashes out easily. That’s why we don’t extract from brood chambers. But the Chinese often do. This was noticed in the 1990s when a US Commerce Department study stated:
“Differences in the honey production process between the United States and China have been reported at the extraction stage. As previously mentioned, the beekeeper in the United States employs a hive structure that consists of supers for honey storage, which allows the honey to dry and ripen. In China, beekeepers reportedly do not use supers, and extract honey from the comb on a daily basis, so that the honey is unripe and high in moisture content, which encourages fermentation. Such extracted honey is collected and taken to processing plants for heating and drying, but while such processing may stem fermentation, it cannot reverse the process and, as a result, honey from China may have the bitter taste associated with fermentation.”
Canola and litchi (lychee) honey in China is often pulled aggressively from brood chambers, resulting in ‘honey’ that’s about 30 to 40% water, instead of below 18.6%, which legally defines honey.
To remove the excess water before the stuff ferments and spoils, the liquid is taken to processors who use a vacuum system to dry it until it resembles honey. If you think you’d like to similarly game the system, you can by a vacuum-actuated honey dryer from one of several Chinese equipment manufacturers. I suggest that you don’t do this as your honey won’t be that great and might not be legal. But one Chinese equipment maker tries to tell us:
“1.) This set of Equipment are made of 304 stainless steel, easy to operate, reliable, efficient, vacuum suction honey; and, 2.) They can achieve high vacuum and low concentration temperature is ideal for honey processing equipment.”
The cost is about US$4,000 and handles one drum per hour, so maybe you’ll want to buy several.
As the ad above says, “Once Cooperated, Forever Friend”. I’ll add a corollary: “Once uncooperated, forever foes”. The ad also says “Quality Makes Difference” and that’s why you should avoid Chinese honey. You can see that the problem with Chinese honey extends beyond poisonous agricultural contaminants and adulteration from industrial sugars. It’s a systemic problem. Although Chinese “water honey” might be benign and simply the result of a traditional aversion to multi-stored beehives, the result is not honey. Honey can’t be rushed.
Bees collect nectar (which may be from 20 to 100% sucrose and from 20 to 90% water) and bring it back to the hive for processing and storing by honey bees. Bees add enzymes that reduce the sucrose to simpler and better sugars which toil our bodies less when we use them. But the conversion takes a bit of time. House honey bees share nectar from forager bees and they add catalyst enzymes that transform nectar into honey. Some of the excess moisture is removed in the hive by the bees’ fanning, but the enzyme process that converts sucrose into fructose and glucose is a hydrolysis process – it takes one water molecule to convert each sucrose molecule. So, evaporation is not the whole story and it’s not enough to remove a gallon of water from three gallons of nectar in a vacuum chamber and then sell the stuff as honey.
Fortunately, a new test that uses Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectroscopy may help detect immature honey. It’s already used to create profiles of what real honey looks like. Of course, this adds another cost to the price of honey. For now, your best defence might be to buy local honey (unless you are in China or some other country that harvests water honey). In most of the rest of the world, beekeepers try to harvest capped honey, properly produced by honey bees.