Beekeepers are expected to be the gurus of not only all things bees but all things honey as well. One of the questions beekeepers and sellers of raw honey frequently get asked is, “Why does honey crystallize?” Or, “Why did my honey solidify?”
It’s true that crystallized honey might be a pain to work with. You don’t want to grab your honey for that baklava recipe and end up discovering your honey is solid.
Take heart! Honey crystallization is perfectly normal. It means you have real honey. You can learn how to help prevent crystallization and to quickly restore crystallized honey to its liquid form if you want to.
So Why Does Honey Crystallize?
To fully understand why honey crystallizes, you need to know what honey is made of. To understand what honey is made of, it helps to have a basic knowledge of how bees make honey.
Bear with me, this might remind you a little of junior high science class, but it’s all very fascinating, I assure you!
How Do Bees Make Honey?
Nectar is the sugary substance plants secrete through their flowers. Plants use nectar as bait to attract pollinators. Nectar is about 60% to 80% water, but also contains sugars, primarily sucrose. Sucrose is the predominant type of sugar used by plants.
Bees suck up nectar from flowers through their straw-like proboscis into their honey sac. In the honey sac, enzymes are added by the bee. The process of turning the nectar into honey has begun, as the enzymes break down the sucrose into the simpler sugars fructose and glucose.
At the hive, the forager bee passes off the nectar to a worker bee. The worker also adds enzymes to the nectar before storing it in a cell in the comb.
As the enzymes do their work, the bees evaporate excess water from the nectar by fanning their wings over the nectar contained in the cells. Once the enzymatic reaction has taken place, and enough moisture has evaporated from the nectar, the bees declare it to be honey and cap the cells with beeswax.
What else is honey made of?
At least 181 components are reported to be included in honey. The sugars, fructose, and glucose together comprise about 70% of the content of the honey. Typically the concentration of fructose is slightly higher (about 40%) than glucose (about 30%).
Honey also contains much smaller amounts of about twenty other types of more complex sugars, including maltose and sucrose. The remaining content of the honey includes water, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and things like pollen and wild yeast.
The yeast is stopped from acting on the sugars due to the low water content in the honey. The water content of honey (real, raw honey) ranges from about 14% to around 20%.
Okay! But Why Does Honey Crystallize?
So now that we know how honey is made and what it’s made of, we can explain why it crystallizes.
Recall that our raw honey is now mostly fructose and glucose. Glucose crystallizes more readily than fructose because it is less soluble.
The Answer is Glucose Precipitation!
Crystallization is when the glucose precipitates out of the water and returns to a solid-state. Simply put, sugar crystals form in the honey. This happens because the honey is supersaturated with sugar. The sugar content is higher than the amount of water in the honey can maintain in solution.
Remember, the water content of honey is very low, only between 14% and 18%.
It helps to think of the precipitation process as the reverse of dissolving.
This crystallization process is a natural occurrence that will eventually happen in all real, raw honey.
What determines How Fast Honey Crystallizes?
In general, there are three things that contribute to how quickly real honey will crystallize.
The first thing that is sugar concentration and the ratio of fructose to glucose. Honey with a higher sugar concentration, and a higher ratio of glucose, will crystallize faster.
The ratio of fructose to glucose is dependent on the types of nectar that the bees used to make the honey. Honey made from the nectar of sunflower, aster, alfalfa, dandelion, and clover crystallizes faster due to a higher glucose concentration. Nectar from acacia, maple, blackberry, and tupelo has a lower glucose content and will crystallize slower.
The second factor affecting crystallization time is the number of solid particles in the honey. Glucose likes to crystallize on these solids, mainly grains of pollen or bits of propolis or beeswax (both very good for you, by the way). More of these naturally occurring solids in the honey will lead to faster crystallization.
The temperature at which you store honey will also affect the rate of crystallization.
The optimum temperature for crystallization is 57 f. Honey stored at 70 for above will crystallize much slower. Unless you want crystallized honey, don’t keep honey in the refrigerator. Honey does not need to be refrigerated and it will only lead to rapid crystallization.
Why doesn’t Most Honey From the Supermarket Crystallize?
There are three main reasons, dilution, filtration, and pasteurization.
Some honey has been diluted to the point where the glucose levels are not high enough to precipitate out. A lot of store honey has been tested and found to have been adulterated with things such as corn syrup, even though the label says it is “real, “raw” or “natural.”
Honey from the store is also ultra-filtered, which removes any solid particles of pollen, beeswax, etc., which inhibits crystallization.
Most honey found on the store shelf has also been pasteurized.
Pasteurization involves heating honey to a very high temperature for a certain period of time. Pasteurization will also slow down the crystallization process. It will also kill beneficial enzymes and may have an adverse effect on vitamins, minerals, yeast, and other good-for-you components of the honey.
Real Honey Doesn’t Go Bad or Ever Expire! (With One Exception)
There is no need to pasteurize real honey, other than to keep it liquid longer. Commercial producers believe that traditional liquid honey is more appealing to the consumer. And it probably is. At least to those who don’t know any better.
Real, raw honey never goes bad or expires. The high sugar content, high acidity, and low moisture content keep bacteria and microorganisms from surviving.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, properly stored honey has an “Eternal shelf-life.” Unspoiled honey, thousands of years old, has been found in pots inside of royal Egyptian tombs.
The exception to the “Eternal shelf-life,” is, when honey is stored without being sealed. Honey is “hygroscopic”, meaning it attracts water, even from the air. If left unsealed, eventually, the water content will get too high. The honey then spoils, or the yeast will become active and ferment the sugars into alcohol (how Mead is made).
Crystallized Honey Fix
Some people enjoy using crystallized honey as a spread. It’s great for putting on toast, or in hot tea.
However, if you want a simple crystallized honey fix, it is very easy to do. Just place the sealed container of honey in a hot (not boiling) water bath and wait thirty minutes or so, and, “Voilà!” You have your honey back!
Setting the honey in a warm place for a longer period of time, or even out in the sun on a warm day, works well also.
Make sure you never add water to the honey to dilute it, which will cause it to spoil or ferment. Also, don’t exceed 95 f when you heat it, or you will kill the enzymes and other good guys in the honey. For the same reason, don’t microwave it.
Now You Know!
So now you know more than you probably ever wanted to about honey!
“Real” honey crystallizes because of the super high sugar content. It’s good for you, and rest assured, it’s by no means spoiled. It’s ok to eat crystallized honey! If you like, you can fix crystallized honey by gently warming it up.
Hopefully, you can now impress your friends with your vast knowledge of honey. If nothing else, you won’t throw out perfectly good honey!
More from Beekeeping