Here in the Northern Hemisphere, our busy beekeeping season is coming to a close. As we rush to get our bees ready for winter, I sit amongst pails of honey in my office, left to be bottled on a quieter day. Looking back, I’ve had the opportunity to taste a delicious variety of honeys this season, from minty basswood to funky goldenrod later in the year. Since this has been my first full season of beekeeping in Ontario, I have been keen to taste the local flavours brought to us by the bees. Too eager to wait for our full extraction, I did a small “crush and strain” extraction in my kitchen in late June, where the honey had a hint of mint and anise on the back of the tongue. By the time I extracted in the third week of July, it was a full hit of peppermint on the palate! It is fascinating to me how the flavours, colours, and textures of honey vary so much over time and space, so I wanted to dig into some of the world’s most interesting (and notorious!) honeys.
Hannah’s “crush and strain” extraction (image credits: Hannah Neil).
Of the Land
Honey possesses the quality the French call terroir (directly translated to “land” or “soil”) meaning that its properties, including flavour, texture, and colour, are all heavily influenced by the landscape where it was produced. This is a term usually used for wine, and it has been claimed that true experts are able to identify wines from a specific region in a blind taste test. I remember when I was working in New Zealand being captivated by all the new flavours I was tasting, but also comforted that good ol’ white clover honey still tasted the same as it did in the Canadian prairies. It all comes down to the flowers that the bees are foraging.
Flowering plants, also known as angiosperms, comprise approximately 90% of all plant life on earth with over 250 000 species. A further 90% of these are pollinated by animals, including honey bees. Most of these plants evolved to produce sweet liquid nectar to attract pollinators to aid in reproduction. Nectar is prized by bees and other pollinators and is the reason we all have honey to enjoy. With all this floral diversity to choose from, there’s no wonder why there is such an amazing variety of honeys to enjoy around the world.
The Secrets to this Stable Staple
One of the miracles of honey is its long shelf life. For all you home canners and pickle-makers, we can look to honey bees with admiration for being some of the first creatures to gather and preserve food in the animal kingdom! Two main properties contribute to honey’s longevity: a high sugar content, and a low water content. The amount of water found in nectar varies from plant to plant but can range from 35% to over 85%. Honey that is graded as Canada No. 1 has a maximum moisture content of 17.8% so a lot of bee labour is required to transform nectar into honey! The same way that we add sugar and cook some moisture out of fruit to make jam, the bees work as a colony to evaporate a large proportion of water out of the stored nectar to turn it into honey. They do this by fanning their wings over the honeycomb cells in the warm environment of the hive. Once the bees cap the honey over with wax, it is (usually) at the right moisture content to remain shelf stable for years to come.
Bees produce an enzyme, invertase, that they add to nectar to convert some of the sucrose in nectar into glucose and fructose. Adding glucose and fructose to sucrose has the effect of slowing down crystallization of the sugars in the honey—which means that when the bees want to use their honey, it is easier for them to remove from their honey combs. When humans harvest honey, this means that honey remains in its liquid form for longer—although all honey will eventually crystallize.
The Flowers of Their Labour
Honey is certainly a labour-intensive process, for both honey bees and their keepers. When it comes to honey varieties, you’ll typically see it categorized by the particular flower or plant that the bees were foraging. Now, let’s dig into some of the most unique honeys the bees have to offer around the world—and the plants that help!
One of the most famous and expensive varieties of honey in the world comes to us from New Zealand and parts of Australia. Manuka honey is one of the most extensively researched and regulated honeys the world over, due to its higher-than-average antibacterial activity. All honey is at least somewhat antibacterial as a result of the production of hydrogen peroxide by naturally-present enzymes such as glucose oxidase. However, hydrogen peroxide breaks down in the presence of light, heat, blood, saliva, or serum, ceasing its antibacterial activity. In addition to hydrogen peroxide, manuka honey also has antibacterial activity, likely due to the presence of other specific compounds that are hardier than hydrogen peroxide, meaning that these compounds retain their antibacterial properties for longer. Manuka honey has been found to be effective against antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Manuka honey has its own grading system, called UMF (Unique Manuka Factor) that quantifies compounds unique to manuka honey. One of these specific compounds is leptosperin, a chemical found only (and abundantly) in manuka nectar that is used to identify unadulterated manuka honey. Because of its scarcity and high price, manuka honey is one of the most commonly adulterated honeys in the world. In 2013, more “manuka honey” (read: possibly fake) was sold in the UK alone than what was produced annually in New Zealand. Looking for manuka honey with a quantified UMF rating is one way to assure you’re buying the real deal.
- Flavour & Aroma: Astringent, “medicinal,” herbal, caramel or toffee undertones. Crystallizes quickly and smoothly.
- Colour: Dark gold to brown
- Reported Benefits: Greater antibacterial properties than other honeys. Used in wound management, healing burns, reducing scars, managing acne and eczema, and gastrointestinal issues.
One of the oldest known cultivated plants, buckwheat is native to southeast Asia and has been grown for over 5000 years. Through its use by humans, its range expanded to central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe and is now grown around the world. Buckwheat is known as a pseudocereal; it is “grain-like” but it is not in the grass family and is instead related to rhubarb. Buckwheat is higher in protein than most grains, and although is it mainly used like a grain (e.g., to be ground into flour), it is also grown as a cover crop to boost soil fertility and suppress weeds. Honey produced from buckwheat nectar is quite distinctive in colour and flavour, yielding a very dark product that is less sweet than most honeys.
Buckwheat honey is comparable to manuka with respect to its antimicrobial activity but is much more widespread; indeed, it is produced on every continent except Antarctica! This contributes to its lower cost, and it is more sustainable and easier to find for those of us not in New Zealand. Darker honeys tend to have higher antibacterial activity, and this is one of the darkest.
- Flavour & Aroma: Less sweet than most other honeys; earthy, malty, similar to molasses. Slightly spicy and bitter.
- Colour: Reddish brown to almost black
- Reported Benefits: High antimicrobial activity, comparable to manuka honey.
Rhododendron is a flowering shrub native to southern Europe and southwest Asia; it has been introduced as an ornamental in North America and has become invasive in some areas. This plant produces a type of honey unlike any other and may even be dangerous to consume! Known colloquially as “mad honey,” rhododendron honey is produced from nectar that contains diterpenes, compounds that are toxic to many animals. The most common diterpene in rhododendron nectar is grayanotoxin, a neurotoxin that in small doses (15-30 grams) can cause intoxication in humans characterized by light-headedness and hallucinations. Higher doses can lead to poisoning; symptoms include cardiovascular distress, nausea, vomiting, loss of consciousness, blurred vision, dizziness, perspiration, weakness, headache, vertigo, and convulsions. The majority of grayanotoxin poisoning in humans is caused by eating rhododendron honey, however it is rarely lethal to humans. Despite the risk, this honey is primarily produced in Nepal and parts of Turkey and is used in Chinese medicine for its reported therapeutic qualities.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The risks of rhododendron honey should be taken seriously. We do not recommend consuming it in any quantity.
- Flavour & Aroma: Woodsy and slightly bitter.
- Colour: Reddish
- Reported Benefits: Aphrodisiac, treatment of gastrointestinal disorders, anti-diabetic.
This last one may surprise some of you, but not all honeys are made using floral nectar! Honeydew is a term used to define the excrement of sap eating insects such as aphids, leafhoppers, and psyllids. These insects consume sap produced by plants, digest the protein, and excrete the water, sugar, tannins, and indigestible materials. This excreted substance is treated by bees in much the same way as floral nectar: the sweet liquid (honeydew/nectar) is sucked up by the bee’s proboscis and stored in her honey crop (a bee’s “honey stomach”). The forager bees transport the honeydew back to the hive and transfer the liquid through trophallaxis, during which enzymes are added and moisture reduced, resulting in honey. Honeydew also provides a source of food for ants and wasps.
These types of honeys, sometimes referred to as “forest honeys,” are popular and more common in Europe and New Zealand, occasionally fetching a higher price than nectar-based honey. The most productive trees for honeydew are fir, pine, oak, willow, poplar, peach, plum, and beech, but sap-sucking insects are also attracted to cotton, alfalfa, and sunflowers. There is no pollen present in honeydew honeys because it is not foraged from flowers (trace amounts exist in floral honey), so it is low in protein. Some beekeepers find it is an unsuitable winter food for bees, as it can also have a high ash content and cause dysentery.
- Flavour & Aroma: Stronger in flavour and moderately sweet compared to floral honeys. Depending on the source, they can have aroma of resins, pine, herbs, or malt.
- Colour: Dark to very dark, sometimes with a green fluorescence
- Reported Benefits: Higher content of oligosaccharides that serve as prebiotics in the human gut encouraging the growth of symbiotic bacteria including bifidobacteria and lactobacilli.
In conclusion, honey is so much more diverse than a golden, sweet, flowing liquid or a light creamy spread. Get out there and try something new today—who knows, you just might find a new favourite!
About Our Author
Hannah Neil, Beekeeping Coordinator
Hannah Neil is the Beekeeping Coordinator at NOD Apiary Products Ltd. She is an eternally curious and passionate beekeeper with eight years of experience in the industry. She has worked in commercial beekeeping settings and applied honey bee research in the Canadian prairies as well as New Zealand. When she isn’t playing with bees, Hannah enjoys gardening, beeswax crafting, and walking her dog.