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What’s the Difference Between the Lighter Honey and the Darker Honey?


Honey comes in many colors. It can range from a yellow so pale it’s almost colorless through various shades of amber to a brown so dark it might as well be black. What’s the difference, and why?


How Honey Is Made


Honey comes from nectar. Flowers make nectar, which is full of sugars, to entice bees, butterflies, and other pollinators to work their way down into the flower to eat it and collect it. Along the way, the insect gathers pollen on herself. When she goes to the next flower of the same kind, some pollen brushes off and she collects some new pollen. Pollen is how flowers reproduce. Thus the old euphemism for explaining sex to kids is “the birds and the bees.” (The birds part is mostly Cole Porter’s fault.)


Foraging honey bees will eat some of the nectar and pollen and then collect the remainder of the nectar in a specialized organ called a honey stomach or a honey crop. While the nectar is in the honey stomach, bees are adding various enzymes which help break down the complex sugars into simpler sugars. Forager bees return to the hive and pass the nectar to another bee by horking it up. (The proper name for this exchange is trophallaxis.)


A frame of honey, capped (top) and uncapped (bottom).

The hive worker swallows the nectar hork and goes into the hive. She brings up the nectar and kind of chews on it for a bit, and then swallows it again. She goes through this cycle a few times, adding more enzymes and thickening it a little. Eventually the hive worker horks up the slightly pre-digested nectar into a cell, and other workers around her fan their wings. This fanning helps evaporate the water in the nectar and concentrates it. When the nectar gets down to about 18% water, it’s a thick syrup which we know as honey. Nurse bees generate wax flakes and cap the filled cell of honey, and it’s off to the next cell.


To Every Thing There Is a Season


In our area of New Jersey, the flowers and trees which bloom in early spring tend to have nectar which is light-colored. This means that the concentrated nectar will also be light-colored. In New Jersey in March and April, honey bees can feed on maples, black locust trees, snowdrops, dandelions, pussy willow, crocuses, and grape hyacinths. (Surprisingly, daffodils and forsythia have almost no nectar.)


L to R: Early spring, summer, and fall wildflower honey, from the same hives.

As we get into May, the rest of your garden and your yard open up. Clover, thyme, catmint, redbud trees, mock orange bushes, spicebush, and honeysuckle have nectar which is darker than the snowdrops but not as dark as fall flowers. (Siberian squill is worth a mention because the pollen is a hilarious blue.) Flowers blooming in June and July in New Jersey include butterfly bush, lavender, coneflower, Russian sage, anise hyssop, jewelweed, roses, mountain fire, water lilies, regular lilies, hibiscus, lilacs, and bee balm. Late spring or early summer honey will generally be a light to medium amber.


Then the dearth happens. The dearth (discussed in more detail in a previous blog post) is a period of time when few or no flowers are blooming. In New Jersey this is approximately July 15 to September 15. The honey bees are eating their own stores, and beekeepers may put out sugar water as a supplement if it’s particularly hot or dry.


About the middle of September, the goldenrod starts, which is the marker for the fall rush. Autumn flowers for bees include aster, ragweed, knotweed, mountain mint, black-eyed Susans, phlox, autumn sedum, Queen Anne’s lace, and Joe Pye weed. This nectar is often darker, so fall honey is typically a deep amber brown.


Varietals Are the Spice of Honey


However, time of year is not the only cause of different-colored honey. There are also varietals. A varietal honey is made primarily from a single kind of nectar. We hedge with “primarily” because a worker bee can fly three miles in any direction, so unless the beekeeper in question had over 28 square miles of only that plant and no other wildflowers, trees, or grass, it’s not 100% that kind of nectar.


Regardless, a honey made primarily from a single source plant will taste different from “wildflower,” which is a mix of whatever the bees found. It will also look different. Black locust trees bloom in the spring, so the honey is light because of both time and source. Orange blossom is an orange-tinted amber. Carrot flower and blueberry are a medium amber. Blackberry is a reddish amber. Buckwheat honey is very dark and robust, like molasses. And so on.


As for taste, every kind of raw honey is going to be different. Even the same bees in the same hives in the same neighborhoods will make slightly different-tasting honey from year to year.


That Other Sugar Source


In the interests of full disclosure, we do have to mention that bees also collect honeydew while foraging. Honeydew is the euphemistic name for “poop from bugs that eat plant sap.” Aphids and spotted lanternflies produce a lot of this sweet poop, and the bees love it. As beekeepers have discovered, honey made from spotted lanternfly honeydew has a very particular look and taste. It’s reddish, and can have smoky or musty notes. Some people love it and market it under the name “tree honey” or “spotted lanternfly honey.” Others think it’s vile and leave it for the bees to enjoy over the winter rather than harvesting it.



Sources:


“The birds and the bees.” Grammarist

“Honey.” Wikipedia

“Honeydew (secretion).” Wikipedia

“Black Locust Honey.” Hunter’s Honey Farm

“Orange Blossom Honey.” Smiley Honey

“Carrrot Honey.” HoneyGramz

“Wild Blueberry Honey.” MaineMaple

“Blackberry Honey.” Kiss the Flower

“Buckwheat Honey.” Swan’s Honey

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