One reason for honey’s popularity is its long shelf life, which is due to the levels of honey moisture content. In fact, before it is harvested from the hive, the beekeeper must know the moisture content to determine if it is ready. The amount of moisture in the honey is key to maintaining freshness and avoiding spoiling.
The moisture comes from the flowers foraged during the honey-making process. The moisture of the nectar is around 80%, and the moisture is reduced to under 20% during the process of making the honey.
The US Department of Agriculture dictates that honey must have a moisture content of 18.6% or less to be labeled and sold as Grade A or Grade B honey.
Let’s jump into everything else there is to know about honey moisture content.
Honey Making Process
The honey-making process starts with the foraging of flowers and plants for nectar, which is then taken back to the hive to be turned into honey. Bees will travel for miles each day to find nectar, but transporting loads of nectar back to the hive can present some challenges.
First, the honey may be exposed to moisture or humidity during the journey, which can compromise the honey later if it is not effectively and properly extracted. In fact, the job of the bee is to reduce the level of moisture and humidity in the nectar from about 80%, the moisture level of most pollen-rich plants, to less than 20% for honey that won’t spoil or ferment later.
Amazingly enough, bees are able to lower the humidity in the nectar as well as the temperature in the hive by flapping their tiny wings.
When the entire colony starts flapping, they can effectively lower the moisture content of the honey that they are producing, while keeping it at a proper temperature. When most of the moisture is removed and the honey reaches the right level, the bees know it is time to seal or cap the cells of the honeycomb with beeswax.
Moisture in Honey
Moisture in honey can be catastrophic. After all, everyone relies on honey for its unique ability to last for years- while also maintaining the perfect texture and consistency over time. Moisture can throw this perfect balance off and cause the honey to spoil.
Honey is comprised of less than 20% moisture, and ideally, has closer to 17% to 18% moisture content. Honey harvested at warm temperatures has lower humidity than honey collected in cooler months.
There are other factors that play a part in the moisture level that your honey will have, including the type of honey that you are producing. For example, orange blossom honey has more humidity than wildflower honey. It has to do with the water content of the nectar as well as the time of year that the type of honey is harvested.
Bees know when the honey is ready to harvest, which is why they cap the honeycomb with beeswax.
This helps to keep any humidity or moisture out of the honey that is ready to be harvested. It is quite a fascinating feat. Look for frames and supers that are at least 80% capped to ensure the honey is ready to remove.
Any less than that and the uncapped cells could absorb more moisture from the environment, adding additional humidity to the honey and increasing the odds that it could ferment.
Sadly, many will not know that there is too much moisture in the honey until they buy it, store it, and then retrieve the honey to use. When the honey is opened, it will be quite clear that the honey has fermented and is no longer usable. If you own a commercial apiary, this could compromise a loyal customer and their satisfaction with your products.
Keep in mind that honey can absorb more moisture from the environment and conditions around the apiary or work area. Use a dehumidifier or fan, as needed, and keep a constant eye on the humidity level of your surroundings.
While some honey, like Clover honey, contains around 23% moisture content and is perfect, other honey must have less than 20% or you risk spoilage. In other words, know your honey. Figure out what the bees are foraging and what kind of honey is being produced and that will dictate the ideal and optimal moisture level for long-term preservation and maximum quality.
A refractometer is a helpful tool that can help beekeepers test the moisture content of their honey, and these are widely available at beekeeping supply sites online.
Too Much Moisture
So, what is the problem with moisture in honey? The biggest issue is fermentation- when honey has too much moisture, it increases the odds that it may ferment.
This means that microscopic organisms from the nectar, earth, and air can thrive and grow. Fermentation can also occur when the temperature of the honey gets too high, or you use unclean equipment and storage vessels.
Identifying an Issue
Do you know what to look for when trying to determine if your honey has too much moisture or has fermented? Watch for sealed cells of honeycomb- bees are intuitive and know exactly when it is time to cap the cells for the beekeeper to harvest.
While every single cell will likely not be capped, try to harvest those frames and boxes that are at least 80% capped, or sealed, ideally. The reason for this is that the uncapped honey will still contain too much humidity, thus causing the moisture level of the honey to rise.
When jars or bottles of honey ferment after packaging, the container can bulge or appear deformed- a sure sign of an issue.
Do you see bubbles in the honey? That is another indicator of too much moisture in the honey and subsequent fermentation is occurring. Fermented honey will also have an odd, off-putting smell, which may resemble vinegar.
As you can see, the moisture level in honey is important throughout the honey-making process- and ensures that your honey stays shelf-stable in your kitchen pantry. Consider this when waiting for your own honey to be low enough in moisture to harvest- and the reasons why this is key.