Water content of honey

Q – What should the water content of honey be? I have just started beekeeping in Indonesia where the honey typically has a water content of 17- 24%. Sometimes when we have bottled it, it will explode. I have read that I should pasteurize my honey but I am worried that will make it unhealthy.

 

A – We asked 2 of the Bee Craft directors to answer this question:

Answer from Andrew Gibb

  • The water content must be less than 20 – 21% to prevent fermentation
  • If the water content is above this level fermentation will take place as the yeasts in honey will be activated
  • Fermentation spoils honey. It’s the consuming of the sugars of honey by the yeasts which grow in size and number, using the sugars as their source of energy. When the yeasts do this they spoil the flavour and aroma of honey. Yeasts are brought into the hive by the bees in the nectar. Once honey has crystallised, the liquid between the crystals is diluted  and rises between 4 – 6% in water content. This brings most crystallised honey into the range where fermentation can occur, but it is held in check by the structure of the honey. Yeasts are inhibited from growing if honey is stored either below 10oC or above 27oC
  • Fermentation is caused in three ways: leakage of water vapour in to the storage container which, as honey is hydroscopic, will be absorbed into the honey at the top surface, secondly, the top surface of the honey ‘heaves’, thirdly when to honey is opened and used it is found to be fermented usually as a result of being put into the container as unripe honey, ie, the water content is too high
  • Pasteurising honey needs to be done with the right equipment as it must be heated and cooled quickly to avoid losing all the valuable esters and aromas which give honey its distinct character. Most amateur beekeepers don’t have this type of equipment and so this process should be avoided. If done by an amateur it’ll spoil the honey & turn it to ‘bakers honey’, ie, only useful in food processing, but it will not become unhealthy.

 

Answer from Bob Maurer

In the UK, the maximum water content permitted for sale is 20%.  (There are a few specialised exceptions to this but for your purposes I would suggest you stick to 20% as a maximum water content.)

To be confident that your honey will not ferment, the water content needs to be well below 20%.  Somewhere around 17% would be good.  Honey with a 19% water content, whilst legal for sale in UK, stands a good chance of fermenting fairly quickly so if I had some I would want to sell it and get it eaten quickly!

Professional honey packers often pasteurise their honey by heating to 63 degrees for 30 minutes or 71 degrees for 1 minute. This requires expensive specialist equipment.  I don’t know any small producer beekeepers who do this. Overheating your honey will damage the enzymes present and will raise the level of HMF so unless you have access to specialist equipment I would stay away from heating to these levels as you will just spoil your honey.

I would suggest that you concentrate on keeping the water content well below 20%.  Capped honey in a comb should be below 20% water content. Deciding if you should extract uncapped or partly capped honey is difficult.  A simple ‘field test’ is to shake the frame over the hive. If droplets fall out, the water content is too high and you should not extract. There is a piece of equipment called a refractometer that can test a sample of honey and tell you the water content.  You can find them on the internet for around $50 US and they are very simple to use. (Make sure you get one that is appropriate for honey. There are many different kinds of refractometer!)

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