Nectar vs Honey: What’s the Difference?

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Lets take a look into the wonderful world of bees to learn the differences between nectar vs honey. Yes, both are sweet liquids – but they are certainly not the same thing. Nectar is sweet flower juice that lures pollinators to the bloom. Honey is a stable long term storage product for the colony.

Honey bee gathering nectar and thick honey dripping in bowl.

Nectar from millions of blooming flowers is collected and used by bees to make honey. Honey is a special substance that has some unique properties of its own. However, without some nectar to begin the process – the colony would die of starvation.

What is Nectar?

Nectar is a sweet liquid secreted by flowers. The chemical composition varies a bit from one plant to another. Primarily, nectar contains a solution of sugars: glucose, fructose and sucrose.

But, nectar also boasts various proteins, salts, acids and other micro substances. This variety is why it is important for bees to eat foods from many different plants to get complete nutrition.

Nectar is a liquid reward that plants use to lure pollinators to the bloom. Insects like bees provide plant pollination by moving pollen grains from flower to flower. Sweet nectar gives them a reason to visit.

Flower nectar in purple petals and humming bird sucking up nectar.

Sugar Concentration

The sweetness or sugar concentration of nectar varies across a large range. From a relatively low concentration of 8% up to 50% for some plants. This explains why some flowers are more attractive to bees than others.

However, it is also important to understand that the climate and weather conditions for an area has a direct affect on the quality and quantity of nectar produced by different flowers.

Areas experiencing extreme drought may be in a nectar dearth – when little or no plant nectar is available.

Collecting Nectar

Working the best food sources first, honey bees collect nectar by inserting their proboscis (tongue parts) into the flower and sucking up the liquid.

These worker bees, store nectar in a special organ called a “honey stomach” for the trip back to the hive. This is not their true digestive system – honey is not bee vomit.

But, the nectar may mix with some pre-digestive enzymes. Back at the hive, it is unloaded to other bees who will complete the conversion process.

Images of thick viscous honey in puddle and dripping off jar.

Characteristics of Honey

Honey is a sweet, thick substance made by bees. The exact composition of honey varies from one location to another and depending on the nectar sources used to make it.

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It is a carbohydrate composed of roughly 80% sugars with a few minerals, vitamins, pollen and proteins. The water content of honey should be below 20%.

In most cases, plant nectar is used by bees to produce honey. However, sometimes, bees gather the sweet secretions of aphids – this is called Forest honey or Honeydew.

A single bee would make a very small amount of honey during her lifetime. Therefore, this is a large group effort with thousands of individuals working together for colony survival.

How They Differ

While nectar does eventually become honey for the bees, the two substances have some distinct differences.

  • nectar is produced by flowers to attract pollinators – honey is made by bees
  • nectar is thin and watery – honey is thicker with high viscosity
  • composition of nectar is approximately 80%water/20% sugar – for honey 80% sugar/20% water
  • nectar is consumed by some insects as it is – honey has added enzymes and converted sugars
  • nectar would spoil quickly in storage – honey has a long shelf life due to reduced water content and enzyme action
Diagram compares nectar vs honey with characteristics of each listed.

FAQs

What is the main difference between nectar and honey?

The main difference between nectar and honey is their composition. Nectar is primarily water with small concentrations of sugar. Honey is mainly sugars with only small percentages of water.

Can humans consume nectar?

In most cases, humans could consume reasonable amounts of nectar. However, the high water content and lack of natural preservatives does not provide a good reason to do so.

Is nectar as nutritious as honey?

Nectar is not considered to be as nutritious as honey because it is not as concentrated. Also, nectar lacks the bee enzymes that converts sugars to simpler forms.

Why do bees convert nectar into honey rather than storing it directly?

Watery nectar would spoil quickly when stored in the honeycomb cells.

Can nectar have flavors similar to honey?

Nectar does often have different flavors but due to the lack of concentration – you would not find flavors that are as distinct as those of different types of honey.

Is Agave nectar the same as regular plant nectar?

A sweetener such as Agave nectar or Maple Syrup are made from raw nectar or sap but are technically not the same thing as regular flower nectar collected by pollinators.

Final Thoughts

Nectar vs honey – both are important parts of the ecosystem. Nectar lures bees to the flowers and this helps them reproduce and make seed. Honey is the perfect over-Winter food to help bee colonies survive the cold months. In this way, bees will be there to help flowers next year too!

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