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The Color of Honey – {How it Affects Flavor}

A delicious treat that can be enjoyed straight from the hive, many people love honey. Thousands of bees gather plant nectar from blooming flowers to create this remarkable substance. We beekeepers harvest the excess crop filling beautiful jars of liquid gold. Yet, not every jar of honey looks the same. Some jars are golden and light while others are almost black. What does the color of honey tell you about the source and flavor?

Two jars of honey in amber color image.

What is the Real Color of Honey?

It is common to see grocery shelves lined with rows and rows of light colored jars. But, a visit to a local produce stand may reveal a different view. The jars offered for sale show many different shades.

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Why is there such a wide variety of color shades for this popular food? Can you tell real honey by color alone? No, sadly you can not.

What is Honey?

Honey is a sweet substance made from plant nectar gathered by honey bees. Blooming flowers and other plant parts secrete nectar to lure in pollinators. In exchange, bees and other insects aid in pollination as they move from flower to flower.

The nectar from different plants varies greatly in sugar content, available minerals and other compounds. The healthiest bee colonies have access to a wide variety of nectar sources.

After nectar is collected and brought back to the hive, enzymes are added. This causes chemical changes in the sugars of the watery nectar.

Dehydration techniques reduce the water content and the end result is honey. A stable food source that helps the colony survive the long cold Winter months.

A few other insects produce small amounts of similar substances. However, honey bees get their name from their talent. Apis mellifera is their scientific name and it means “honey-bearing“.

Various colors and shade of honey image.

Standardized Color for Food Industry

Honey consumption in the US is about 1.5 pounds per capita per year. This includes the spoonfuls you put on your morning waffles or add in your coffee everyday.

However, the bulk of usage in the US takes place in the food industry. To make this product suitable for the commercial market, there must be some method of standardization.

Grading involves several factors including moisture content, and of course color.

Honey Color Chart

A device called a Pfund scale gives color readings in millimeters. The following chart denotes the official standard. This is useful in the food industry as honey is bought or sold. It is also used in honey judges classes at beekeeper’s meetings etc.

Standard honey color chart gives ranges of light to dark honey color image.

This standardized honey color scale is only the beginning. In fact, the many different colors are too numerous to measure on a chart.

However, for everyday life most people tend to lump all honey into 2 categories. Light or Dark. There are of course exceptions to any rule. Personal opinion of exactly where the line between light and dark is drawn do apply.

Is Dark Honey Better for You than Light Honey?

Honestly, there is not much difference in the nutritional value of most types of light or dark. Some studies suggest that dark honey has more micro-nutrients but perhaps too few to matter.

One thing to be concerned about – always purchase the raw product when you have the opportunity. Raw honey straight from the hive is in its freshest form.

Honey bee foraging on a flower for plant nectar image.

Why are there Different Colors of Honey?

There are several factors that affect the final color of ripe honey. The biggest one is simply nectar source.

Foraging worker bees collect plant nectar from many different blooming plants. Each plant is unique in the type of nectar it provides. A honey analysis will reveal different sugar contents, floral esters, aroma etc from each source.

In most regions of the country, it is common to find many Spring blooming plants that result in light colored honey. These tend to have a milder flavor – though there are variations even among these.

The darker producers are most common the season progresses. This is due in part to those plants blooming later result in dark honey. But also, the Spring flowers normally produce a large amount of nectar. This dilutes the mix of any dark into the honey.

Which is the best type of honey? Well, that depends on who you ask. People prefer different tastes. Some people want a mild flavor such as clover while others prefer a bold honey flavor. In fact, various types of honey make great gifts.

Nectar Plants for Light Honey

Some flowers consistently produce nectar that results in light colored honey. But remember, a small amount of nectar from a dark plant can tint the whole batch.

  • privet
  • mesquite
  • honeysuckle
  • fireweed
  • clover
  • blackberry
  • sourwood
  • and many more

Nectar Sources for Middle Color Range

  • cherry
  • gallberry
  • holly
  • sunflower
  • apple
  • tulip poplar

Nectar Sources for Dark

These nectar bearing plants tend to produce a darker color range : medium amber to almost black.

  • borage
  • sumac
  • buckwheat

Poly Floral Varieties

Most of the honey produced in the United States is polyfloral. This simply means that many different nectar sources were used to produce that jar on your kitchen shelf.

Worker bees collect plant nectar and take it back to the hive. Naturally, as thousands of bees return with nectar – it is mixed up with the nectar loads of numerous others.

A mixture of hundreds of nectar sources, type is sold as “Wildflower”. Wildflower tends to be a medium Amber color or even darker.

In certain situations, beekeepers produce a crop of monofloral honey. This is a product resulting from 1 primary nectar source. These unique crops are sought after for their reliable taste and color.

Clover is one example of a monofloral variety. Others popular single source honeys include: Orange Blossom, Tupelo, Buckwheat and more. Sourwood honey is another favorite in my region.

Flower Fidelity in Bees

It is possible to produce a crop of monofloral honey that is a consistent color because of flower fidelity.

Worker bees will gather food from any reliable source. However, individual foragers tend to work the same type of flower if the food source is good.

Perhaps a field of clover is currently providing the best nectar. In this case, the majority of foragers will gather clover nectar until the resource is depleted. The end product is a monofloral honey. It has a predictable taste and color.

Honey in the comb that has been capped and is consistent color image.

Comb Affects Honey Color Too

Another thing that affects the color of the harvest is the wax in which it is stored. Beeswax is made by honey bees and used to construct sheets of honeycomb.

Inside the beeswax cells, honey is stored for Winter. These cells are also used to store pollen and to raise young baby bees.

When first produced, beeswax is white. Daily use stains the surface over time. Propolis, pollen, etc contribute to darken the comb.

When honey is stored in older wax, it can become darker too. Some of the materials absorbed into the comb are water soluble.

These substances leach out into the honey and cause it to become darker. The darker and older the comb – the bigger the problem.

Because of this, beekeepers should rotate out old comb every 4-5 years. Keeping fresh wax in the hive ensures the production of honey that is true to color.

Honey Changes Color

Regardless of the original hue, the color may change. It does darken with age even when it is stored properly.

Of course it is perfectly fine to consume, it just loses some of its brightness. Heating can also cause it to darken.

Embrace the glorious variety of colors and flavors or raw honey. Each one is unique and special in its own right. And, honestly one is not greatly better or worse than the next.

Don’t be afraid to try new types beyond those made in your region. This gives you an opportunity to enjoy something that may never be available locally.

For instance, I will never taste local Orange Blossom Honey. Citrus groves do not grow in my local region. This gift pack sampler is a great example of what awaits you.

Different color palettes and tastes allows honey to be paired well with various foods such as fruit, gourmet cheese etc. Enjoy. The bees have worked hard to bring you this jar of deliciousness.

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