Honey Water Content

Pinterest Hidden Image

You may be surprised to learn the importance of honey water content. This delicate balance is partially responsible for the quality and longevity of honey. For us beekeepers, understanding appropriate moisture levels in harvested honey, allows us to provide a quality product. Let’s look into the risks of excessive water in honey and what to do about it.

Fresh liquid watery honey dripping from dipper with bubbles in the jar.

One of the most markable properties of honey is its long shelf life. If you store honey properly, it will last virtually forever. However, if the water content of your honey is too high, your long term plans may be spoiled.

Ideal Moisture Content in Honey

It may see a bit strange to think of honey containing water – we envision a thick, slow-pouring substance. But, it is liquid-so it does contain a small percentage of water.

The honey industry has strict grading guidelines for quality that take several characteristics into account – water content is one key factor.

In the United States, honey is evaluated on a grading scale. To qualify for Grade A or B, the water content of honey must be below 18.6%. Most beekeepers shoot for a range between 15.5 and 18.5% water content.

Contributing Factors

In the world of honey, we find many differences in honey color and taste. Likewise, the percentage of water in honey varies depending on a several factors. The two main being:

  • nectar source
  • environment

Nectar

A wide variety of nectar sources are used by bees to make honey. Each type of plant nectar has it’s own unique characteristics.

Therefore, some types of honey tend to have a higher moisture content (or lower) right out of the hive.

Environmental Conditions

Environmental conditions also affect honey moisture. Honey is hygroscopic. This means that it absorbs moisture from the air.

Frames or boxes that are harvested before the bees have finished the conversion process-may be too high in water-especially during rainy weather conditions.

Also, improperly stored frames (even capped comb) can absorb moisture from the air before the honey is processed. The same can occur when extracted honey is stored in open buckets without tight sealing lids.

Foamy bubbles in harvested honey could be sign of excess moisture.

Risks of Too Much Moisture in Honey

Honey is known for having natural preservative qualities. But, having excessive moisture content in honey poses substantial risks to its quality and marketability.

Join Our Beekeeping Community

Free "Secrets to Successful Beekeeping" plus weekly newsletter with info about bees, beekeeping and more...

Fermentation

Any raw food product, can contain some natural yeasts. When yeasts, warm temperatures and water combine – you get fermentation. This is a great thing if you are making mead – but not in your honey jars.

Ripe honey (of a suitable moisture content) contains fewer yeasts. But, when the honey/water balance gets too far off – fermentation occurs. This renders the jars of honey not fit for consumption and results in a loss of product for the consumer or the beekeeper.

Quality

When high water content honey ferments, this bubbly sour-smelling substance is not what honey lovers want to consume. Fermentation ruins the taste and appearance of honey.

If too low in moisture, it honey may crystallize faster. However, this is not as big of a concern as high levels of water.

For beekeepers who sell honey, having your product at the correct moisture level is very important.

Honey refractometer on frame with uncapped cells.

Recommendations
This post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Please read my disclosure.

Measuring Tool

A refractometer is a device used to measure honey’s water content. This tube-like instrument measures the degree to which light is bent as it passes through. This is the refractive index.

As light moves though any substance, it changes direction or bends. This is called refraction and the amount of refraction depends on the amount of solids in the solution.

In fact, the refractive index of honey will change a bit due to the solids in it. This is why a range is necessary instead of a set desired percentage.

Refractors come in many different types and are used in industries including brewing, medicine, gemology and the car industry. 

Honey Refractometers

Honey refractometers are a bit different than other types. Instead of measuring the solids in a substance, they measure water content. This makes them the perfect tool for measuring the level of water in honey.

A regular refractometer can be used to measure moisture too. But, those marked for honey are easier to read and understand for the average beekeeper. 

Their scale usually shows between 10-30% water. When measuring sugars (and honey is sugar) the Brix scale is used to get a reading. A reading of 18 degrees brix means the honey is 18% water.

Beekeeper Guidelines

In general, beekeepers assume that ripe honey capped with beeswax is ready to take. And yes, capped frames usually have a low moisture content and pose no problem.

However, that is not always the case. I have had years when a lot of rainy weather and humid days resulted in capped frames with a higher water content than is desirable.

Also, it is common when harvesting honey to have frames that have some uncapped cells on the frame. Depending on the situation and time of year, it is often best to leave the frames until the bees are finished – but that is not always possible.

Reducing moisture in honey using dehumidifier and fan in room image.

Reduce High Moisture Content in Honey Supers

If your honey refractometer shows a high moisture level prior to extraction, do not panic. The easiest thing to do is to put the supers in a room with low humidity and have a fan blowing on them for a couple of days.

Most beekeepers keep a room dehumidifier just for this purpose. They are not very expensive and last for years. 

When I have supers that are on the borderline for water content, I sit them on end with a fan blowing through them in my honey house

The dehumidifier is set on 35-40% for a day or two. By then, the honey water content has dropped enough to proceed.

This same process will work for buckets too. You must remove the lid and it is good to have a fan blowing across the top of the open bucket. 

Be advised that having the dehumidifier (or air conditioner) running to reduce room humidity is crucial to the process. A fan blowing humid air will only make the situation worse not better.

FAQs

Why is the moisture content of honey important?

Proper moisture levels in honey protect its quality and shelf life. It prevents fermentation and spoilage and helps slow crystallization.

Can honey moisture content vary based on floral sources?

Yes, moisture content in honey varies depending on nectar source and environment conditions. Different nectar compositions and regional climates influence the water content of ripe honey.

Can consumers adjust honey moisture content at home?

No, not really. The moisture content of honey is determined during the harvesting and processing practices of the beekeeper. However, the consumer can protect honey from absorbing excess moisture through proper storage practices.

Are there health concerns associated with high moisture honey?

High moisture content in honey can lead to fermentation, producing alcohol and potentially harmful byproducts.

Final Thoughts

Our colonies work very hard to produce a perfect food source. They even make enough to share with us. Ripe honey does not go bad. The acid levels and low pH of honey helps prevent spoilage. But, we must protect it from excess moisture or this valuable gift can be wasted.