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But Can Honey Be Spoiled? More on Mel Malum

Honey seeker depicted on 8000 year old cave painting. At Araña Caves in Spain (Wikimedia Commons)

Honey seeker depicted on 8000 year old cave painting. At Araña Caves in Spain (Wikimedia Commons)

That is a question I and at least one other reader of this blog asked after my last post, Spoiled Honey Made Good, a title taken from a recipe in an ancient Roman cookbook. Before answering it from a modern perspective, it would be interesting to know what the Roman perspective was, because according to Apicius it can indeed. It is not uncommon, even nowadays, for people to think that honey has gone bad when it crystallizes. It certainly is not as easy to use as it is in its more liquid form (bees I think are generally of this opinion as well although they will try to work with it). However, all one need do is heat it to restore it to its former state.

A photo of crystallized honey - you can see fr...

A photo of crystallized honey – you can see fractal structure (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, crystallization can lead to fermentation, and once this happens, it’s probably safe to say that the honey has ‘spoiled.’ Think about what bees are doing to nectar to turn it into honey: all that flapping about reduces the moisture in the nectar. If you leave your jar of honey unsealed especially in humidity that moisture gets sucked right back in. A higher moisture content than what is normally acceptable creates an environment where yeast can grow, and the presence of yeast leads to fermentation. A good explanation of this process can be found at the Honey Bee Suite and at the Smithsonian site.  Note that even though heating honey can return it to its liquid state, this is only temporary and it can change the taste and texture. Of course, that change can mean you’ve just made yourself some mead, so maybe spoiled honey isn’t so bad after all.

Queen bees (where I haul myself onto one of my soapboxes)

The lovely reproduction of a cave painting on the subject of honey-gathering puts me in mind of a recent bit of news, especially as the figure in the cave painting has all the appearance of a female (or is just my overwrought imagination?). American Antiquity published findings from a study claiming that paleolithic cave painters in Europe were more likely to be women than men. The study concentrated on the size of hand prints left on the cave walls which are generally regarded to be the signature of the artist. Because of the size, it had been assumed that most of the handprints were likely to be those of adolescent males. However, scientists devised a measurements involving the length of the ring finger that helped to determine sex.

I suppose this conclusion can be debated, but I find it interesting that what has been accepted so far, that males even adolescent males at that were the artists, was considered more of a likely prospect (without any hard evidence) than the possibility of female creativity. The study of ancient humans is one area that, to me anyway, is rife with gender-based subjectivity and this study underscores that observation.

British Broadcasting Corporation Promenade (or...

British Broadcasting Corporation Promenade (or BBC Proms) concert at the Royal Albert Hall. The “promenade” section is the standing area immediately in front of the orchestra. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Marin Alsop, an American conductor, became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the BBC Proms (for those of you who do not know what the Proms are, they are concerts in the same tradition as that of the Boston Pops -inside promenade concerts-but with a very British flavor, especially on the Last Night). Alsop in her address to the audience admitted that she was “quite shocked that it can be 2013 and there can still be firsts for women”. Another summary of an article in my newsfeeds stated that “Andy Murray is the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years if women are not considered to be human” Four women have actually won since 1936, but as that doesn’t really count, most of the reporting had it that Murray was the first Brit.

You know where I am going with this; do I have to connect the dots? Guys do wonderful things. I know, I live with one. But one of them is not giving credit to women, essentially denying them their history.  So, Marin, we still need to remark on firsts, even though a lot of these firsts may actually be seconds, thirds, etc.  If we as women don’t do it, who will?

Autumn Watch (which starts this week) beware!

For more on the cave paintings, see:




Oh, and about those bees

Let’s end on a nice positive note. We fed the bees on Sunday and affixed the mouseguards. The last week or so has been relatively warm and they seem to have still been bringing in massive amounts of pollen. So we have held back with feeding. But as a major rain and windstorm was predicted for this week, we gave them something to work with during their confinement to quarters. Of course, if a recent BBKA article* is anything to go by, we may just have poisoned them, although my husband assures me we haven’t been boiling the sugar syrup solution. Oh well….

*The BBKA article in question:  Bridget Beattie. Feeding Bees: Is feeding heated sugar syrup to honey bees bad for them?” BBKA News: the newsletter of the British Beekeepers’ Association. November 2013, p27+.  This article is in response to a query about a statement by the same author but in a previous article about the toxicity of boiling ‘the mixture’.  Those not BBKA members may not be able to see this article online (I can’t find it).  A good discussion that might clarify the point can be found at
http://www.beesource.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-247744.html.  What it comes down to, if you can believe it, is semantics-what we mean when we say sugar.  If your mixture is simply cane sugar and water, you should be fine unless you boil to the point of caramelization. If you are using something like corn syrup, you are on questionable ground.  The BBKA article, in my opinion, is a bit equivocal as all the evidence the author musters seem to have come from a lab looking at the different effects of heat on sugars. No studies about well-meaning beekeepers wiping out scores of bees in an effort to keep them fed.  Still and all, I did go down and check to see if there was life after reading the article….


12 thoughts on “But Can Honey Be Spoiled? More on Mel Malum

  1. What’s this about poisoning bees by boiling the sugar syrup? I’ve never head of such a thing. How can boiling their syrup harm it (and them)?

    And, in my opinion, if honey spoils, it wasn’t honey in the first place. It’s nectar that bees collect and they convert that to honey. It’s only honey when they cap it and they cap it when it’s at about 18% water. If a silly human puts the honey in an open jar in a humid environment so it absorbs moisture, it’s really not honey any more.

    Finally, I reheat my crystalised honey by standing the jar in a pot of warm water for a few hours (changing the water when it cools). This mild reheating doesn’t change the honey taste, texture or colour, it’s only if you microwave it or put it in boiling water that honey changes.

    Posted by Laura Rittenhouse | October 29, 2013, 9:11 pm
    • I have added the name of the article to the post. But, because it might only be found in the BBKA members only section of the website, I have added a link where there is another discussion about it. We have been heating the solution for all the years we have had bees and no fatalities yet, fingers crossed!

      Hope everything well with you on the farm?

      Posted by mylatinnotebook | October 30, 2013, 3:17 pm
      • Ah, I see. Thanks for sending the info. I don’t think I’ve ever boiled the syrup, though maybe…. No dead bees so maybe I was a good girl and watched the pot so it didn’t boil 🙂

        All is well on the farm. All 23 hives doing… okay. If it were up to me I’d requeen a couple of the hives that are weak now but we have to wait for the queen guy to appear with his 28 super queens (yes, we’ll have to do some splits to increase our colonies to match the queen breeding program). Unfortunately the queen guy is unwell and I think he already started breeding our queens so I’ve no idea what will happen. Luckily the colonies have a lot to eat and the weather is warm and really, bees don’t need much help from silly old humans here in Australia.

        Posted by Laura Rittenhouse | October 31, 2013, 12:35 am
      • Unlike here in the UK, where it is a distinct likelihood that the bees will be blown away like Dorothy if they haven’t frozen into little bee popsicles first!

        Posted by mylatinnotebook | November 3, 2013, 1:50 pm
  2. It is interesting, isn’t it, the assumption that smaller hands meant adolescent males! I put my mouseguards this week on too. I think it’s getting a bit cold for sugar syrup, there is a risk that they won’t be able to evaporate it down enough and it will ferment in the comb. But I am no expert.

    Posted by Emily Heath | October 30, 2013, 9:54 am
    • No, Emily, you are not an expert. You are a beekeeping ORACLE! God only knows the amount of times I have been put on the right path by one of your posts. We are going to check them today to see what condition the syrup is in. But, if you saw how quickly they were on that syrup you might wonder that there was anything left by the end of the day. Really, quite endearing to see their little looks of confusion: Should we sting them because it is windy and we are cranky, or go for this lovely smelling concoction?

      Regarding assumptions, interesting but not surprising given the largely subjective nature of any social science research, and even quite a bit of hard science research.

      But there is always cake!

      Posted by mylatinnotebook | October 30, 2013, 3:23 pm
      • That is sweet of you to say! Sugar is a great weapon to distract them from stinging you.

        This week I’ve discovered a new favourite cake flavour: chocolate and Guinness with cream cheese frosting.

        Posted by Emily Heath | November 3, 2013, 1:49 pm
      • That seems more like an invitation to a Bacchanalia than cake! And, Emily, I don’t think anyone could ever call me sweet…

        Posted by mylatinnotebook | November 3, 2013, 1:51 pm
  3. Enjoyed greatly the probing post as well as the cave painting. May be, the study connecting female hand makes foray into current scenario of thought. Thanks.

    Posted by M N Rajkumar | October 30, 2013, 12:17 pm
  4. If the men were out doing the hunter gatherer bit and the adolescent males trying to keep up who else was there to do the paintings? Plus who else is interested in making the home an attractive place to live – most men do not even notice the decor. Love the thrust of the article and laughed at the Murray reference – must admit did not even think of it myself.
    As to the sugar argument once we have a liquid syrup we take it off the stove, no need to leave it there boiling, not making jam.
    It is November 14th today and we are hoping to get a feed to our bees – at least the sun is shining and the wind has dropped, just hope the temperature creeps up a bit.
    Thanks for your blogs.

    Posted by beekeeperwife | November 14, 2013, 11:11 am
    • What bothers me is the assumption, and an assumption based on more modern society. Men are the artists because that’s what we know (or what we think we know). As you say, the assumption could have so easily gone the other way if we consider this art within the home, which in the modern day is as likely if not more to be created by women.

      It’s been getting colder here, so we are probably done our syrup for now. Hope you are well and good to hear from you.

      Posted by mylatinnotebook | November 14, 2013, 2:20 pm

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