Honey Creation: (The Natural vs Commercial Process)

I was listening to two beekeepers talking about “real” and “fake” honey and became curious.
What where they were talking about and what made honey “real” or “fake”?

This is what I discovered.


How do honeybees make honey?

Honeybees collect the sucrose nectar of flowers and dehydrate that sucrose nectar to 20% water content or less.
This dehydration process breaks the disaccharide composition of sucrose into its two monosaccharide components of glucose and fructose know as honey.

The nectar water content needs to be 20% or less before it is considered honey instead of nectar. Some honey can have water content as low as 14% water content. The consensus is that the lower the honey water content, the better (more valuable) the honey.

Foraging bees fly out to a nectar source, up to about 4 miles from the hive, and collect nectar from the flowers. They place this nectar in their “crop” (AKA as their “honey stomach).

The honey bee extracts the flower’s nectar with its long straw-like tongue (proboscis) used to suck up the nectar.

Gathered flower nectar contains many contaminants including pollen, bacteria, and other critters that are mostly there to consume the pollen, a protein very attractive to microorganisms.

Once the foraging honey bee has gathered the flower’s nectar into their crop, the nectar inside the foraging bee’s crop is undergoing its first stage of processing the flower’s nectar into honey.

The flower’s sucrose nectar is being processed by the foraging bee’s crop into glucose and fructose.
Some of the glucose is converted to an acid which kills the free-loading bacteria.

The honey bee’s crop is an internal transportation pouch designed to store and process the gathered nectar as the honey bee returns to the beehive with a full crop.

On the way back to the hive, the newly gathered nectar is “slouched around” in the crop which causes an enzymatic reaction that kills off most of the undesired microorganism trying to eat the pollen that has inevitably been incorporated into the nectar as it was being gathered.

If the foraging honey bee needs additional energy on her foraging trip, she is able to pass a quantity of the nectar in the crop into her stomach through a special valve. Once inside the honey bee’s own stomach, the nectar is converted to energy for the foraging bee.

Foraging bees have lost their ability to digest pollen, so any ingested pollen is passed through the bee’s intestinal tract unaltered.

Newly gathered flower nectar has a water content of between 80% and 95%.

In addition to the enzymatic microbial killing action in the crop, the foraging honey bee also starts the nectar dehydration process by drinking some of the water content of the nectar.

Once the foraging bee returns to the hive, a hive bee will empty the forager’s crop by inserting their long straw-like tongue into the foraging bee’s crop and transfer the content of the foraging bee’s crop into their own crop. The processing of the newly arrived flower nectar continues, including some additional drinking of the water content by the hive bee.

The hive bee continues this process, transferring their crop content to other hive bees, who also continue the processing of the nectar and drinking a little of the water content of the nectar being transformed into honey.

This process is repeated with other hive bees until they decide to spread out the processed nectar solution onto the honeycomb and fan it with their wings until its water content is 20% or less.
The air flow over the uncapped nectar deposits will further dehydrate the nectar solution.

The bees must get the processed nectar water content to below 20% water or the nectar will ferment. Most honey will have a water content of 17% to 18% but can get to as low as 14% water.

Once the nectar has been dehydrated into honey, at the water concentration that satisfies the bees, they cap the honey cell with a wax cover. The wax cap will be white in color. It will remain in that state of storage until needed by the bees or harvested by the beekeeper.

Some times, when there is more nectar coming in that the hive bees can process, the bees will store the unprocessed nectar in open, uncapped cells until such time the bees can come back and process that nectar into honey.

What is the final composition of honey?

The final composition of honey is typically:

  • 17% water
  • 39% Fructose
  • 31% Glucose
  • 7% Maltose
  • 4% “higher carbohydrates”
  • 1.5% sucrose
  • 0.5% minerals and vitamins

Honey that has higher than typical glucose concentration is more prone to crystallization.
Different flowers will produce different concentrations of glucose in the finished product.
Fall ivy is notorious for having a high glucose to fructose ratio and crystallizes pretty easily, especially in cooler temperatures.

Flower nectar is in the chemical form of sucrose, a disaccharide, commonly known as table sugar.
A disaccharide is two sugars combined, glucose and fructose.
Once the flower’s nectar has been collected by the honey bees, the sucrose is immediately broken down into the two monosaccharides, glucose and fructose.

Sucrose, the chemical structure of flower nectar, breaks down into glucose and fructose by the process of dehydration. The water content of flower nectar is between 80% and 95% water and is dehydrated to less than 20% water to become honey.

In the human, the ingestion of glucose and fructose are metabolized entirely different.

Glucose is the human body’s preferred source of energy and is very efficient at producing ATP (the energy molecule of the cells of a human). The glucose is processed through the Krebs Citric Acid Cycle.

Fructose is processed in the human body in the liver and is metabolized much like fat is metabolized.

Honey has been found after several thousand years that is still good honey. Honey doesn’t spoil.

How Much Nectar Does A Honeybee Gather On A Foraging Run?

A honey bee will gather enough nectar to be almost the same weight as the honey bee itself, but the bee will need to visit 50 to 100 flowers to gather that much nectar.
By comparison, most airplanes cannot lift more than about 25% of the weight of the plane.

What Flowers Are The Favorite Of Honey Bees?

Violet colored flowers are the honeybee’s favorite nectar source.
Flowers with the highest sucrose concentration are violet in color and are by far and away the most attractive flower color for the foraging honey bee.

The foraging bee is attracted to the flowers who’s nectar contain the greatest sucrose concentration.

Various shades of blue are the second most favorite flower color but blue flowers are much less sucrose rich than the violet colored flowers.

Honey bees see red as black and not attractive to the foraging honey bee at all, however the red flowers have developed a honey bee attractant by making the center portion of the flower or their stamen and pistil a color that is attractive to foraging honey bees.

How is honey commercially produced?

Commercially produced “fake” honey is produced by using one or both of these techniques:

  • Real honey is adulterated by adding honey “expanders”, sugar syrups made from sugar cane, corn, or rice.
  • Bees are discouraged from foraging flowers by feeding them mass quantities of sugar syrup.

Fake honey is cheaper and easier to make than real honey, so the motivating factor to make fake honey is money!

Testing has demonstrated that more than 75% of honey sold in grocery stores are really fake honey. One exception seems to be Trader Joe’s honey.

If you want real honey, your best bet is to buy it from a local beekeeper.
An additional benefit of buying real honey from a local beekeeper is the honey will contain local area pollen that can help people allergic to pollens to become less sensitive to local pollens.

Adulterating Real Honey Technique

Adulteration of honey with low-cost sugar syrups is a very common practice for most vendors producing honey to be sold in chain grocery stores across the country.

In fact, the international standards in labeling allows honey producers to add up to 7% of these low cost sugar syrups to honey and still be labeled as pure honey.

C4 Sugar Syrup Additives

The common practice of adding low cost sugar syrup to honey, to increase the profit margin, generally add syrups made from plants in the C4 categorization such as:

  • Sugar Cane
  • Corn
  • Rice

Sugar cane syrup is made from simple table sugar, sucrose.
Corn syrup is added in the form of high fructose corn syrup.
Rice syrup is made by treating whole grain rice with enzymes and boiling the resulting liquid into a syrup.

All these sugar syrup additives are processed by human metabolism differently that pure honey.

C3 Sugar Syrup Additives

Sugar syrups made from C3 plants are much more difficult to analyze, even with sophisticated analysis instruments.

Some commercial vendors cut their honey with these low cost sugar syrups for the simple reason they are harder to detect than syrups made from C4 plants, and they can exceed the 7% additive rule to be able to label their honey as “Pure Honey” with a greatly reduced risk of being detected.

The Difference Of C4 and C3 Sugar Syrup Additives

Honeybees collect nectar from C3 plants that they process into honey, they do not gather nectar from C4 plants.

So if the sugar syrup being used to stretch the real honey is a sugar syrup made from a C3 plant (like sugar beets), it becomes much more difficult to detect.

Feeding Bees Sugar Syrup To Make Fake Honey

Some honey produces simply feed their bees sugar water to make into honey instead of allowing the bees to forage flowers for nectar.

If the honey bee only has to travel to the top of the hive to collect the “nectar”, the bees can be much more productive than flying out several miles to gather real nectar.
And for the honeybee, fake honey is just as good a source of energy as flower nectar, so the choice is easy for them.

Honey made exclusively by feeding bees sugar water is totally unacceptable to honey connoisseur. There are no subtleties in flavor and aroma of real honey.

Honey made this way are much less viscous than real honey and it lacks all the minerals and vitamins of real honey.

All real honey contains some pollen. Honey without pollen in it is most definitely fake honey (there is no pollen in honey bees are making from sugar water).

Pollen detection can be detected under a microscope and is the cheapest, easiest way to detect real honey from fake honey.

How can I tell if honey is real or fake?

Identifying real honey from fake honey is determined by the presence of pollen under the microscope. Fake honey will have none.
Simpler home tests includes viscosity, smell, taste, clarity, solubility, flammability, stickiness, bread test, reaction to being heated, and paper towel test.


Tilting a jar of honey onto its side and watching the honey move within the jar will help determine real from fake honey.

Real honey will be slow to move much like cooling lava moves down a mountainside.
Fake honey will move much more quickly, kind of like motor oil for your car.


Fake honey made with feeding bees sugar water has no aroma.
Real honey made from flower nectar can often have a faint smell of the flower source of the nectar.


Fake honey made with the addition of sugar syrup to real honey will have a lingering sweet taste as it takes longer for sucrose (sugar syrup) to stop stimulating the taste buds.
Real honey (glucose and Fructose) clear the taste buds much more quickly.


Fake honey is processed to the point of having no particles suspended in it. This is more appealing to the shopper’s eye.
Real honey usually contains particles of wax, pollen and even some bee parts that can be seen in the honey.


Fake honey will quickly emulsify in water.
Real honey will not emulsify and will continue to be a blob in water.


Dip a match in the honey to be tested.
The match will not lite if dipped in fake honey because it has absorbed water from the fake honey.
A match dipped in real honey does not absorb water and will lit when struck.


The addition of sugar syrup to honey will cause the fake honey to feel sticky between your finger and thumb.
Real honey does not feel very sticky.

Bread Test

Spreading fake honey on bread will cause the bread to become wet and soggy in a few minutes.
Spreading real honey on bread will cause the bread to become hard in a few moments, as if it were stale.

Reaction To Being Heated

Heating fake honey in a microwave for about 1 minute will cause it to foam and bubble but it will not caramelize.
Heating real honey in a microwave will cause the honey to caramelize quickly, but it won’t bubble and foam.

The Paper Test

Place a little honey on a paper towel.
Fake honey will soak through the paper towel because of its water content.
Real honey will not soak through the paper towel.

What Is Raw Honey vs Pasteurized Honey?

Raw honey is honey as found in the beehive and extracted from honeycomb without use of heat.
Bacteria cannot live in raw honey because of moisture content and acidity.
Pasteurized honey has been heated to 161 degrees Fahrenheit to kill the yeast in raw honey, not the bacteria.

Pasteurizing honey will cause the color to darken and will change the flavor and aroma of the honey.

Pasteurizing honey is done primarily to slow down the crystallization of honey thereby giving it a much longer visually appealing shelf life.

Ambient temperature of honey storage area can cause an increase tendency to crystallize if cooler than 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Learn more about crystallization here…

What microscope is best for beekeepers?

The best microscope for a beekeeper is a simple compound microscope.
With a simple compound
microscope a beekeeper can seen pollen in real honey (none in fake honey), and can see yeast, bacteria, and other pathogens in a distressed beehive.

Happy Beekeeping

Paying It Forward

Related Topics

Do Honey Bees Visit Various Types of Flowers?

Honeybees visit various types of flowers throughout the day, however, on any one foraging run, they only gather nectar from that same species of flower.
They visit 50 to 100 flower blooms on each foraging run before returning to deposit their treasure of nectar.

How do honey bees make wax?

Honeybees between 12 days old and 20 days old have a special abdominal gland that can process the sugar in consumed honey into wax flakes.
Other worker bees remove these abdominal wax flakes, chew them into acceptable consistency, and construct honeycomb with the processed wax.

Robert Donaldson

I am Elizabeth's father, a physical therapist, and someone who has completely landscaped our family home's nearly 1/2 acre lot after losing our home and landscape to the Thomas wildfire in 2017. All landscaping was done to accommodate our wildlife friends, especially the birds and bees.

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