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Nectar, Honey, and Chemistry

Updated: Feb 6, 2023

Honey has two unusual aspects: it doesn't expire and it's been in our kitchens since ancient times, an honor few other staples share. What's its secret?

Two rows of stacked glass jars glowing with freshly harvested honey
Freshly jarred honey. Steven Long

Every spring, with the days getting longer and temperatures consistently rising above freezing, our honeybees venture further from their hives. With the sun as their guide, forager bees dutifully head off into the thick woods that push up against our yard to search out brightly colored crocuses, irises, and other wildflowers. The honeyflow has officially begun.

Honeyflow refers to the period of the year when nectar is in abundance. When this flow starts and stops varies regionally. Where I live in New England, it begins in April or May and ends in October. And because the flow is dependent on weather, it usually sputters in mid-July, when humidity spikes and the rains peter out.

The flow slowed in early July this year, thanks to a drought. With nectar in short supply, forager bees instead look for water to replenish the thirsty hives, each brimming with thousands of bees working feverishly to keep the internal temperature in the low 90s. To help, my son and I place a container of sugar water—a syrupy mixture of equal parts sugar and water—on top of each hive. The bees readily lap it up, though they’d rather have their wild-sourced nectar.

We approach this part of summer with apprehension because the bees, usually docile and laidback, are impatient and quick-tempered. A month and a half into a “stopped” honeyflow, angry bees tap-tap-tap the screen of our hoods with increasing desperation. Just as telling, the constant hum coming from the hives is getting more agitated. Though we share their worry, we take small solace that we’re continuing a craft that spans 50 centuries. Beekeeping has come a long way, but honey itself hasn’t changed. It’s still as sweet and delicious as ever.

What is it about honey that has captivated us for so long?

Nectar = honey

Nectar is a thin, sweet solution of around 80 percent water and the remainder sucrose (sugar) and trace amounts of vitamins and minerals. When a forager bee visits a flower, her proboscis (tongue) draws up tiny beads of nectar into her honey crop. Located just before the stomach, the crop is an expandable sack with special enzymes that work to break sucrose down to the simple sugars fructose and glucose. This is called hydrolysis.

Close-up of a bee drawing nectar from a lamb's ear bloosm
Honeybee on a lamb's ear blossom. Jordan Castro-Long

Buzzing from flower to flower, the bee will drink from 100 or more, her legs becoming increasingly caked with sticky pollen. Careening under the weight, she returns to the hive, where she regurgitates the nectar into the mouths of waiting worker bees. Once the last of the pollen is offloaded, she heads out to collect more food. She’ll do this 15 times a day for perhaps the next six weeks until she dies. She will produce only 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey throughout her short lifetime.

Group of honeybees and two yellowjackets on the edge of honey frame
Honeybees and two thieves (yellow jackets) cleaning up spilled honey. Steven Long

Worker bees move the nectar from the entrance toward the honeycomb, passing it from bee to bee like a synchronized water-bucket fire drill. Over a span of 20 minutes, the water content in the nectar slowly drops to about 20 percent while enzymes continue reducing the sucrose, enhancing the flavor, and making it more digestible. At that point, dribble by dribble, the nectar fills a wax chamber. Still unsatisfied, bees beat their wings to evaporate another 2 to 3 percent of water. That’s when nectar finally becomes honey. Once capped, it will last indefinitely.

Honey and chemistry

What is the key to its longevity? Chemistry. For bacteria to thrive, they require moisture. Given honey’s low water content, it’s too bleak for them. Helping maintain that inhospitality is the very thing that makes honey so sweet: sugar. It turns out that sugar is hygroscopic—in its natural state, it has little water, and it stays this way until it comes into contact with something that has moisture. Though they don’t have much, bacteria do have some water. Sugar's not picky; it’ll pull whatever it can out of them.

Acidity also comes into play. With a pH level of between 3 and 4.5, it’s too extreme of an environment for microorganisms. There’s something else that microorganisms don’t like: hydrogen peroxide. Bees produce the enzyme glucose oxidase in their honey crop, which eats glucose and burps hydrogen peroxide as a byproduct. Though in trace amounts, there’s enough to ward off would-be invaders.

Beyond the low water content and acidity, honey has another tool up its sticky sleeve: antioxidants. In simple terms, antioxidants go after free radicals, which are believed to play a role in cellular damage, diseases, and aging. Among its arsenal of antioxidants are phenolic acids and flavonoids, vitamin C, and vitamin E, which repair and strengthen bodily functions and organs.

Honey frame with three distinct bands of capped honey
Three types of honey in one frame. Steven Long

All told, honey contains over 180 elements that fortify its resiliency, enhance its flavor and color, determine its viscosity, and magnify its medicinal characteristics. What’s more, these elements change seasonally and regionally—so early spring honey is vastly different from late summer honey, just as New Jersey wildflower honey is to Montana wildflower honey. Officially, over 300 distinct types of honey exist worldwide, like avocado, blueberry, orange blossom, and buckwheat. Unofficially, there are probably thousands of subtle varieties, given the multitude of flowers that bees draw nectar from.

Here’s a breakdown of what's inside honey:

  • Fructose – 38.2

  • Glucose – 31

  • Water – 17.1

  • Maltose – 7.2

  • Higher carbohydrates = 4.2

  • Sucrose – 1.5

  • Minerals, vitamins, etc. – 0.5

Sweet fruits of labor

We’ll keep the sugar water available for as long as our bees need it. Fortunately, goldenrod is in full bloom, and despite the ongoing drought, its pollen and nectar will help sustain the bees well into fall. With any luck, asters, another drought-tolerant wildflower, will come into their own soon.

Close-up of honeybee drawing nectar from golden rod blossoms
Honeybee feeding on goldenrod nectar. Steven Long

Late summer is also when we harvest some of that honey, enabling us to taste the fruits of the bees’ hard labor. It will taste similar to the honey the beekeepers harvested centuries ago—gooey, sweet, and lip-smacking delicious. And while our honey can last indefinitely, we won’t give it that chance with this harvest!

Further reading

Burlew, Rusty. “Drought and the Water Content of Nectar.” Honey Bee Suite, 2012.

Geiling, Natasha. “The Science behind Honey’s Eternal Shelf Life.” Smithsonian Magazine, August 22, 2013.

How Did Honey Evolve in Our Diet?”, 2021.

Riddle, Sharla. “The Chemistry of Honey.” Bee Culture, July 25, 2016.

Sollid, Kris. “What Is Honey?” Food Insight, December 23, 2020.

Tangley, Laura. “The Truth about Honey Bees.” National Wildlife, June–July 2021.

Turner, Terry. “Roundup Alternatives.”, 2023.

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