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Jars of honey of various colors

How Does Honey Get Its Color?

In the grocery store, we find row upon row of bottles of golden colored honey. However, honey actually comes in a myriad of colors, ranging from the transparent or “white” variety to the dark “deep amber”. There are also incidents of unusually colored honey, like red or blue-green. So the question that comes naturally is how does honey gets its color and why there is such a variety?

The Business of Honey Bees

Honey bee pollinating flower with full pollen basket

Honey bees forage for both nectar and pollen. The nectar is the bees source of energy while the pollen is consumed because it is a source of protein and other nutrients.

Honey bees gather pollen and in pollen baskets on their hind legs that are actually small concave areas surrounded by hair-like bristles called setae. As the bee forages, pollen grains collect on its head. The bee then uses its front legs to transfer the pollen to the pollen baskets. Bees mix dry pollen with nectar to compact the pollen in the pollen basket.

Bees collect pollen as a protein source to raise their brood.

Honeydew honey, made from honeydew, is known to be one of the most unique, most intriguingly exotic honeys in the world. Read more: Honeydew Honey

Flower Pollen Results in Honey Colors

Honey gets its color from the pollen that a hive gathers to make it. Because plants blossom at different times of year and bees collect honey nearly year-round, a single hive can produce radically different colors of honey from season to season.

You may have noticed that the color of the pollen basket varies. depending on the specie of plant from which the bees are collecting the pollen, the pollen basket can appear white or even dark blue. If you’re curious about the plant species from which your bees are collecting nectar and pollen, its possible to identify them by checking the color of the pollen basket and knowing what species might be in bloom at the time.

Another impact on honey's color also has minerals, such as sulfur, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sodium, copper, iron and manganese, found in the flower source.

Honey Colors

The U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies honey into 7 color categories:

  1. Water White
  2. Extra White
  3. White
  4. Extra Light Amber
  5. Light Amber
  6. Amber
  7. Dark Amber

Please note that white color here doesn’t mean that honey is actually white, it means that honey is colorless.

U S Dept of Agriculture Honey Colors

How Honey Color is Measured

The color of honey is typically measured using a continuous scale known as the Pfund scale of measurement. This scale consists of a glass wedge that varies in its color from lightest to darkest amber. The honey to be evaluated is poured into another wedge shaped container and then the color is compared with the amber scale. The place where the color of the honey matches closest to the scale is then marked as the result. The final measurement is thus given in a number ranging from 0 to 140 mm (according to the scale length where the match occurs)

The Association of Analytical Chemists implements another lesser used method called the Lovibond Visual Comparator. In this process, a light beam is shone through the honey and the color is compared to a scale for the final result.

Does Honey Color Affect Quality?

Yes.

The color of the honey most definitely has an impact on the quality, especially in terms of the taste. Usually, the lighter colored honeys have a milder taste while the darker honeys have a strong, full-bodied and rich flavor. However, there are exceptions to this rule like the light colored honey from basswoods or linden which have a strong flavor and the dark colored yet mild tasting tulip honey.

The color of the honey is also indicative of the antioxidant content of the product. Usually the darker the color, the higher the antioxidant content of the honey. Dark colored buckwheat honey has approximately 20 times more useful antioxidants than the light sage honey. Thus if you are looking to consume honey for health reasons, then this is an important point to consider while selecting the desired product.

Honey Color and Flavor

Here is a look at a few of the most common honey floral varieties.

Blueberry

Taken from the tiny white flowers of the blueberry bush, the nectar makes a honey which is typically light amber in color and with a full, well-rounded flavor.

Buckwheat

Buckwheat honey is dark and full-bodied.

Clover

Clover honey has a pleasing, mild taste. Clovers contribute more to honey production in the United States than any other group of plants.

Goldenrod

Goldenrod-based honey is a rich amber color and has a slightly spicy flavor.

Wildflower

Wildflower honey is often used to describe honey from miscellaneous and undefined flower sources.

Bumble bee with nectar grains

Why Do Plants Produce Nectar?

Plants had to solve a problem: they needed to find ways to spread their genetic material. Flying pollinators were nature's solution. Nectar is made as a reward for pollinators.

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Bee Quiz

Take this quick quiz and see how much you know about bees—our favorite essential pollinators working around the world. This quiz is intended for fun, in a random-facts-can-be-cool kind of way.

Bumble Bee Flight

How Do Bees Fly?

Have you ever wondered how bees fly and why is there all that buzzing? Buzzing is the sound of a bee’s beating wings. Scientists first realized that bees seem to flout the laws of mathematics in the 1930s.

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