The Shocking Crystals Hiding in Honey
Bees work exhausting to make honey a secure liquid, however generally it crystallizes right into a strong in our kitchen cupboards. Right here’s why.
ILLUSTRATION: TOMASZ WALENTA
Physicist Helen Czerski explores the advanced science behind acquainted phenomena.
Honey is likely one of the nice delights of the pure world: an ingenious meals storage system for bees and an occasional deal with for bears, people and some other animals with a candy tooth and a resistance to bee stings. Honey is often a liquid at room temperature, and any baby or promoting marketing campaign will emphasize that function—honey is runny. However when a recipe required me to retrieve a jar from the again of my cabinet this week, I discovered that the honey had crystallized and was largely strong. It wasn’t outdated or spoiled, simply strong. Did that matter?
The honey we eat begins off as nectar made by flowering vegetation as a sugary deal with to draw bees for pollination. The precise composition is dependent upon which vegetation the nectar got here from, however the kind of sugar in it’s virtually all sucrose, a compound made by pairing one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule.
The bees must retailer a few of their sugary bounty within the hive, in order that they course of it to make it extra appropriate for storage. They take away water from it by an elaborate mechanism and break up the sucrose into its element components, ending up with a combination of round 38% fructose, 32% glucose and 17% water, relying on the supply of the nectar, with different molecules making up the remainder. At that ratio, there’s too little water it in for microbes to develop however sufficient that it’s viscous and simply sealed into honeycomb compartments.
Every crystal simply wants a place to begin, comparable to a grain of pollen or a speck of beeswax.
So the place do the crystals come from? In a typical honey, a lot glucose is dissolved within the answer that it turns into supersaturated, spurring glucose molecules to separate from the liquid and type crystals given the slightest likelihood. (The fructose is less complicated to maintain in dissolved type.) Every crystal simply wants a place to begin, comparable to a grain of pollen or a speck of beeswax. Although business honey is filtered to take away these tiny intruders, if left for lengthy sufficient among the glucose molecules will discover one thing, even air bubbles, to behave as a basis.
Kinds of honey with increased ratios of glucose usually tend to type crystals. The temperature additionally issues: Under 39 levels Fahrenheit, the glucose molecules have comparatively little power and might’t transfer round simply; at 77 levels and above, it turns into simpler for the molecules to stay in answer. However crystals can type between these temperatures, most simply round within the center at roughly 60 levels (so don’t retailer your honey within the storage). At first the crystals are inclined to sink, leaving you with honey that’s strong on the backside of the jar and liquid on the prime.
After many months, crystallization might proceed and unfold by means of the jar, or sufficient glucose might have solidified into crystals to type a stability in the remainder of the honey. In the meantime, the remainder of the honey now has a better proportion of water: Every dissolved glucose molecule is surrounded by a cluster of 5 water molecules, however when it turns into a part of a crystal it provides up 4 of its molecular groupies, leaving extra water free. If that course of carries on and if the honey can be left uncapped and uncovered to air so it may possibly take up much more water, the liquid honey might turn into dilute sufficient for specialised yeasts within the honey to begin to develop and trigger spoilage. That’s precisely what the bees labored to keep away from.
Luckily, there’s a simple strategy to eliminate the crystals and restore stability: Immerse the jar in scorching water (round 120 levels) for a couple of minutes, and the strong glucose crystals will redissolve, taking the honey again to its authentic state.
So I spooned some crystallized honey into my cooking with out worrying—it’s secure and tastes the identical—and warmed up the remainder to re-liquify it. I don’t thoughts the crystals. They’re a reminder of the molecular secrets and techniques that honey is hiding inside itself.