Honey is a pantry staple. This sticky substance can be used to sweeten everything from your tea to your baking.
Unlike artificial sweeteners, which are man-made, honey is created naturally by bees in the wild.
Because of honey’s natural origin, most people assume it is biodegradable. However, the science behind honey is complicated.
In this article, we will look more closely at honey and its biodegradability. The following topics will be addressed:
- Chemical composition
- Shelf life
How Is Honey Made?
Honey is naturally made by bees. To be used by humans, it is cultivated and collected by beekeepers. However, the real work is all done by honeybees.
To make honey, bees start by gathering nectar to take it back to their hive. Nectar is a sugary substance found in flowers.
To keep the nectar from going bad, bees mix it with a natural enzyme. This dramatically changes the nectar’s chemical makeup for superior preservation.
Back at the hive, the nectar is passed off to workers bees. These bees eventually deposit the nectar in the hive’s honeycomb.
From here, the bees studiously attend to the nectar, airing it to reduce its water content and sealing it off with wax.
With this airtight, moisture-free seal, bees can store the honey indefinitely in the hive.
Bees use honey as a food source. This is especially important in the winter when other food sources are scarce. It is estimated that a hive needs to produce up to 90 pounds of honey each winter.
How Nectar Becomes Honey
So far, we have talked about honey in the hive. The discussion gets more interesting when you look at honey that has been extracted. This requires a more detailed analysis of honey’s chemical composition.
Because honey is made from nectar, its base component is sucrose. Sucrose is the same sugar we use regularly in baking. The specific amount of sucrose will vary depending on the flower where the nectar was made.
In fact, the source of the nectar is a huge factor in the texture, color and taste of honey. Different concentrations of sucrose in the nectar yield different chemical compositions for each batch of honey.
Nectar does not naturally transform into honey. This is where bees come into play. When transporting and storing nectar, bees cannot use little buckets.
Instead, bees store the nectar in their stomachs. Here, the honey is processed with natural digestive enzymes.
As a result, the nectar starts to decompose. The sucrose becomes simpler sugars.
At the hive, the nectar is regurgitated and given to more bees. The nectar will be passed to multiple bees. Accordingly, the nectar is broken down until nearly all the sucrose is gone.
The nectar is stored in the hive’s honeycomb. The nectar has changed drastically since it was collected, but it is a far cry from the honey you eat. The real magic happens in the honeycomb.
Nectar may contain sucrose, but it is 70 percent water. Bees consistently reduce this water content by using their wings to facilitate evaporation. Within three days, the nectar will be 17 percent water.
This is when nectar starts to look, feel and taste like honey.
In addition to its low water levels, honey has low water activity. Because there are such low amounts of water in honey, there is little to support microbial growth. Mold and bacteria cannot grow in conditions with low water activity.
Honey is also acidic. Substances are rated on the pH scale. On this scale, 7 is neutral. Higher numbers are more basic.
Honey scores a four.
Where does this acid come from?
When the bees process the nectar, the enzymes in their stomachs contain natural acids. These acids remain in the honey.
Why Honey Won’t Go Bad
Once you understand what makes honey different, you can begin to explore why that matters. With its distinctive chemical composition, honey will never go bad.
We all know what it means when food spoils. Food from the grocery store comes with expiration dates. We have seen moldy cheese or tasted stale bread.
This does not happen to honey.
Go back to the chemical balance of honey. When we say a food spoils, what we really mean is that it gets overtaken by bacteria or other microorganisms. These invading lifeforms take over the food and make it inedible for humans.
However, bacteria and microorganisms need certain conditions to thrive. Namely, they need water.
Because honey has such a low water content, bacteria and microorganisms cannot survive. With nothing to consume in the honey, these lifeforms do not take hold. Therefore, the natural spoiling that happens in other foods will not happen in honey.
Then, look again at the acidity of honey. We all know what acid can do. The acid in honey will destroy most invading bacteria.
There is one last impressive trait of honey. When nectar is transformed into honey, the sucrose is broken down into gluconic acid. The byproduct of this creates hydrogen peroxide.
Hydrogen peroxide is a natural disinfectant.
Between the water, acid and hydrogen peroxide, honey is poised to protect itself.
When sealed and stored properly, there is simply no way for honey to be corrupted. Its shelf life is much longer than any other substance in your pantry.
Conditions for Decomposition
When looking at honey’s potential shelf life, there are certain assumptions. It must be assumed that the honey is stored in a secure container and kept in a cool, dry place.
If these criteria are not met, then honey can be contaminated over time.
First, you should understand that honey’s microbial properties are not omnipotent. Small amounts of toxins do survive in honey. The percentage is so small that it does not harm humans.
Furthermore, the antimicrobial elements of honey can be destroyed with heat. Large temperature fluctuations can rob honey of its health properties.
Even when honey is not degraded, the number of microbes present can be dangerous for small babies. This is why cases of botulism are linked to honey consumption in infants.
Another example of contamination comes from mad honey. Mad honey is contaminated at its source. When bees collect nectar from certain plants, that nectar can contain properties of those plants.
Accordingly, nectar from some azaleas and rhododendrons will contain grayanotoxins. Honey sourced from these plants can cause dizziness, nausea or arrhythmias.
Moreover, honey can also be altered through human intervention. When made naturally, honey can take a long time to create. To compensate, some beekeepers try to speed things up in order to increase honey yields.
To do so, the bee’s diet is supplemented with other sugars. In some cases, sugars are directly added to the honey. This can cause honey to be harvested too soon, leaving it with a far higher water content.
With more water, honey is at risk of fermentation and contamination.
Finally, the way honey is stored will impact its shelf life. If honey is left open, it will attract moisture. As the water level rises, the honey will lose its inherent disinfecting properties.
It should be noted that honey has a tendency to crystallize. While most people find this concerning, crystallization is not the same thing as decomposition or contamination.
Crystallization occurs because of honey’s high sugar content. When there is too much sugar in a substance, it cannot naturally dissolve. Crystallization occurs instead. In many cases, crystallized honey is still perfectly edible.
Is Honey Biodegradable?
Only by understanding the unique properties of honey is it possible to address the question of biodegradability.
For something to be biodegradable, it must naturally break down in the environment. This process can take days, weeks, months or years.
It can even take decades or centuries.
By this definition, honey is technically biodegradable. Honey is naturally made, and it can decompose under the right conditions.
Still, the process of decomposition can take years.
In fact, honey can remain edible for millennia.
During archaeological digs, honey has been found in countless contexts. It was often stored in tombs of noblemen in ancient societies in Georgia and Egypt.
When honey can last this long, the notion of biodegradability is somewhat moot. Just because honey can eventually break down in the environment does not mean that it belongs in landfills.
Indeed, the real advantage of honey is that it never has to be thrown out if cared for properly.
How to Minimize Honey Waste
Clearly, honey has no place in a landfill. If you want to keep honey from being an environmental burden, then you need to find ways to preserve it.
How to Maximize Honey’s Shelf Life
The best way to keep honey environmentally friendly is to store it properly. As explained earlier, when stored under the right conditions, there is no expiration date for your honey.
To maximize your honey’s lifespan, keep it tightly sealed. It should be stored in a cool, dry place to minimize any moisture contamination. When accessing your honey, always use a dry spoon.
Also, consider your honey container. Honey is best stored in plastic or glass. Metal is not recommended because of the risk of oxidation.
If honey is allowed to collect moisture, it eventually starts to ferment. This happens when the moisture level rises by 25 percent.
Therefore, make sure the container seals tightly. Always reseal your honey when you are done. This can keep your honey from ever going bad.
How to Revitalize Crystallized Honey
Some people throw out their honey when crystallization occurs. As previously discussed, crystallization is not dangerous. However, it can make honey less appealing.
Fortunately, crystallization is reversible.
All you need to do is warm up your honey. For the best results, the heating must be done slowly. Microwaves are not recommended.
Instead, take the sealed honey container. Put the container in a bowl of warm water. Keep the water warm, and the honey will slowly warm as well.
Eventually, your honey will become a liquid once more.
It is likely that once your honey cools, it will begin to harden again. You will have to repeat this process after every usage. Heating honey multiple times can affect its texture, color and taste.
Therefore, try to only warm up the amount you need. Use heated honey quickly to retain the liquid texture you crave.
Choose Eco-Friendly Honey Packaging
Honey is made in hives, but it is packaged for consumers. That packaging is often a bigger environmental risk than the honey itself.
Just think about the iconic honey bear containers. These squeezable plastics are consumer-friendly and affordable to produce.
Is Honey Compostable?
In theory, honey could be thrown in your compost bin because it is a natural substance. Other parts of the beehive are able to be composted as well.
However, because honey decomposes slowly, it may not be the best composting option.
Instead, your best bet is to simply not waste your honey. Keep it safe, and it can stay in your cupboard indefinitely.
Some honey suppliers have started to look more at questions of compostability. However, this is mostly in terms of packaging.
One Australian company has even created a compostable, bioplastic honey pouch.
Honey is purchased in the pouch and then transferred to another container. The pouch can be tossed in your compost bin, where it will decompose within 300 days.
Although honey is a natural substance that can be ethically and environmentally friendly sourced, its chemical makeup means it is not as easily broken down in the environment.
This weakness is also its strength.
Honey’s biodegradability is debatable, but its prolonged shelf life and revitalization mean that it rarely needs to be thrown out at all.
In this way, honey can be a sustainable choice for sweetness in your pantry.