Raw Honey Spotlight: Different Forms of Honey and Honey Varietals

Thanks to an instinctual phenomenon known as floral fidelity, honey bees produce more than 300 unique types of honey in the United States alone. You may see honey in stores infused with flavors such as sriracha or vanilla bean, but we’re talking 300 types of raw, straight-from-the-hive honey varietals which naturally carry a distinct color and flavor based on the type of flower the bees visited.

Different kinds of honey
Honey varietal tasting hosted by Feed a Bee grantee event at George Mason University

Floral fidelity means that bees exclusively visit one type of flower for a few days at a time to pollinate and feed on nectar before moving on to another type. It’s like if your family decided to eat only pasta for every meal for half the week, and then switched to eating only tacos for the other half.

When bees visit the blossoms of a flowering crop that requires pollination, such as avocados, raspberries or lemons, the resulting honey varietal possesses a color, flavor and aroma specific to that plant type. Bees that visit avocado blossoms, for instance, produce a dark, amber colored honey that has a fairly strong, buttery flavor, whereas lemon blossoms create honey that is bright, amber yellow in color and tastes citrusy and tart. According to the National Honey Board, “varietal honeys may be best compared to wine in terms of climatic changes. Even the same flower blooming in the same location may produce slightly different nectar from year to year, depending on temperature and rainfall.” The USDA classifies honey into seven color categories, ranging from “water white” to “dark amber.”

Opening a jar of honey
Honey varietals featured at George Mason University ranged in color, aroma and taste based on flower type and world region.

Below are ten honey varietals sold at retail, based on a short list published by The Nibble, though please note availability may vary from region to region.

  1. Clover – Tangy and delicate, most bottles of honey labeled “clover” are actually blended with honey made from nectar of other plants. This honey crystallizes easily and can be clear to amber in color.
  2. Raspberry – Light in color, this honey crystallizes as soon as it leaves the comb, so it is typically sold in crème form, which is creamy and spreadable.
  3. Wildflower – Depending on the flowers it was sourced from, wildflower honey can be medium to strong and tangy in flavor, and is typically medium amber in color.
  4. Pumpkin – Pumpkin honey picks up light flavor hints of pumpkin and is medium amber in color.
  5. Orange blossom – With hints of citrus-orange, this honey can range in color from light to dark amber.
  6. Eucalyptus—Known to occasionally have a slight menthol flavor, this dark-colored honey has a mildly sweet, fruity aftertaste.
  7. Blueberry – It won’t surprise you that this medium amber honey has a fruity, blueberry aftertaste.
  8. Apple blossom – A light to medium amber honey which carries a hint of apple in its aroma.
  9. Chestnut – Strong, nutty and spicy with a bitter aftertaste, this dark brown honey pairs perfectly with cheeses like gorgonzola and parmesan.
  10. Rosemary – Another honey that pairs well with cheese, rosemary honey is fragrant, herbaceous and pale amber in color.

Enjoyed in liquid, comb or crystallized form, honey has recently become a buzzworthy ingredient, popping up on trendy hotel and restaurant menus around the country, some of which even have their own rooftop hives on site! Following the increasingly popular farm-to-table and shop-local trends, chefs and foodies alike are buzzing over the perks local honey offers – a feel-good opportunity to support local beekeepers and to indulge in distinct regional flavors.

In order to fully enjoy honey varietals, we should also understand why and how honey is produced. Honey is food for bees, and bees act as chemists to convert nectar into the sticky liquid by following a set protocol. First, forager bees carry nectar from flowers back to the hive in their extra stomach, often called the “honey stomach” or “crop,” where it mixes with enzymes such as invertase. Forager bees then regurgitate the nectar and transfer it to house bees, which regurgitate it once again to store it in the hive’s honey cells. All of this activity results in the chemical breakdown of sucrose to glucose, which makes honey sweet. This video from our partner Vitamin Bee illustrates the process fantastically – check it out!

Each varietal of honey contains unique proportions of both fructose and glucose molecules, which influences how likely the honey is to crystallize. The higher percentage of fructose, the less likely the honey will crystallize. Because ripe honey is the best food source for bees, beekeepers follow a fine line when harvesting honey for human consumption to leave enough behind to feed the hive. Depending on several factors such as climate, world region and time of year, the University of Kentucky Entomology department advises never allowing hives to drop below 12 to 18 pounds of honey.

Beekeepers Examining a Hive
Beekeepers examine honeycomb at George Mason University.

Discover which varietal is your favorite next time you visit your local farmers’ market, specialty honey shop or anywhere honey is sold!