How to test and process your honey for sale
Honey is a high-value product, so if your bees are producing a lot, it makes sense to think about selling the excess. But it’s not quite as simple as jarring it up and taking it down to your local market. Because honey is a natural, ‘wholesome’ product, people tend to forget that it does have risks, and that food safety requirements apply.
Making sure your honey is suitable for sale involves testing the moisture and sugar content, measuring manuka content (if any) and, most importantly, testing for potentially deadly tutin contamination. Although some tests can be done at home, others – like the tutin and manuka tests – must be done by professionals before your honey is approved for sale.
Here’s our quick guide to honey testing:
It’s important to measure the balance of sugar and moisture in your honey. Too much water – anything above 18% – puts your honey at risk of fermentation, which means it won’t last as long as honey with lower moisture levels. On the sugar side, honey with a sugar level between 70-88% is usually about right in terms of consistency and flavour.
You can use a tool called a Refractormeter to test the sugar/moisture content of your honey before you harvest, or when you’re ready to sell. Choose a digital pocket refractormeter, a dual scale version, or avoid the issue altogether and have your brix tested at a professional lab.
Grade for colour and taste
Colour grading isn’t a legal requirement, but it gives you an idea of the flavour and intensity level of your honey, and helps you narrow down the floral source of your honey. Many buyers have preferences in terms of colour and flavour, so it’s worth finding out where your honey sits on the scale. Generally, darker honey has a more intense flavour, while paler honey is milder – think clover or pohutukawa honey.
Use a simple Jacks Scale colour grader to grade – fill one of the small containers with honey and match it to one of the colour grade samples.
Testing for tutin contamination is probably the most important part of selling safe honey. Tutin contamination is caused by a plant and a tiny insect – the native tutu and the passion vine hopper. When the insect feeds on the plant, it excretes a substance called honeydew, which is then eaten by bees. If your bees ingest it, the honey they produce can be toxic to humans – causing dizziness, convulsions, and death in some cases.
The maximum tutin level allowed in honey is 0.7mg per kg. If the level is higher, you can dilute it with unaffected honey, or dispose of the toxic crop. The tutu flowers in late summer, so harvesting your honey before the new year can help mitigate the risks. If you harvest after December 31st, the MPI requires that your honey be tested in a professional lab, and results provided to the Ministry before you can sell your product.
In fact, tutin is so dangerous that even if you’re not planning to sell your honey, it’s worth having it tested if you harvest later in the season. You don’t want to be responsible for a friend or family member being harmed by your honey.
Manuka honey is big business, in New Zealand and internationally. Because many producers were exaggerating or falsifying the manuka content of their honey, the Ministry for Primary Industries introduced strict standards and an official testing program for manuka honey. Only honey that has been officially tested and certified can be labelled as manuka.
The standards include five key attributes, which must be tested in an approved lab. Testing looks for four chemical markers associated with manuka nectar, and one DNA marker from manuka pollen. Depending on the levels of each attribute, testing identifies honey as either monofloral or multifloral manuka. Monofloral means that the majority of the nectar came from manuka plants, while multifloral blends include other plant species.
Test for risks before you sell
Whether you’re starting a serious honey business or simply want to make some extra cash selling excess honey, it’s important to know the requirements around testing before you sell. The risks of not testing are simply too high.