When you open your beehives to check on your bees’ resources or if honey is ready to be harvested, you may find both capped and uncapped honey on the frames.
What does uncapped honey mean, and is there anything you can do about this situation as a beekeeper?
What is Uncapped Honey
Uncapped honey is unripe honey with a moisture content too high to be capped. The bees will cap the honey when moisture drops below 18%. This reduces the potential for honey to ferment in the honeycomb. Uncapped honey is edible and can be harvested but may ferment.
Opening a beehive is fascinating, and the beekeeper is presented with a fantastic insight into the colony’s life. Monitoring the honey stores in the hive is essential to hive inspections.
Understanding what you are looking at when you inspect the honeycomb will help you to discern what is going on in the colony and what actions are available to you as a beekeeper.
Capped and uncapped honey on the same frame are not uncommon, but when looking at a frame for harvesting, the more capped honey cells, the better!
But what are the actual differences between the two, and what can you do with uncapped honey?
Capped Vs. Uncapped Honey
When bees transform nectar into honey, they place it into honey cells in the comb. When the honey is in this state, it is left uncapped and is referred to as unripe honey.
There are some key differences between the characteristics of ripe and unripe honey:
- Uncapped or unripe honey is less viscous and flows easily compared to mature honey.
- Uncapped honey has a high moisture content of above 20%. Ripe honey has a moisture content of between 15% and 18%.
- Uncapped honey can ferment. Capped honey won’t ferment.
- Uncapped honey can develop mold. Whereas capped honey won’t.
Unripe honey has a high water content and still needs some processing time to ripen. The bees will cap the honey cell when its moisture content has reduced sufficiently.
The bees actively work to reduce humidity levels by fanning the uncapped cells with their wings to evaporate the moisture in the unripe honey.
What Does Uncapped Honey Mean?
The presence of uncapped honey in the frame is entirely normal. It means the moisture content in the nectar cells is still too high to be capped.
If the bees capped the honey at this point, the moisture would react with the natural yeasts and sugar in the liquid and cause it to ferment.
If you see bubbles coming out of cells in the honeycomb, or it smells like beer or vinegar, you have fermented honey!
The fermenting honey produces gasses that will burst the cap off the honey cell, and the contents will spill out, flow out of the hive, and be lost to the bees.
Bees cannot make use of large quantities of fermented honey. The alcohol will give the bees diarrhea (bee dysentery), and the bees will die.
(This is why it’s critical not to feed old fermented honey back to bees)
Why Does Honey Need To Be Capped?
When the honey has ripened and reached the correct water content level, the bees will cap the honey cell for storage.
The purpose of the cap is to prevent the honey from drying out any further and prevent dust and other debris from contaminating the honey.
How Much Uncapped Honey On A Frame Is Ok?
The general rule of thumb beekeepers use to gauge the suitability of a honey frame for harvest is not more than 10% of uncapped honey cells on the frame.
Suppose the number of uncapped cells is greater than this. In that case, if you choose to harvest, the moisture in the uncapped honey will increase the overall water in the entire batch and cause it to ferment.
How Long Does It Take For Uncapped Honey To Ferment?
The time it takes for the uncapped nectar to ferment depends on its moisture level.
The higher the water content, the faster it will ferment.
Remember that environmental conditions will also affect the fermentation rate. If you live in a damp or humid climate, the risk is higher.
Another factor that affects honey fermentation is the presence of natural yeasts. The bigger the yeast content, the more likely it will ferment (if there’s sufficient moisture).
If the yeast count and the moisture content of the honey are both high, fermentation can begin in 24 to 48 hours. Lower levels of these factors will slow the process, and the honey can take a week or more to begin fermentation.
What Is The UnCapped Honey Shake Test?
Uncapped honey cells are in different stages of ripeness, even if the bees have not capped them yet. Consequently, some uncapped cells may be suitable for harvesting without the risk of spoiling your honey batch.
A tactic that beekeepers use to test the readiness of uncapped honey is the shake test.
Ripe honey that the bees are about to cap is very viscous and will not run out of the comb easily.
Beekeepers test this by turning the frame horizontally and giving it a quick sharp shake. Then turn the frame over again and check if the uncapped honey is running out of the cells.
If the honey is running out of the uncapped comb, it is not ripe enough and should be left in the hive for a few more days for the bees to reduce the moisture content.
Is It Ok To Harvest Uncapped Honey?
Uncapped honey can be harvested, but the high moisture content can be problematic. The beekeeper must take steps to prevent the fermentation process from spoiling the honey batch.
However, the good news is you can do several things with harvested uncapped honey that will stop the fermentation process and allow it to be used 🙂
What To Do With Uncapped Honey?
Uncapped honey can be treated or processed to prevent the fermentation process. The most common treatment is heating the honey to kill the natural yeast.
No yeast means no fermentation!
The problem with this strategy is the heat degrades other beneficial aspects of the honey and affects the flavor. The honey can also become infested with new yeast, which is naturally present everywhere, even in the air.
Another option is to refrigerate the uncapped honey. The cold temperatures prevent the yeast from turning the sugars into alcohol. Most beekeepers keep this honey for their own consumption rather than selling it to the public.
Probably the best option is to remove the dampest nectar by holding the frames upside down and giving them a quick shake! Similarly to the “shake test” described above, any uncured wet honey will fly out of the comb (turning the honeycomb upside down helps because the cells are turned upwards). As a result, any remaining honey in uncapped frames will be thicker and dense, so it is lower in water content. Again, this can be added to your honey harvest with little problem.
Is Uncapped Honey Edible?
Uncapped honey is edible, but it must be consumed before it begins to ferment. The uncapped honey can be refrigerated to slow fermentation and extend its life.
Fermented honey will taste sour and have a foamy consistency produced by the release of carbon dioxide during the fermentation process.
Can You Freeze Uncapped Honey Frames?
Frames with uncapped honey can be stored in the freezer to prevent fermentation. The cold temperatures will stop the yeast activity and effectively stop the chemical reaction with the sugars in the honey.
When you remove the frames from the freezer, the moisture content will still be high, and the honey will ferment when it reaches room temperature.
Storing uncapped honey frames in a freezer can be messy if the unripe honey begins to run out before the cold makes it too dense. So instead, wrap the frames in plastic wrap or put them in a plastic bag before placing them in the freezer.
Make Mead From Uncapped Honey
Another option is intentionally allowing the uncured honey to ferment and use it to make mead.
Mead is an ancient alcoholic drink made from honey. Monks in old England were famous for the alcoholic mead they made from uncapped honey.
Making mead is a topic that will require coverage in a separate article, but suffice it to say that many beekeepers venture into mead making to avoid waste (hic!).
How To Help Your Bees Cap Honey Cells
Humid conditions in the hive may slow the evaporation process and delay the bees from capping comb cells.
The best way to assist your bees and encourage them to cap the honey is to increase ventilation at the top of the hive.
Adding ventilation at the top allows hot, humid air to escape and draw cooler, drier air from below the hive.
This increased airflow will reduce the moisture content of the honey faster and allow the bees to cap the ripe honey.
Uncapped honey has yet to complete its ripening process in the hive and has a moisture content above 20%. It has the potential to ferment if the moisture content remains too high for too long.
Following some of the guidelines above should help reduce this sticky problem!