Most people purchase honey from a market or grocery store, in a jar; the branded honey you find in stores is a healthy substitute sweetener or spread for toast and pancakes. But this honey has been purified, first by the beekeeper, who filters out larger pieces of wax and pollen, and then by the manufacturer, who purchases honey wholesale from beekeepers and subjects the honey to further filtration, considerably thinning the honey in the process.
Many beekeepers sell honey directly to customers, bottling it under their own brand or simply in plain jars. This is considered raw honey, as the degree of filtration is minimal and the honey remains thick and rich. By purchasing directly from a beekeeper, you are also supporting local agriculture in your area and alleviating the environmental impact of transporting food over long distances.
However, the rawest form of honey you can purchase is honeycomb honey. Honey bees make their own honeycombs out of beeswax, forming hexagonal cells, filling them with honey that they make from nectar they collect from flowers and then sealing the filled cells with more beeswax. Domesticated bees manufacture these honeycombs on wooden frames in their hives; the frames are designed such that they can be removed. When all the cells are filled and capped, the beekeeper will remove the frame, cut off the beeswax caps, and extract the honey by centrifugal force, spinning the frame and honeycomb in an “extractor,” which is a sort of spinning device. The beekeeper then replaces the frame in the beehive, with the beeswax honeycomb intact. The bees will diligent clean the cells and immediately begin adding new honey; they are saved from the work of having to construct a new comb.
Some beekeepers, however, will carefully remove the honeycomb from the wooden frame, keeping it intact, cut the honeycomb into pieces, and sell it whole, usually charging by weight. This is the rawest form of honey you can purchase. There are many ways to eat comb honey; you can simply cut off a small piece and put it in your mouth, chewing it and rejecting the wax parts. Or, cut off a piece and spread it on hot toast; the wax will melt somewhat, and you can eat it along with the honey and toast. The wax will not hurt you; in fact, because bee pollen is usually embedded in the wax, by eating the wax you’ll get the health benefits of consuming bee pollen.
Many beekeepers will also sell “chunk honey”: wide-mouthed jars of raw honey with a piece of comb honey inside. With chunk honey, you can spoon out pure honey to sweeten your tea and also break off small pieces of the comb to spread on your toast. Chunk honey is usually sold in fairly large jars, to accommodate the piece of comb.
Because of its raw state, as well as the natural health properties of both honey and the bee pollen that is embedded in varying quantities in the wax comb, many people extol the health benefits of comb honey. A traditional New England remedy advises that one chew honeycomb during allergy season to alleviate sneezing, runny nose, and watery eyes; start chewing a week or two before allergy season begins. Comb honey has also been recommended to treat scarring and skin infections (rubbing the honey on affected areas), and as an all-purpose face moisturizer, mask, and body scrub. Honeycomb honey contains bee pollen, fructose, glucose, proteins, enzymes, and other nutrients; honey’s antibiotic properties have often been cited.
If you regularly eat honey but have never sampled honeycomb, it’s well worth trying.