The short and sweet answer to what makes honey taste the way it does is that honey contains sugar that comes from nectar. No, not that stuff they call the nectar of the gods—it’s the nectar of the plants.
Bees gather nectar from plants for their food supply and then transform that nectar into sweet liquid gold—that glorious honey we love so much.
Honey is Sweet Because Nectar is Sweet
Plant flowers, leaves, and stems contain glands called nectaries, which turn plants’ sugars (plants make sugar through the process of photosynthesis) into nectar, a sweet substance that pollinators find irresistible.
Nectar is a syrupy solution made mostly of water and sugar (fructose and glucose to be exact). The sugar content of nectar varies between 10-30%. Incidentally, nectar also contains traces of proteins, salts, acids, and essential oils that alter the nutritional value and flavor profile of the honey the bees eventually make with it.
Some plants produce nectar with a higher amount of sugar than others, though some studies suggest that nectar sugar composition isn’t only determined by what kind of plant the nectar came from. Environmental factors—including the type of soil the plant is grown in and the health of the ecosystem it was grown in—seem to play a role in determining how much sugar will be contained in the nectar as well as the balance of fructose and glucose. This subsequently influences flavors of any honey that nectar will produce.
The Reason Why Honey Turns to Sugar
The sugary nature of honey is the reason why honey crystallizes. Glucose crystallizes faster than fructose so honey made with nectar that is higher in glucose will granulate faster in the jar. Acacia flower nectar has such a high fructose to glucose ratio that honey produced from acacia nectar seems to never crystallize. Acacia honey is so delicious though that we may just eat it up long before it ever gets the chance to crystallize.
To learn about the science of how bees turn nectar into honey, read The Chemistry of Honey by Sharla Riddle for Bee Culture magazine.