Hydroxymethylfurfural

Excuse me?

Hydroxymethylfurfural which, for very obvious reasons is usually abbreviated to HMF, is an organic compound that forms in sugar-containing foods, often as a result of heating.

Hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) Oxygen = red, Hydrogen = white, Carbon = black

HMF is relevant to bees because, at high levels, it is toxic for them. Since beekeepers often heat (or use ready-made feed that has been heated during production) sugar-containing syrups or fondants it’s worth being aware of it.

HMF is also relevant to beekeepers as high levels of it in honey are an indication of prolonged heating during storage and preparation or potential adulteration. For this reason there are legal limits on the levels of HMF in honey sold for human consumption.

I suspect beekeepers in the UK who know about HMF – and many may not – probably worry about it unduly. In tropical countries or regions where high fructose corn syrup is used as a bee food then HMF is likely to be of more immediate importance.

Natural occurrence of HMF

Hydroxymethylfurfural is essentially absent from fresh foods. However, in sugar-containing foods, particularly those that are acidic, HMF levels can build up. A chemical process called a Maillard reaction is responsible for HMF formation (there are other reactions that generate HMF as well, including caramelisation) and the reaction works about five times faster for every 10°C rise in temperature.

Therefore processes such as drying or cooking result in elevated HMF levels. The precise amount varies depending upon the foodstuff, the amount of heating and other factors; typical figures are bread 3 – 180 mg/kg, prunes 240 mg/kg, sugarcane syrup 100 – 300 mg/kg and roast coffee 900 mg/kg 1.

All of these foods can be consumed perfectly safely (at least in terms of their HMF content … prunes can have some adverse effects 😉  ).

It should therefore be obvious that the 40 mg/ml limit 2 of HMF in honey has nothing to do with its safety for human consumption.

Dietary HMF has been extensively studied as there were concerns it may be carcinogenic for humans. Several studies showed that non-physiological levels and/or prolonged exposure were cytotoxic or inhibited key enzymes in the cell such as DNA polymerase. However, no evidence for in vivo carcinogenic or genotoxic effects have been demonstrated 3.

HMF is currently considered safe and has been shown to have beneficial antioxidant activity, to protect against hypoxic (low oxygen) injury and to counteract the activities of some allergens.

HMF in honey

Readers familiar with the chemistry of honey will be aware that it is often rich in fructose (one of the sugars from which HMF is derived) and is acidic.

Add a little heat and you have near-perfect conditions for the production of HMF.

How much heat? 

It’s actually not just heat but a combination of heat and time.

The higher the temperature, the less time is required for the production of a certain amount of HMF. There are several studies of this, but one of the most frequently quoted is from White et al., in 1964 4 which has this slightly skewwhiff, but nevertheless useful, graph of the influence of storage temperature and time on HMF production in honey.

HMF production in honey – influence of storage temperature and time

That’s barely legible – check (and enlarge) the original if needed – but the approximate times/temperatures required to generate 30 mg/kg of HMF in honey 5 are as follows:

30°C ~250 days
50°C ~10 days
70°C ~10 hours

All of which is good news … heating a 15 kg bucket of rock-solid OSR honey overnight at 50°C to melt it before making soft-set honey is unlikely to significantly increase the HMF levels.

How to avoid the generation of HMF in honey

But, if you are worried about HMF levels, you could always produce creamed honey which just requires overnight warming at 33°C.

This is what I now do; not because of any concern over the HMF levels but because it’s:

  • faster
  • produces a honey with better batch-to-batch consistency of texture
  • generates a jarred honey much less susceptible to frosting

Long-term storage of honey results in the formation of HMF. The lower the temperature it is stored (and the shorter the time) the less HMF is produced. For an exhaustive list of HMF levels quantified in honey stored at different temperatures have a look at Table 1 in Shapla et al., (2018).

Store honey carefully in a cool place … or sell, eat or gift it quickly

It makes senses to store honey in a cool place with a relatively stable temperature.

Quantifying HMF

There are a variety of ways of detecting HMF. Unfortunately, all require laboratory equipment and none are really suitable for home use.

There are spectrophotometric methods – essentially detecting a colour change after adding an indicator that reacts to the presence of HMF – but these can lack both sensitivity and specificity. Some of the chemicals involved are carcinogenic.

More accurate and sensitive are methods use reversed-phase high-performance liquid chromatography. These have been in routine use for years.

Orbitrap ID-X Tribrid Mass Spectrometer

Probably the newest and most advanced methods involve the use of time-of-flight mass spectrometry (MS MALDI-TOF). These ionise the constituents of the sample and measure the time they take to reach a detector. Mass spectrometry is exquisitely sensitive and specific … and the equipment is eye-wateringly expensive. 

Since you’re unlikely to have one in your honey processing room 6 you’re better off doing your best to avoid conditions that lead to the build-up of HMF in the first place.

OK, enough about honey and humans, what about the bees?

HMF is toxic for both adult bees and developing larvae. The level of toxicity depends upon the concentration of the HMF, the duration of exposure and the developmental stage of the bee.

Krainer and colleagues 7 looked at toxicity of HMF to developing larvae and showed that concentrations up to 750 ppm (i.e. 750 mg/kg) did not reduce larval or pupal mortality.

Larval and pupal mortality when exposed to HMF at different concentrations.

They calculated that the LC50 (concentration that produced 50% mortality) at day 7 and day 22 was 4280 ppm and 2424 ppm respectively, with a calculated LD50 (dose per larva that resulted in 50% mortality) of 778 μg and 441 μg at day 7 and day 22 respectively.

Adult bees were less sensitive to HMF in the first week after emergence than during the first week of larval development.

Adult bee mortality when fed a diet containing HMF at the levels specified

What does all this mean?

It means that high levels of HMF are likely to have a significant impact on adult bees, but – at least until the levels are exceptionally high (grams, not milligrams, per kilogram) will probably not adversely impact brood levels.

Further validation of the adverse effects of HMF to adult bees

A similar study was recently conducted by Gregorc and colleagues 8 using lower concentrations of HMF.

Survival of adult bees fed with HMF-spike Apifonda

Again, there was a time/dose response, but note that only about 30% of the control bees survived 30 days and this was only double the number that had been fed the lowest level of HMF-spiked Apifonda. Note the clear evidence of a dose-response with increasing levels of HMF in the diet.

Dysentery

Several studies, dating back at least 50 years, report that high levels of HMF result in dysentery-like symptoms due to ulceration of the gastrointestinal tract of honey bees.

Gregorc and colleagues used immunohistochemistry to investigate the integrity of the gut tissues in the honey bees fed HMF. They stained cells red that were undergoing a process called ‘programmed cell death’ or apoptosis. This is a natural physiological response to damage. The more red staining, the worse the damage.

Midgut of formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded tissue of worker bees exposed to HMF

At higher doses of HMF and/or longer exposure there was increased apoptosis in the gut tissues, presumably accounting for the dysentery-like symptoms often seen (though these were not recorded in this particular study).

Real world beekeeping

All of these bee corpses and fancy-dan immunohistothingamajiggery really just confirm that high levels of HMF are a bad thing™

In terms of honey processing and storage the allowed levels are nothing to do with human (or bee) health, but everything to do with evidencing overheated, poorly stored or doctored honey.

And since no readers of this blog do these things then there’s no need to be concerned 😉

Assuming your honey starts with low HMF levels (on extraction) then any reasonable levels of heating to liquify honey for filtering, blending or jarring should not result in HMF levels anywhere near to those that would prevent the honey being saleable 9.

Refer to the graph above from the 55 year old paper from White and Co. (shown above) for further validation.

If you’re making thick (2:1 by weight sugar to water) syrup to feed bees perhaps use warm rather than boiling water. However, considering the time involved and the absence of the acidity of honey, even with the latter HMF levels should not get close to high enough levels to endanger the bees.

If you’re making thin (1:1 by weight) syrup then use cold water. Just stir it a bit longer to dissolve it all.

However, take care – or avoid altogether – the use of high fructose corn syrups (HFCS) for feeding bees. I don’t know anyone who does this in the UK and have no experience of it myself. To learn more have a look at this article in Bee Culture. HFCS is high in fructose (the clue is in the name) and acidic, so HMF readily forms.

Studies of commercial HFCS show levels of HMF can start at 30 – 100 mg/kg before any long-term storage. 

Oxalic acid

The only time most beekeepers probably need to have concern about HMF levels is in the preparation and storage of oxalic acid solutions for trickle treating colonies in midwinter.

Oxalic acid is, er, acidic. For trickle treating it’s mixed with thin syrup to make a 3.2% solution. The combination of syrup and acidity means that HMF can be produced if stored – for a long time – in unsuitable conditions (under which there is an obvious colour change).

Stored OA solution and colour change

Stored OA solution and colour change …

So, if you’re preparing OA solutions for trickle treating either:

  • use it immediately and safely dispose of the excess
  • store it at 4°C and use then it as soon as possible (before safely disposing the excess)

Fondant

But what about fondant?

The HMF levels in commercially available fondant have recently been discussed on the Beekeeping Forum. I’m grateful to ‘loyal listener reader’ (to use Radio 4’s More or Less definition) Archie McLellan for bringing this to my attention.

The thread started with the challenging title The truth behind fondants.

Like all discussion groups, the contributions are many and varied.

Some wander off-topic.

Others use it as an opportunity to get a little dig in at the opposition.

Or a great big dig 😉

Novices and the naive ask simple questions and hope for straightforward answers 10.

Usernames often give no indication of who the poster actually is.

Is the poster a manufacturer or distributor of BeeCentric fondant™ “The best fondant for bees and a whole lot better than that cr*p they sell for ice buns”

Does the poster use 5 tonnes of fondant a year and buys anything s/he can get as long as it’s cheap enough?

Or does the contributor have a £576,000 Orbitrap MALDI-TOF mass spectrometer in their basement and a damned good idea of exactly how much HMF is present in every commercial source of fondant?

On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog

Who knows?

I certainly don’t know all of the contributors to these threads.

But I know some of them 😉

Read the thread. It’s now 12 pages long and you’ll do well not to get lost or to disappear down a few cul-de-sacs

If you’ve ‘got a life’ and want to cut to the chase then have a look at this post in particular.

What do I do?

I use standard Baker’s fondant. It costs about £8-12 for 12.5 kg depending how much you need. I’ve used this type of fondant for a decade for 90% of my colony feeding (and 100% of my autumn feeding).

I’ve never seen any adverse effects from using this type of fondant for my bees.

I simply do not believe some of the negative marketing that is used to promote BeeCentric fondant™ costing £36 for 12.5 kg. It’s not that I can’t afford this 11 and it’s certainly not because I don’t care about my bees. I simply choose to trust experience over carefully-worded marketing ‘information’.

To convince me they’d need to publish the HMF levels in their products. They might be lower than bog-standard Baker’s fondant.

And I’d also want to know the HMF levels in standard Baker’s fondant 12.

If they were significantly higher 13, are they anywhere near high enough to damage my bees?


Note

A version of this article appeared in the November 2021 edition of An Beachaire – The Irish Beekeeper.

Footnotes

  1. And in some cases up to 2900 mg/kg.
  2. For completeness I should also add that honey from some tropical countries has higher HMF levels and the limit for these is 80 mg/kg.
  3. Thankfully … I can continue drinking copious cups of coffee while writing these posts.
  4. Effect of Storage and Processing Temperatures on Honey Quality – with thanks to Penn State library who have a scanned copy
  5. White et al., used 3.0 mg/100g as the ‘target’ in their studies and you can’t easily extrapolate to the 40 mg/kg limit that applies to UK honey, but it does provide a good safety margin.
  6. Though we have several at work …
  7. Krainer et al., (2016) Effect of hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) on mortality of artificially reared honey bee larvae (Apis mellifera carnica). Ecotoxicology 25: 320-328 … though, because this is published by Springer it is firmly stuck behind a paywall I’m afraid.
  8. Gregorc et al., (2020) Hydroxymethylfurfural Affects Caged Honey Bees (Apis mellifera carnica). Diversity 12: 18 .
  9. Honey that exceed 40 mg/kg HMF can still be sold … but only labelled as Baker’s honey.
  10. Good luck with that.
  11. Though it would hurt paying four times the price.
  12. I’m a scientist … I always need to see the controls.
  13. And, as you can see, I think this is a big ‘if’.

18 thoughts on “Hydroxymethylfurfural

  1. Alan Cooper

    As a soft set Ivy honey eater who leaves it to mature for a year I am really appreciate your objective, context- driven approach to HMF issues.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Alan

      Stored properly – I’ve always used stone-tile floored rooms that were cooler than the main living areas – honey should stay in tip-top condition for ages. I’m sure that would be the same for your ivy honey. Enjoy 🙂

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  2. Mary Lloyd

    I watch your posts with great interest and your honey productivity is very good and better than mine. My bees are on a brood and a half and I over winter them on these. I do not feed them as when I have tried they do not take it and besides there not much room for it the half brood being quite full of honey. Very often I find cystalized honey in the half brood in the Spring. Could I change to just one brood box? I worry they would not have enough supplies for the Winter. I have national hives (7) and live in North Wales.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Mary

      I would change to a single brood box, but that’s because I think brood and a half is an abomination 😉 I’ve never liked mixing brood frame sizes. However, this is a personal thing, I know many that use the setup very profitably and Wally Shaw – who’s not far from you – has written some useful notes on colony management and expansion using brood and a half.

      If the ‘half’ is all stores and there’s some in the brood box as well they probably could cope on just a single brood box. Your area suits the darker, more frugal, bees. It’s probably not. wildly different to what we have here in Scotland. I have colonies going into winter in single or double brood boxes. I expect those in double broods will have large amounts of stores left in the spring (and usually ‘rescue’ this to make up nucs during swarm control or queen rearing).

      Why not try with a couple of hive next winter? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

      Just keep an eye to ensure they do take stores down in the autumn, that the box is heavy going into the winter, and that it doesn’t get too light, too fast, once brood rearing starts again in the spring. I’m going to write about colony weight/hefting sometime later in the winter (I hope).

      Joia!
      David

      Reply
  3. Neil Mariner

    David,
    Thank you so much for a measured and succinct article! (And amusing as always 🙂 )
    Well done.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Neil
      Pleased you enjoyed it (though I thought I was a bit weak with the jokes this time, it’s been a really hard week).
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. David Jones

        Your multiple references to “trickle treating” had me anticipating a gag about 31 October that never came

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          I’m embarrassed to say that I think I used that joke a few years ago 🙂
          Most of my jokes are recycled, so perhaps it’s time for another outing for it.
          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  4. Ann Chilcott

    Hello, David.Thank you for a particularly interesting blog this week. I so agree about making soft set honey, and I like your approach to fondant. A blog to share, and no wonder it ranks number 7 on the world bee blog hit parade. Best wishes from Ann.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Ann

      I didn’t even know there was a ‘world bee blog hit parade’ 🙂 . Who’d have thought that the 437,693 17 readers a week would mean it ranks so high?

      I think there’s more interesting stuff on HMF that I didn’t have time to cover (or time to read). Gregorc and colleagues looked at the influence of HMF on Nosema levels and I also skimmed over the histopathology a bit … there are some later changes that appear to show reduced levels of apoptotic cells, suggesting that after the initial damage occurs the midgut is sloughed off (out?) and some regeneration takes place. I’ll need to read a bit more (and they’ll need to post a follow-up paper).

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. Roger Pool

    I make my own fondant using the method described in Dave Cushman’s website ie by boiling sugar and water ( 1kg to 300mls) until ‘soft set’ temperature is achieved
    I feed this to colonies whose stores seem low in early spring having cast it in aluminium trays
    I was reassuring myself that HMF is produced from fructose and that heating a disaccharide solution ie sucrose would be safe
    Having read your article I am no longer so confident
    On the positive side the end product is very cheap and thus attractive to a Yorkshire beekeeper ( and, seemingly to bees)
    Best wishes
    Roger

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Roger

      You might take a look at this paper on HMF production from glucose … most of the key information is in the abstract, but the paper appears to be behind a paywall I’m afraid. The temperatures they used were significantly higher than you’re likely to reach standing over the cooker with a pan of boiling syrup.

      I guess the proof of the pudding is in your last comment – “attractive … to the bees” 🙂

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Dani

        Hi David. A great article all round.
        I have had to make the odd batch of emergency fondant and the best way I find is to pulverise granulated sugar in the food processor and add water. No heating and a perfectly acceptable product

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hi Dani

          Formally I don’t think that’s fondant which I think requires heating to the soft-ball stage (~112°C) … however, I don’t disagree that the bees consider it perfectly acceptable. I used to feed my mini-nucs with just damp granulated sugar and have been known to simply pour granulated sugar onto a piece of Correx on the hive floor of a near-starving colony. In days of yore beekeepers sometimes used a paper bag of granulated sugar with a few holes punched in it, dipped in a pail of water and plonked on top of the hole in the crownboard.

          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  6. Archie McLellan

    I’ve arrived! Really pleased you took that BKF post on board for this post.

    Along with your earlier BBKA News Q&A on HMF, I’m feeling a lot more clued up about it now. After all the dire warnings about levels of HMF in honey, and its toxicity to bees, it’s not at all obvious that these levels are harmless to humans. I’m sure I’m not the first to have made that wrong assumption! This post is a very complete and rounded picture of HMF.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Archie

      As a ‘featured contributor’ you will of course also receive 20% of the royalties that arise from subscriptions and sponsorship. With these, your mortgage will be paid off in weeks, you’ll be able to upgrade that nice red Portofino of yours to at least an 812 GTS (though it’s tricky to transport a hive in these … or even a mini-nuc in my experience 🙁 ) and you might even be able to afford a new Abelo National hive 😉

      I think the HMF limits for honey sales have confused a lot of people … the coffee I had this morning probably contained more HMF than a jar of Baker’s honey (I still feel fine 🙂 ). The studies I describe above go some way to address the safe (or unsafe) limits for our bees, but I think there’s still more work to be done on long-term consequences of sub-lethal levels of HMF. The damaged (apoptotic) mid-gut epithelium is eventually sloughed off and may regenerate. If it does, does it do so well enough to restore ‘health’ for the bee? Does such a worker – who will inevitably have had an interruption to nutrient uptake – have increased susceptibility to disease?

      Of course, most of this is largely irrelevant for everyday beekeeping as we have no easy way of determining HMF levels. The best thing we can do is to avoid very protracted periods of significantly elevated temperatures when preparing syrup/fondant etc. … and to otherwise not be concerned, as I think it’s mainly something that remains a theoretical problem only.

      Keep an eye out for the bullion truck … it’ll be with you soon 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply

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