Unlocking the Mystery of Dark Honeycomb
We often associate honeycomb with a bright, golden color. After all, that’s the color of raw honey. But odds are that if you eat enough honeycomb, you’re bound to encounter comb that’s darker than usual. New beekeepers who spot dark comb for the first time might be worried, but they soon learn that dark honeycomb is a normal part of a healthy beehive.
Anyone who’s eaten dark comb knows there’s a whole lot more to these deeply colored cells than meets the eye.
What is Dark Honeycomb?
Also known as black honeycomb or brood comb, dark honeycomb is comb that has hosted brood (bee larvae).
Brood cells get extra-special treatment to help the bees in them develop, which contributes to the darker color. Developing larvae are fed pollen and royal jelly around 1,000 times per day, so these substances tend to be more abundant in these cells. When you eat dark honeycomb, you’re getting these sought-after compounds and all the wellness-boosting properties and complex flavors that come with them. It’s also believed that darker honeycomb cells gain some color from propolis.
Brood Cells & Hive Structure
To recap (no pun intended), dark honeycomb is comb that brood have passed through.
So, why doesn’t all honeycomb contain the occasional dark brood cell? The answer to that question lies in the genius of bee hive structure.
Bees are masters of mathematics and organization. Their perfectly hexagonal cells hold an incredible volume of honey. Cells are multi-purpose, housing offspring while they develop and serving as storage units for pollen, nectar and honey (1).
Cells aren’t used for random purposes throughout the hive, though. Brood cells are found clustered together, with pollen cells for neighbors. A band of empty cells separates brood cells from honey cells.
The cells that haven’t been used for brooding make up what’s known as virgin honeycomb. That’s the light and golden stuff you might consider to be normal honeycomb.
A trained beekeeper eye has no problem differentiating brood cells from honey cells. You can probably spot the difference, too.
Bees separate honey cells from brood cells, with empty cells in between.
Comb Rotation for Hive Health
It may seem counterintuitive to harvest brood cells if that’s where bees raise their offspring. But brood cells become smaller over time as more bees are raised in them. Smaller cells means smaller bees, and restricted space for brooding can negatively affect hive health.
Bee organization saves the day again — since the queen lays eggs in batches, they grow at a similar rate and leave sections of brood comb empty at a time. Bees can choose to fill that comb with honey when it’s not being used for brooding.
Is Dark Honeycomb Safe to Eat?
Dark honeycomb is safe to eat. In fact, it’s highly coveted in many cultures. While western culture links dark colors to signs of food spoilage, the darker comb is actually a sign of superior nutrition and flavor.
The Downside to Dark Honeycomb
Unfortunately, research has found that along with all the good elements, dark honeycomb can contain a buildup of pesticides, glyphosates, and other agricultural chemicals (3). This can be the case if bees are foraging on land where these chemicals are used. Those chemicals end up in pollen, which ultimately ends up in the hive.
But for bees foraging on land that doesn’t use conventional industrial agriculture methods, these chemicals don’t end up in the hive. Third-party testing can confirm that the dark honeycomb is free from these toxic chemicals. At Pass the Honey, we use third-party Nuclear Magnetic Resonance testing to scope things out right down to the molecule, so if you’re lucky enough to get some dark comb from our hives, you know it’s nothing but the good stuff.
How to Eat Dark Honeycomb
If you thought virgin honeycomb was a delicacy, you’re in for a real treat with brood comb. Once you taste past the sweetness, you’ll notice a nutty, complex flavor. That’s why we recommend treating dark comb like good olive oil. Keep the pairings simple and give yourself time to savor the experience. Spread it over bread or crackers, and combine it with fresh, light cheeses on your charcuterie plate. Of course, you can always eat it straight out of the box.
To fully experience the unique terroir of dark honeycomb, download our free sommelier-developed Honeycomb Tasting Guide.