All About Honey
Honey: the thick, golden liquid produced by bees has been prized throughout the centuries and the world over. Known for its distinct sweetness, honey continues to be a staple in cooking and also in home treatments for sore throat and skin complaints. But what exactly is honey? Why and how do bees produce honey? What is the history behind honey?
What is Honey?
Honey is a thick, golden liquid produced by bees, a result of insects extracting sugary secretions (nectar) from flowering plants.
Why Do Bees Make Honey?
We all know honey originates from bees, but why do they make it in the first place? Bees make honey to feed the whole hive – it is an excellent food source full of nutrients that can be stored and consumed during the winter months, when there is less for bees to forage on. As honey is high is sugars, it is an effective energy source as well, keeping bees going in the multiple tasks in and around the hive. Luckily for humans and other animals, bees make more honey than they actually need: an average hive can produce a surplus of around 65 pounds of honey per year.
How Do Bees Make Honey?
Bees make honey by extracting nectar, a sugary liquid, from flowers. Using their long, tube like tongues, nectar is drawn out and then stored in a bee’s “crop,” or extra stomach. Once the bees return to the hive, the nectar is then repeatedly passed from one bee’s mouth to another, each chewing the liquid. The partially digested nectar is then stored into honeycombs. At this stage, the nectar is still very water like in consistency, unlike the final product of honey, which is thick and viscous. To draw out all that extra water via evaporation, bees then furiously fan the nectar-containing honeycombs with their wings. Once this evaporation process is complete, worker bees then seal off the honeycombs with a substance from their bellies which hardens and eventually becomes beeswax. The now sticky and thick honey is protected from air and water, and lasts nearly indefinitely.
How is Honey Collected?
Human-kept hives have frames, where bees store their honey in honeycombs. Before honey extraction, bees are gently set aside using a bee brush; the use of smoke is quite effective in placating bees and making them easier to manage. The honey frames are then removed, and the beeswax scraped off. There are several methods to do this, either by removing the honey individually – honeycomb by honeycomb – or by scraping the combs all at once. Regardless of the exact method, a knife or fork is used to scrape the beeswax from both sides of the frame, exposing the honey. Then the frame is placed in a honey extractor, a type of metal container, which is then spun to remove the honey, where it collects to the bottom. The honey is then filtered through several layers of cheesecloth, and viola: now you have honey ready for human consumption.
Does Honey Expire?
Technically no, honey does not expire. So long as the liquid is stored in an airtight jar and kept away from excess moisture, honey remains safe to eat for decades (or longer). In fact, ancient Egyptian archaeological sites have yielded jars of honey dating thousands of years old…and the honey was still perfectly preserved. The reason for honey’s infinite shelf life lies in its biological makeup: with a high sugar content and low water content, honey is also antibacterial and has a low pH.
However, just because honey can last forever if stored correctly, doesn’t mean the liquid won’t undergo some changes. Honey can change colors and texture, going from clear to smoky, from smooth to granular. These changes are completely harmless unless the honey has been contaminated by bacteria, and/ or exposed to moisture. How to tell if honey has gone bad? A sour, instead of a sweet taste, is the classic sign.
Types of Honey
It may be easy to assume there’s only one type of honey, being that it is a golden liquid made by bees, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, there are over 300 types of honey in the US alone! This all comes down to what flowers bees take their nectar from, which affects the flavor and color of honey produced. For example, buckwheat nectar has a malty, molasses like taste and is nearly black in color, while the extremely popular clover honey is very light in color and has a sweet, mild taste.
What is Raw Honey vs. Regular Honey?
At the grocery store you’ll see honey bottles marked “raw honey,” but what does this mean? Raw honey can be best described as honey as it is in the hive. The honey is strained through cheesecloth to remove impurities, but otherwise is completely unprocessed. Regular honey, on the other hand, is processed via pasteurization, which kills yeast in honey, resulting in extended shelf life, and also undergoes filtration, to improve the clarity of the liquid. Between the two types, raw honey by far has the most health benefits: it has up to 22 nutrients, and various minerals, enzymes, and vitamins. The same cannot be said of regular honey, as since it is processed, many of these elements are removed, while hidden sweeteners – such as high fructose corn syrup – are added.
Uses and Health Benefits of Honey
Besides its use as a salve for sore throat during colds, honey is also effective at treating burns, wounds, ulcers, herpes, psoriasis, etc. as it enhances healing. A study has also shown honey as being effective in stopping the growth of cancer cells, due to the antioxidants within the liquid. Honey is also a great sugar alternative as it is low glycemic, meaning it won’t spike blood sugar, unlike regular sugar.
History of Honey
Bees have produced honey for millions of years. Regarding beekeeping, or apiculture, sources and opinions vary as to when humans first started gathering honey by “keeping” bees. Ancient Egyptians began beekeeping around 2500 BC, though other sources indicate the practice started even earlier in China. And long before any actual beekeeping was practiced, humans gathered, or foraged, wild honey. In Spain’s Cueva de la Araña (Cave of the Spider), a cave painting dating from 9000 BC depicts a figure bravely climbing towards a hive, basket in hand, while bees buzz around. Though methods for collecting honey have evolved since then, one thing remains certain: honey’s popularity as an all-natural sweetener and an effective health salve.
With special care, honey can be fermented and made into mead, or honey wine. We use pure, raw orange blossom honey to craft our traditional meads, melomels (fruit and honey blends), and dessert meads for a full portfolio of honey wines. Learn more about mead here.