I know it’s a stupid question. We all know what honey is – but do we really?
Before I start, another common mis-conception is that all bees make honey. Well here in the UK, we have about 250 different species of bees and there are over 20,000 globally, but only the honeybee actually produces any harvestable amount of honey.
All, without exception, the honey we use comes from honeybees whose scientific classification genus is Apis. Most domesticated honeybees are Apis mellifera. However, there are several sub-species of Apis mellifera which exhibit small variations in appearance and behaviour. In very simple terms it’s a bit like dogs. All domestic dogs are from the same genus (Canis) but there are many different breeds, varying widely in appearance and behaviour (Chihuahua – Great Dane).
So, why do honeybees make honey?
The reason is that honeybees are colonial social insects. They don’t die off in the winter and they don’t hibernate, so they need a supply of food to get them through the winter months when they can’t forage for their food sources of pollen and nectar. In short, they produce honey as a food source to get them through times when their plant food supplies are not available.
What is pollen?
In simple terms, pollen is a fine powder that plants produce as their male reproductive mechanism which needs transporting to a suitable female plant. For honeybees, it is one of their most important food sources: it is rich in protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and sterols.
Honeybees, unlike wasps, are hairy. The female worker bees collect pollen on their body hairs as they enter plants, either by rubbing against it or because of slight electrostatic charges. They then wipe the pollen into a small cavity on their back legs surrounded by stiff hairs, called a corbicula or more commonly as a ‘pollen basket’, and then secure it with a bit of honey or nectar. As there will be inevitably be some pollen remaining on the honeybee’s body, it gets transferred to successive plants and is therefore the most important form of plant fertilisation.
A worker honeybee can carry up to about half her own body weight in pollen. Most honeybees only visit one flower type on any forage trip, and usually only bring back pollen or nectar, rarely both on the same trip.
When they return to the hive they scrape the pollen into cells at the perimeter of the brood nest, near to young larvae. They secrete an enzyme that causes the pollen to undergo a lactic acid fermentation which preserves the pollen and makes it easier for bee larvae to digest. So, pollen whilst primarily used for feeding young larvae, is used as food for all the other bees too. Sometimes pollen is used fresh. But if there is an excess in the colony, some honey is added to the pollen stored in the honeycomb and the cell is capped with wax to create ‘bee bread’ that can be used later.
In short pollen is not used to produce honey, but honey couldn’t be produced without it.
What is nectar?
Nectar is a sweet sugary liquid produced by plants solely to attract pollinating insects so that they will be dusted with pollen to aid the plants reproduction. Nectar is the primary food for many insects, but honeybees don’t just eat it.
Forager worker honeybees use their long, straw-like tongues (proboscis) to suck nectar from the flowers. The small quantity of nectar they might eat is processed in their digestive stomach, but the majority of the nectar collected is stored in a separate and dedicated ‘honey stomach’, which can hold around 70mg of nectar when full, and weigh almost as much as the bee itself does. It has been calculated that honeybees must visit between 100 and 1500 flowers in order to fill their honey stomachs.
Some of the nectar that is taken back to the hive is used to directly feed younger worker bees and if present, male drones. The majority is passed from forager worker bees to worker house bees who add some digestive enzymes, most notably invertase, before regurgitating and passing it on through a number of other house bees until it becomes ‘storage quality’ when it is deposited into honeycomb cells. The bee digestive enzymes convert the complex sugar sucrose from nectar into the simple sugars glucose and fructose. Each house bee may take around half an hour to digest and regurgitate the nectar before passing it on.
The regurgitated nectar is distributed throughout the cells in the honeycomb until the cells are nearly full. The bees then carefully dehydrate the nectar, reducing the water content from around 70-80% down to 17-18% by keeping the temperature in the hive constant at around 35°C and by maintaining an airflow by fanning with their wings. This not only reduces the water content but makes a thicker syrup and raises the sugar concentration beyond saturation point preventing fermentation. When the nectar is at the right consistency, it is known as honey and sealed with a cap of wax.
So very simply, honey is dehydrated or concentrated nectar.
It is said that it takes approximately 50,000 honeybee loads of nectar to make one pound of honey. Because of its low water content and high acidity, bacteria, fungi and other harmful organisms cannot live or reproduce in honey. So if kept properly, (raw) honey can last indefinitely without any form of preservative.
Raw, runny, set, creamed, honeycomb, mono-floral, blended, or pasteurised?
All honey when extracted is known as raw. Normally it is extracted using a centrifuge and is runny. There are exceptions, heather honey for example is so thick it needs a special press to extract it. Raw honey has no treatment or preservatives, and even when filtered with a series of progressively finer sieves it may contain traces of pollen, wax, or even bits of bees! It’s the best type of honey.
Most honey, certainly here in the UK, will naturally crystallise (in the UK, we call it set honey) over time becoming cloudy and thicker. In technical speak, those honeys with a higher glucose content will crystallise quicker than those with a higher fructose content. The rate of crystallisation depends on what nectar the honeybees have collected. So, all-natural set honey is a runny honey that has crystallised. There is no difference in the taste, nutritional, or medicinal qualities between runny and natural set honey. You can, if you really want to, return natural set honey back to runny by gently warming it up.
Some commercial brands of set honey are created by mixing (in bee keeping terms, seeding) raw runny honey with another set honey with very small crystals which encourages the crystallisation process. This is usually referred to as creamed honey as the sugar crystals are smaller than natural set honey.
Rather than spinning honey into jars, you can just cut the honeycomb from the frames. It’s still raw but contains higher proportions of pollen, and sometimes uncapped honey, but obviously lots of wax which is completely edible and chewy – great on toast.
Honeybees prefer to forage on large strands of the same plant, and the honey is created with a distinctive taste that is associated with the nectar of that plant and so known as mono-floral honey. If the honey is from nectar collected from different plants, it’s normally referred to as multi-floral honey.
Some honey producers create a honey mixture blended from multiple sources of honey to maintain their commercial presentation, but these are impossible to associate the taste to a particular source of nectar or plant.
Even worse, some commercial brands not only combine multiple sources of raw honey, both EU and non-EU, but they blend honey with other sweet substances such as sugar or corn syrup and not only that, they pasteurise it. This is a process of heating the honey to about 70°C and then rapidly cooling it.
As I said earlier, we know that nothing harmful can live in raw honey, pasteurisation removes this property, so is purely cosmetic to make it look cleaner, smoother and easier to handle – ALWAYS choose raw honey if buying for medicinal purposes!
Medicinal qualities of raw honey
From being a child, my mum made me a honey and lemon drink if I had a cough or a cold. I’m over 60 and I still do the same now. Even my kids ask for it when they have so much as a sniffle – and they are adults. It is so much better than proprietary cold remedies – a recent survey actually demonstrated this. You can even have it with a tot of whisky or rum.
But that aside, the health benefits of raw honey are staggering. If you get raw honey from bees that foraged locally to where you live, it can (though disputed by some scientists) potentially counter pollen allergies, so helps with the likes of hay-fever. For asthma sufferers, raw honey can be used as a medicine, and for eczema it can also by applied as a soothing cream. The antiseptic and antibacterial qualities of raw honey are renowned, some raw honey’s antibiotic component methylglyoxal (MG), is so powerful they are used to treat raw wounds and ulcers.
Manuka honey from New Zealand for example, has a really high MG content and can command incredible prices. I read somewhere that army medical staff use Manuka to treat amputations and race horse owners use it to treat serious equine lesions.
But there are other health benefits of raw honey. I’m not going to list everything I googled, but the most notable are: raw honey is a valuable natural energy source and sweetener and can help with diabetes. It has antioxidant properties that can lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and honey can even help with weight management.
So, with all these health benefits does raw honey have any downsides? Well, some people just don’t like honey, but the only real negative is that raw honey can sometimes contain Botulism spores. These are harmless to most people with a fully developed immune system, but for young children less than 12 months old it could be a problem. Therefore, like any unprocessed food, raw honey is not recommended for children under one year of age or pregnant people.
Honey is amazing stuff and I’ve only touched on some of the properties, but it’s not all we get from our domesticated bees.
Beeswax is produced from the abdominal glands of worker bees and is clear when first produced. It is collected by other worker bees and used to construct honeycomb and seal honey cells. Although we can eat it, it doesn’t have any real medicinal properties, but it is beneficial for both hair and skin. We harvest beeswax from melting used honeycombs and removing any impurities.
It’s impossible to create a synthetic beeswax, and like honey, has a long list of uses most notably in candle making, for use as polish, and in food preparation. It is also used more and more in the pharmaceuticals and cosmetics industries where it is the basis of lip balms, hand creams and some make-up products.
Royal jelly is a thick syrup-like liquid high in proteins and sugars. It is fed to all bee larvae for the first three days of their lives and to queen larvae throughout their development. The adult queen is also fed Royal jelly.
As with wax, it is produced by worker bees, but from glands in the head close to their mouths. It’s considered to be a superfood, a healthy delicacy and is also used as an alternative medicine. It can only be harvested from Queen cells when the larvae are about four days old and can only be collected in small quantities, even if colonies are stimulated to produce more Queens for the sole use of producing Royal jelly. Unlike honey it is perishable and must be preserved in a fridge until used.
Propolis is a bee glue they make by collecting resins or sap from trees or flower buds and mixing it with saliva and beeswax. It is used in the hive as an antibiotic sealant to plug small gaps, but it also prevents diseases, parasites, and bacterial growth.
Propolis has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties and has been used by humans for centuries. It can be collected in several ways, but usually by inserting a perforated sheet into the hive. The bees use propolis to block the perforations. The sheet is removed and frozen, the propolis is then easy to remove by flexing the sheet to crack the frozen propolis. It then requires cleaning and milling. It can be preserved in alcohol or kept cold before use.
Bee venom is believed to help rheumatic diseases, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, neuralgia and other conditions including high blood pressure (though I have to say it raises my blood pressure every time I get stung!). There are documented cases where sufferers from arthritis in their wrists put their hands into bee hives in order to get stung.
This form of alternative treatment is known as apitherapy and as a trend is increasing gradually. There are several commercial methods of extracting bee venom. One method is to electrically stimulate bees to sting a dedicated glass bee venom plate within a hive. The venom is carefully dried, scratched off, and processed. Other methods involve carefully holding a bee and manipulating the sting which induces the secretion of venom onto a glass plate. Sounds like a slow laborious job to me! Others simply hold a bee in tweezers and place it on the part of the body that requires attention so that the bee stings naturally. Sadly, the bee will die in this process.
A note of caution: as some people have a severe allergic reaction to bee stings and venom, the practice of apitherapy must only be administered with utmost caution.
I mentioned pollen earlier and how important it is for bees and the production of honey. Well, it’s not only nature’s most nourishing insect food, it’s also considered as a super food for us too. Pollen is collected by temporarily putting a special pollen trap on the hive entrance with gaps just big enough for the bee to get through but scrapes the pollen off their hind legs into a collector.
Like bee venom, pollen will degrade rapidly and is typically frozen immediately after collection. Though it can be used as an ingredient for many products, it’s best used as pure pollen, cleaned and dried, but just as it was when being carried on the legs of the worker bee. It can be bought commercially as granules or ground into a powder and can be added to smoothies, yogurt or any cooking that takes your fancy.
It has powerful antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties. It can reduce inflammation, stimulate the immune system and lower cholesterol levels naturally. In addition, it is beneficial for the digestive and respiratory systems, and can help with prostate issues.
So, there you have it, the wonderful, mysterious and diverse production line of honeybees.