The process that results in delicious honey is intricate and interesting. Produced from the nectar of flowers, bees work hard to complete the transformation into honey. Honey can range in colour and taste depending on the types of flowers the bee has visited. With its natural sugars, antioxidants and anti-bacterial properties, honey has been used for centuries as a medicinal remedy as well as a delicious food source!
The honey making process begins with the honey bees. The Queen, workers and drones all live in the beehive. Drones are male bees whose sole purpose is to mate with the Queen. They don’t have a stinger as they hardly leave the hive. Once they mate once, they die. If they don’t get to mate with a queen, they still don’t have a long life expectancy because they are forced out of the hive before winter.
The female bees are the workers, usually accounting for as much as 99% of the hive population. They collect pollen and nectar, store the honey and guard the beehive. Female bees have a varying life expectancy depending on the amount of work they have to do. In peak seasons, they work so hard that they live for about six weeks. In slower seasons such as winter, they may live about six months.
The Queen bee is slightly larger than the other bees. A larva is fed royal jelly after hatching and the Queen bee is created! She only leaves the hive to mate, or to start a new colony if the population explodes. It is therefore very rare to see the Queen bee.
The Process of Honey-Making
Honey bees collect nectar from flowers. Dandelions and fruit tree blossoms are some of the flowers bees visit. Between 100 and 1500 flowers are visited by a single bee when they are out collecting nectar. Honey bees usually stay within half an hour’s range of the beehive.
Honey bees have straw-like tongues called a proboscis. They suck up the nectar and store it in a special stomach until they return to the beehive. Nectar is a combination of about 80% water and complex sugars. Bees have a ‘honey stomach’ for nectar storage and their regular stomach for food. The ‘honey stomach’ can weigh almost as much as the bees itself when full. There is a valve connecting the two stomachs which can be opened when they are hungry.
Upon return to the hive, the honey bees regurgitate the nectar, transferring it to other worker bees. The proteins and enzymes in the ‘honey stomach’ mix with the nectar and this transform it into honey. The worker bees then store the honey in the beeswax comb within the beehive. Beeswax comb is hexagonal shaped and made by the bees to store their honey. Bees aid the thickening process of the honey by fanning their wings, which reduces the water content through evaporation. The wax cell is then sealed off for long-term storage.
Bees use honey as a food source in the winter when they are unable to find many flowering plants. They do not need very much honey to feed themselves. Beekeepers know how much honey to leave in the hive for the colony for the season.
Some beekeepers take the honey and replace the wax cells back into the beehive so that the bees do not have to re-make their storage facility. This gives the bees more time to produce honey instead of having to build new wax cells each time. The beekeeper may also use the wax cells to melt down for candle making.
Types of Honey
Honey can be purchased or made in different forms. For example, organic honey must abide by strict guidelines. Different types of flowers create a variety of colours and tastes when made into honey. For example, Manuka honey is produced in New Zealand. The bees collect the nectar from the native Manuka bush. Bees usually blend the nectar from different flowers naturally. Sometimes manufacturers also blend the honey after it has been collected to create a certain taste and colour.
Honey may crystalize when stored at home. This is a natural process where the honey turns into sugar crystals. The nectar from certain flowers can cause honey to crystalize more quickly than others. Storing honey in the refrigerator will speed up the crystallization process as well. Honey can still be eaten after it has begun crystallizing. If you prefer, you can warm the honey by placing the jar in a bowl of warm water.
Benefits of Honey
Honey contains a lot of natural sugars and acts as an energy booster. Glucose from honey is absorbed quickly providing a short term energy boost while fructose is absorbed more slowly providing a longer term energy boost. This gives sustained energy throughout the day, and may help children focus at school.
Honey contains antioxidants and anti-bacterial properties that can boost your immune system and improve your digestive system. It is also used for cuts, burns, sleeplessness, sore throats as well as a cure for hangovers. Vinegar and honey can be mixed to make a home-detox drink and also to cure a variety of illnesses. Cinnamon and honey is another combination that is well-known for its health benefits. This formula has been used since ancient times in oriental medicine. Lemon and honey are often used to increase weight loss. Dairy products with added honey can improve the digestive system. Honey can also be mixed with other food products to create face masks for all skin types.
Ways to Enjoy Honey
There are many different uses for honey. It can replace sugar in your tea or you can simply spread it on toast. A spoonful of honey can be mixed with the juice of half a lemon and added to warm water for a daily morning tonic. A glass of hot milk mixed with a teaspoon of honey is said to induce sleep. Adding honey to pancakes or waffles is another delicious way to enjoy this natural product.