As my beekeeping journey progresses, I continue to be amazed at what these tiny insects are capable of producing. The sheer wonder of an organism that never sleeps, never takes breaks, and works for the greater good of the colony from the moment it emerges. The immediate connection that forms in one’s mind when they think of bees, though, is honey. What is it honey? What makes it so special? What can it be used for? These are the most frequent questions I’m asked and I’d like to provide some insight. We hope that you will try our honey at our shop.
What is honey?
We can start by saying that honey begins as nectar, but that does not offer insight into the how. To appreciate honey, the first thing we have to consider is the amount of effort required for it to be produced. The initial step that’s required is storage, more specifically wax. Bees (typically under 17 days old) create wax by consuming nectar and will secrete the wax out of 8 glands in their underbelly. It’s this wax that will be used to form the hexagon cells, or comb, where the nectar will be stored. It takes a colony around 6 lbs of nectar or available honey to make 1 lb of wax. For 1 lb of honey, a hive must visit 2 million flowers! Can you imagine?
Once a bee collects nectar, it stores it in its honey stomach and returns to the hive to pass it to another bee. The nectar will go through this process multiple times before it’s stored in the comb. It might not sound appetizing at first, but there’s a difference between regurgitated stored nectar and digested nectar. When the nectar is stored, it’s introduced to an enzyme in the bees’ bellies, invertase, which breaks down the sucrose (disaccharide) into fructose and glucose (monosaccharides). It’s a bit technical but the process is to make complex sugars into simple ones. Every time the nectar is transferred more invertase is introduced, and the water content in the nectar is reduced. This is how honey comes to be. Once the honey is stored, the bees will continue to pack it in and will then use fanning (literally the flapping of their wings which they use to control temperatures inside the hive) to further reduce the water content. Once the water content reaches approx 17%, the cell will be capped with wax and the bees will continue to do this until all of the cells in the frame will be capped. If you want to read more about this, I’ve included a link below.
What makes honey so special?
So you still need some convincing, eh? 😉 Honey’s composition is mainly carbohydrates, but it’s also packed with compounds such as proteins, vitamins, amino acids, minerals, and organic acids. You’ll also find pollen since, well, it’s all over the place. So what do all of these compunds offer honey?
Antioxidant benefits – Antioxidants fight free-radicals in the body, preventing or slowing down damage to cells.
Antimicrobial benefits – Aids in the fight against microbes when applied to wounds or burns.
Anti-inflammatory benefits – Aids in reducing inflammation, again when applied topically.
Another added benefit is that honey does not have a shelf-life. In fact, there was a discovery in an Egyptian tomb in 2013 where they found honey dated 5,500 years. Even then, honey was deemed a treasure to be taken to the afterlife. This is possible due to low-moisture content. Bacteria needs moisture to grow, and these clever insects somehow figured out that as long as they get the moisture level down to the 17% range the honey will keep. That is also why we don’t bottle honey with high-moisture content, since it will allow for the yeast to form and the honey will ferment. Big difference between this fermentation and fermentation to make mead 🙂
Important note – this does not indicate that honey does not have ANY bacteria or yeast spores in it therefore it’s not recommended for infants.
What can honey be used for?
As stated before, honey is quite ancient. While the earliest honey found is 5,500 years old, there are far older cave drawings that show the pratice of collecting honey. Back then, the bees used to nest high-up in the trees, which required climbing and lots of stinging. So, the obvious answer is as a food source. Honey is a sweetener and the fact that enzyme process converts it to simple sugars it’s easier to digest. It does have quite a bit of carbs and calories so moderation is important.
The next use for honey is for help with allergies. Ingesting honey with trace elements of pollen can provide relief from allergies. There are still many studies on this topic with nothing conclusive, but from personal experience, I can tell you that it worked for me. The key is local honey so you are ingesting what is blooming around you, not plants that are native to the South or West. Also, like anything else, it’s a function of a regimen. You can’t take a teaspoon of honey once a month and expect that to do anything. It’s a daily routine to help your body build up .
Other known uses for honey include skin care, such as wounds or burns. Historically, honey used to be put on burns and then the patient would be bandaged up. It would create a protective layer and utilize it’s properties. Honey can also be used in cosmetics, where many of the properties hydrate the skin, promote collagen for anti-aging, and can potentially help with reducing scarring.
Key points – Make sure that the honey you buy is not only local but is also raw and unpasteurized. Raw means that the honey is strained to ensure you’re not getting unwanted particles (pieces of wax and/ or bees), but it allows for pollen to come through. Pasteurization just boggles my mind, especially when there is zero need for it to happen with honey. Once the honey is heated, the beneficial compounds are destroyed and you just bought yourself honey-flavored syrup.
- “The Chemistry of Honey” – https://www.beeculture.com/the-chemistry-of-honey/
- “Honey and Health: A Review of Recent Clinical Research” – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5424551/
- “The antibacterial activities of honey” – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1319562X20304952