Honey is sweet, thick, sometimes floral or spicy, sometimes golden, amber, or deep brown… and just downright mysterious. How is this natural sweetener made? First things first – only honey bees make it. Maybe that was obvious but I want to emphasize that no other creature on earth creates a substance quite like this. Of the 20,000 species of bees, only a small fraction make honey.
This honey bee is gathering pollen and nectar from this flower.
Honey is created when working bees gather and store nectar in their honey stomachs. Most nectar sources are made from a complex sugar like sucrose. Further, nectar contains a high water content of about 50%, which would spoil or ferment if left in that form. These ladies travel from flower to flower, sometimes up to 1,500, before filling their honey stomachs just once! Upon return to the hive, the work bees pass it off to the house bees who chew it up like bubble gum, and then store it in one of the hexagonal cells.
These bees are storing nectar, the shiny substance, in the hexagonal cells.
The bees produce an enzyme in their glands that mixes with this nectar causing it to convert from a complex sugar (sucrose) into two simple sugars (glucose and fructose). In addition to this conversion, the bees also evaporate the majority of the water content in the nectar by fanning their wings and creating ventilation through the hive. This cures the honey, lowering the water content down to about 17% or less. Any higher and the honey can ferment, which is great if you want to make mead, but not if you want to store honey for long periods of time.
Even more fascinating is that honey with this water content or lower has an indefinite shelf life! Yes, this means it will last for as long as you live on this good earth. It might crystallize, forming a solid un-drippable, un-pourable, un-spreadable substance. However, just set that container outside on a hot sunny day and it’ll reliquify! Another option is to set it in a container of steaming hot water. What makes it non-perishable? Honey bees add another enzyme, called glucose oxidase, to the nectar in their process of passing it and depositing it. This breaks down some of the glucose into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide, which together, serve as a mild anti-bacterial substance.
Honey is sweet and certainly made of simple sugars, but it is far more than just simple. It also contains minerals, vitamins, acids, pigments, enzymes, and sweet smells that come from its nectar source. These properties are part of what makes lavender honey look and taste different from buckwheat honey. The more I learn about honey, the more I appreciate it! The amount of work these ladies put into each ounce of honey makes me savor every teaspoon in my morning tea and a little picky about who I give it to at Christmas time!
Keep your bees buzzin’ y’all!