Marcia M. Cardetti
Honeybees are social insects, and every bee performs a task to keep the hive functioning well. Worker bees known as field bees fly through fields, gardens, and orchards gathering nectar, a thin, watery liquid found in the flowers of plants. They make about ten trips each day. In one collection trip, a honeybee visits between 50 and 100 flowers. The bees use their long proboscises to suck up the nectar. The proboscis is a tongue-like organ with a spoon-shaped tip. The nectar is stored in a pouch called the honey sac.
The field bees fly back to the hive when the honey sac is full and pass the nectar to the house bees. The house bees mix the nectar with enzymes and deposit it into a beeswax cell. The nectar remains exposed to air for a time to allow some of the water to evaporate. The bees help to speed evaporation by fanning the open cells with their wings. After the enzymes are added and the water is evaporated, the nectar becomes honey. The bees then cap the honey cells with beeswax.
Honeybees produce more honey than they need each year. On average, the bees produce about 80 pounds (36 kilograms) of extra honey per hive. The average worker bee collects about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. Because the bees produce more honey than they use each year, it is possible to raise bees for the purpose of collecting and selling the extra honey.
Bees that are kept for the commercial production of honey are raised in special hives constructed by humans. These commercial hives are divided into several layers. The bottom layer is the brood chamber, or bee nursery. The queen bee lays her eggs here. The upper part of the hive contains frames in which the bees build combs and store their excess honey.
When the bees have filled the combs with honey and covered them with wax caps, the beekeeper takes away the frames, extracts the honey from the combs, and prepares it for market. In order to remove the liquid honey from the beeswax combs, the wax covers must be removed. This process is called uncapping. Uncapping can be done mechanically or by hand with a heated knife. The honey is extracted from the comb by centrifugal force. Then it is strained to remove wax particles and other foreign matter and filtered to remove air bubbles, pollen, and other fine particles. Honey may also be heat treated before it is put into containers. The heat treatment has two purposes: It delays crystallization, and it destroys any yeast that may be present. Yeast could cause undesired fermentation of the honey.
Honey has different characteristics depending on the type of flower from which the bees gathered nectar (the floral source). There are more than 300 unique types of honey available in the United States. Honey is produced in every state, but certain types are made only in a few regions of the country. Some of the more commonly available honey varieties are alfalfa, avocado, basswood, buckwheat, clover, orange blossom, sage, sourwood, tupelo, and wildflower. Wildflower honey is a mixture of honey from various types of flowers.
Honey is a rich source of carbohydrates — mainly the sugars fructose and glucose. Carbohydrates make up about 82 percent of the honey content. The other carbohydrates found in honey include maltose, sucrose, and more complex carbohydrates. On average, honey is about 17 percent water. In addition, honey contains small amounts of a wide array of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Honey also contains several compounds that function as antioxidants (compounds that delay damage to cells or tissues in the body). The amounts of these compounds vary depending on the floral source.
The color and flavor of honey also vary with the floral source. Colors of honey range from nearly colorless to dark brown, and the flavor varies from mild to bold. For example, fireweed honey is very light in color and buckwheat honey is very dark. As a general rule, lighter-colored honeys are milder tasting and darker-colored honeys are bolder tasting. Honey is sweeter than table sugar, due to its fructose content.
Honey is usually sold in one of three forms: liquid, whipped, or comb honey. Liquid honey is extracted from the comb by the process described earlier in this article. Whipped honey is finely crystallized honey. The crystallization process is controlled so that at room temperature, the honey spreads like butter. In many countries, whipped honey is the preferred form of honey. Comb honey is honey contained in the cells of the honeybees' wax comb in which it was produced. The beeswax comb is edible.
Honey can be stored indefinitely, but over time crystallization may occur. Crystallization of honey is a natural process in which the glucose molecules come out of solution and form solid crystals. Honey crystallizes more or less rapidly depending on the ratio of fructose and glucose in the honey. The more fructose the honey contains, the less it tends to crystallize. The more glucose it contains, the more likely it will crystallize. Crystallization does not alter the taste or nutritional properties of honey. To liquefy honey that has crystallized, heat it in a pan of water or in the microwave (take the lid off first).
Honey is used in many products. Nearly every aisle of the supermarket has products that contain honey. It is an ingredient in cereals, baked goods, salad dressings, meat marinades, alcoholic beverages, soft drinks, and snacks. In addition, honey is used in cosmetics, shampoo, lotions, and pet food.
Honey should not be fed to infants under 1 year old because it may contain botulinum bacterial spores that can cause a rare disease known as infant botulism. Older children and adults are not affected by these spores. Honey is a safe and wholesome food for older children and adults.
Other products from the hive are also marketed. Pollen, propolis, and royal jelly are often sold as nutritional supplements. Propolis is a sticky, waxy material that bees collect from tree buds and use as cement. Royal jelly is a secretion from the pharyngeal glands of the honeybee that is used to feed young larvae and the queen bee. Beeswax is used as an ingredient in candles, crayons, and cosmetics.
Humans have enjoyed eating honey since ancient times. During the Ice Age, people used torches to hunt for bees in order to find and steal their honey. Smoke from the torches calmed the bees, allowing the people to take their honey more easily. By 2500 BC, the ancient Egyptians kept bees in mud and clay hives instead of hunting for them. Thousands of years later, the ancient Greeks studied new ways to raise bees. By 50 BC, the Romans used melted, dyed beeswax to paint pictures. During the Middle Ages, beekeepers wore wicker veils and kept bees in straw, dome-shaped beehives called skeps. The skeps were put in stone shelters called bee boles.
Honey has been used for its healing properties for more than 4,000 years. The ancient Egyptians had over 500 medical formulas using honey, including treatments for cataracts, open wounds, and burns. There have long been claims that honey relieves the symptoms of chest complaints such as coughs, colds, asthma, and allergies. Modern scientific research is showing that honey has properties that help with wound healing and preventing infections.
Honeybees are not native to North America. Early settlers brought them from Europe in the 1600's. By the 1850's, honeybees could be found across the continent all the way to California. There are other species of bees native to Central and South America that produce honey. Some species have no stingers and were kept by native populations, including the Maya Indians.