Genuine honey made by bees is a delicious, healthy and amazing food. Honey can have many constituents including sugars, pollen and possibly up to 300 other minor natural chemical components. The complexity of sugars and other components in genuine honey comes from the various flower nectars, sap and pollen, plus the result of the biological process performed by the bees. It also includes natural anti-oxidants and bioactivity. For millennia the bees have made honey to provide themselves (and us) with a naturally healthy food source.
Bees collect tiny drops of nectar from flowers and they may also collect plant sap. Flower nectar and plant sap contain sugars and many different amino acids, compounds and fragrances which vary depending on the type of plant. As the bee flies back to the colony the flower nectar is converted in the ‘honey sac’ inside the bee using an amylase enzyme, to produce a complex set of sugars including fructose, glucose, sucrose and maltose in addition to many other nutritious compounds.
To make it into honey the excess water now has to be evaporated by the bees fanning with their wings, and it is then put in the honeycomb. Only when there is less than 20% water is each cell capped with wax to store it. (If there is more than 20% water the honey can ferment and become unedible. Genuine properly collected honey will stay in excellent condition – edible 2,000 year old bee honey has been found in Eygptian tombs!) Honey is one of the safest foods – most harmful bacteria cannot live in honey for any length of time.
This honey is a complex nutritious food store which is used to sustain the colony at night, and during periods of heavy rain, strong wind or other periods when they are not able to collect food from plants.
Bees and plants have evolved their mutually beneficial relationship over 100 million years. The plants make flowers to attract the bees and in the flowers they offer tiny drops of sweet fragrant nectar as a nutritious ‘reward’ to the bees for visiting. As the bees land on the flowers they climb over the male pollen producing parts of the flower picking up pollen on the way. When they visit other flowers of the same plant they climb past the female parts and deposit pollen which fertilises that flower. Thus pollination is nature’s way of the plants having sex, which encourages cross-breeding for healthier generations of the plant.
There are many different types of honey mainly depending on the plants the bees collected the nectar from and also the type of bee. There are light sweet floral smelling and tasting honeys, toffee flavoured honeys, and also dark rich and intense tasting honeys.
(Adulterated ‘honey’s or fake ‘honey’s often taste either sugary sweet or have an unpleasant bland or ‘sour’ taste, depending on what has been used to try and copy a naturally complex genuine bee honey. Unless a scientific analysis is done, only the untrustworthy person or company making up the fake ‘honey’ will know what went into it. It is criminal fraud if this ‘honey’ is sold as genuine bee honey to innocent consumers.)
An informative website is that of Bharat Honey in India (1). This professional honey company has a 25 year history, and provides well-presented explanations about the different Asian bees and honeys, including YouTube videos.
Honey has historically and culturally a special place in our society, and is available to us because bees are also doing the vital job of pollinating the flowers and crops. Bees also collect pollen from flowers – bees have ‘furry’ bodies and their hind legs have distinctive pollen baskets for carrying pollen which they use as food. As bees fly from flower to flower they spread the pollen between flowers to cause pollination.
Bees visit (and pollinate) about 50 to 100 flowers on each foraging trip. It takes 12 honeybees (Apis mellifera) their entire lives to make 1 teaspoon of honey. It is estimated that over 4 million flowers are visited by a colony of bees to make 1 kilogram of honey. These figures give some insight into the potential pollinating power of honeybees!
1) Bharat Honey – a professional honey company in India