Honey:  Everything You Wanted to Know

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A honeybee collecting nectar from a flower

Water. Sugars. Plant Pigments.  This is the playground that makes up what we call nectar.

Plants produce nectar in order to attract pollinators.  Tete a tete, I’d say.  These pollinators consist of not only the honeybee, but also wasps, bats, moths, and hummingbirds.

Each species of plant has a different nectar.  They produce it within their “nectaries”.

Species of flower’s biological make-up produces nuances in the nectar’s odor, color, and combination of sugars.  Honeybees recognize the different nectars, shapes of flowers, odors, etc so that they can successfully navigate from a flower of one kind (their preferred nectar producer) to the same kind of flower.  Better nectar produces better honey, obviously.

Bees usually make honey from this nectar.

They also, however, produce honey from honeydew, a sugary, stick substance that is excreted by aphids and other insects.  This honeydew is secreted while these insects feed on tree sap and they deposit it on leave and stems.

In the early mornings, when there is dew on the plants to dilute the honeydew, bees will collect the honeydew. It produces a honey that is strong in flavor and dark in color.

It’s all about honey in this article!

We’ve been using honey as a sweetener for a long time.  The Bible’s Book of Proverbs (Proverb 24:13) has Solomon exclaiming: “My son, eat thou, honey because it is good: and the honeycomb, which sweet to thy taste.”

And, yeah, it tastes great. But the fact that it’s rich in sugar that’s easily absorbed into the bloodstream, and providing a quick, natural burst of energy is ALSO a great thing.

So, let’s dip into the honey jar!

Honey Composition and Quality

three different colors of honey in three different jars to show the difference
Light, Amber, and Dark honey

The type and composition of honey are largely dependent on the types of flowers that the bees collected nectar from.  Different flowers, different honey.  This is an area in the honey composition that geographical location plays a huge role in when talking about the different tastes, colors, and consistencies of kinds of honey from around the world.

Glucose and fructose are the paired up as the main sugars in honey, both being just about equal in amount while sucrose plays only a small part.  Sucrose is what most of us refer to as the table sugar.

Sure, the way honey is made and behaves with respect to characteristics, color, aroma, taste, etc is mainly due to these sugars.  But that’s not all that maketh a honey’s characteristics.  There are also acids, proteins & enzymes, colorings/pigments, and mineral abound.  They all play a role in each honey type.  And, as you might expect, honeydew kinds of honey and most dark kinds of honey, have higher mineral counts than the lighter, nectar types.

In order to combat yeasts that develop if moisture is too high (fermentation), the bees keep the moisture level in honey to around 18% and they preserve that level by capping it with beeswax. This is why thinner honey with high water content are less preferred than the thick, darker kinds of honey that have less.

The flower source determines, of course, the differing amounts of glucose, fructose, and sucrose present in the nectar.  This is where it gets cool and it’s all about the honeybee…

The chemical change of honey to nectar is caused by two enzymes that are secreted by the worker bees within the hive.  These enzymes are by the worker bee’s hypopharyngeal glands which are located in her head.

One protein, called invertase, breaks down the sucrose into fructose and glucose.  The other protein, glucose oxidase, breaks down the glucose in gluconic acid which is the main acid in honey and hydrogen peroxide.  This is why honey has a low pH. The honey becomes a not-so-welcome place for bacteria, fungi, and molds and the hydrogen peroxide can fight off bacteria.

What you get is honey. A stable food that can last YEARS in basic storage and without refrigeration.

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Did You Know: “The Relation Between Heat and Honey”

Heats play a large role in the determination of quality honey.

Are you familiar with HMF? Hydroxymethylfurfural.  (Can’t believe you didn’t know that!)  It is produced as fructose breaks down.  And heat accelerates this process.  That’s why honey that has high-levels of HMF is indicative of honey that has been heated too much.

BUT…since HMF is on-going, it could also be indicative of honey that has been nicely aged.

Also, heat destroys that protein that we talked about above, diastase.  The presence of high-levels of diastase is ALSO indicative of good honey.

So, when over-heated, there will low diastase and high HMF.  See how that goes?

Flavor, Color, and Aroma

Since honey’s color, aroma, and flavor are all dependent upon the plant pigment and other materials in the nectar, the honey from each set of flora is unique, however subtle that might be.

How much color variation are we talking about?  You have honey that is almost black while others are clear.  And in between, we get special shades of greens, reds and all the shades of amber you can imagine.

Due to its high sugar level, all honey is sweet. That being said, the amount of sweetness does change from honey to honey.  An example of this is acacia honey.

Acacia honey is known for its sweeter than usual honey because it has a high concentration of fructose than glucose.  However, it’s not just the fructose level that gives honey its sweetness.

Most nectars have a sugar level of 40 to 45 percent but that entire range, across all nectar, get-go from 3% to 87%.  Bees overwhelmingly choose the sweeter option.

Whether you like the taste that comes from differing honey is pretty much just a matter of personal taste.

Is Honey Good for Everyone?

Infant botulism is a risk, albeit a very low risk, that can result from consuming honey.  Beekeepers are apt to show warning labels on their honey that it should not be fed to infants under 1 year of age.

Diabetics are generally told to avoid honey consumption.  It can be consumed in smaller quantities though as long as it is part of balanced carbohydrate intake and approved by a doctor.

Types of Honey

You can get honey in may different presentations and forms.

  • Cut-comb honey is straight from the comb and unprocessed.
  • Extracted honey is honey that has been removed from the comb either by pressing or spinning (centrifugal force).    It is usually sold in jars or other containers that will hold it.  It is described and sold as a liquid, creamed, or naturally granulated.
beekeeper extracting cut comb from a frame for cut comb honey
Cut comb honey

Honey that comes chiefly from one flower source is usually described as that kind of honey.  Example: sunflower honey. (Also see the Table above)

And then there is a geographical location of the honey that is also used in labeling or naming.

You could also link this all together, using both the nectar source and the region:  New Zealand Eucalyptus honey.

Honey Charts:  Name, Taste, and Region

Light Honey

Medium Honey

Dark Honey

Types and Their Descriptions

  • Liquid Honey

There should be no sign crystallization in liquid honey. It should be clear and bright.  No floaties.  This honey is extracted from combs by the press or the centrifugal force and then strained to remove dirt and small pieces of wax.  Sometimes it is heated slightly to make it more manageable to pour and transfer to an adequate holding device.  However, in any other way this honey is (or should be) as it came from the colony/hive.

  • Cut-Comb and Round Section

piece of cut comb honey
Large piece of cut comb honey

Cut-comb honey is taken from the comb as it exits the hive.  It’s made by having super frames fitted with a slim, non-wired foundation.  When the comb is harvested from the hive, the parts that are well intact with properly capped combs with good beeswax, it is packaged in plastic with see-through lids.

Another way of producing cut-comb honey is by providing the bees directly with fillable sections.  Bee equipment suppliers put a round section super.  Round plastic rings are put in a frame that holds the surplus, unwired, foundation.

The frames are placed in racks within the honey super.  With enough nectar supply nearby, the bees will completely fill the round sections.  Once the honey is capped, the section is easily removable.  This is a “way” of doing it and while the round sections sell nicely, it is the natural cut-comb honey that is in demand these days.

  • Granulated Honey (Naturally)

Most (the vast majority) of honey will crystallize over time.  It’s a natural process.  Sometimes it takes a few days and sometimes it can take years.  The best thing about it is that it crystallizes from natural liquid honey to a naturally granulated state without loss of properties.  Amazing.

Honey is mostly saturated in solutions of glucose.  So saturated, in fact, that it contains more dissolved glucose that can stay in the solution.  The sugar crystallizes away from the solution and gradually granulates.  When light honey crystallizes into near white while darker kinds of honey retain an amber color but lighter than it’s liquid form.

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Did you Know:  Granulated Honey is Mostly Liquid

It appears as a solid but granulated honey is only 15% in solid form.  The spidering mech of crystals that start to form is actually holding liquid honey within them.

  • Frosting

Frosting of honey looks like ribbons or marbled white patches and streaks within the honey.  This can sometimes happen in jars of naturally granulated honey.    Some consider frosted honey as an unattractive by-product, but there is nothing wrong with it at all.

  • Creamed Honey

This is sometimes called “whipped honey” or “spun honey” but that’s wrong because it implies some sort of process of air being added somehow.

Monofloral vs Multifloral Honey

Monofloral honey is primarily from one flower source; that is, over 50 percent for that one source.  Generally, is collected by the bees are close to a large crop or large amounts of the flower source are readily available in the area.

For instance, in the US, the most abundant monofloral honey is clover honey.  Keepers take colonies of bees to feed on the clover nectar at a time when nothing else in the areas is flowering. All of the honey made during this time in that location can be called clover honey due to this.

Other common monofloral include canola and borage.

Most kinds of honey are classified as blossom honey, multi-floral honey, or mixed floral honey.  This is, as you’d expect, made from bees that have access to a wide array of flowers.

Blended Honey

Most of the US produced honey is naturally blended; bees collect the nectar from several different flower sources.

Beekeepers can blend honeys so that they are providing a consistent tasting product all year long.

And strong honey can be mixed with milder kinds of honey to produce a more even balanced product.

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Did You Know: What is Cold-Pressed Honey?

As noted in the table above, ling heather produces a very think, gelatinous which is difficult to spin out of the comb. Therefore, ling honey is usually extracted by pressing.

In order for this to happen the comb is cut from the frame and wrapped in a coarse cloth.  It is then placed in a vice type mechanism.  It is placed between plates and they screwed together to squeeze and press the wrapped comb.  The result is the honey running out the bottom of the press.

In fact, because of its thick consistency, ling heather honey can actually contain bubbles but they should be small and in form.

Lastly, never over-heat a Heather honey!  It sours the flavor turns the honey muddy!

Honey and its Geographic Region

Many of the best kinds of honey, and a great way to taste honey and get to know it is by tasting the kinds of honey in the world.

Many kinds of honey are labeled according to their country of origin.  Also, many honey makers will label their honey by a specific geographic location inside of that country which denotes where the bees were sited and foraged.

Toxic Honey!

Some honey naturally has elements that are toxic to humans and unsafe for consumption.  Rhododendron ponticum is one such source of honey and it contains grayanotoxin.  Grayanotoxin causes excessive saliva, sweating, diarrhea, vomiting, and dizziness.  And at higher doses, a person can become dizzy, suffer from bradycardia (abnormally low heart rate) and drastic muscle weakness.

Other toxic kinds of honey include Mountain Laurel (lambkill), Privet, Ragwort, and Spurge.

How to Store Honey

If you’re going to have all that good, harvested honey as a beekeeper, then you should know how to store honey for optimal performance and durability.

Ideally, honey should be stored at room temp and away from direct sunlight.  It should be kept in an airtight container or it will start to attract moisture and that leads to fermentation (more on that below).

Honey’s high sugar content gives it long, long shelf life.  If you’d like to know the science behind honey storage then you can read about Elton j. Dyce 1932 findings here!

Now for the bad news:  Over time, most honey will lose flavor and aroma over time. ☹

Mead and Other Honey Drinks

Logo for the Men of Mead
Courtesy of The Men of Mead (menofmead.com)

Speaking of fermentation, alcoholic honey drinks come in a number of forms!

  • Mead: Essentially honey and water with some added yeast, tannin, yeast nutrient and citric acid.
  • Pyment: pure grape juice that is sweetened with honey; add some spice and you have hippocras.
  • Apple Juice and Honey are used for

And we’ll get into all kinds of mead and honey recipes at a later date!

Just know that mead was, most likely, the first fermented drink that man found out about.  There is mention of mead from waaaay back in Anglo-Saxon communities and lore as well as proper long ago-Greek mythology!

After the Normans introduced wine to Britain in the 11th century, though, mead,s hey-day as the #1 frat boy drink quickly declined.

Beauty Benefits of Honey:  Cleopatra Knew Them

ancient mural of Cleopatra bathing in milk and honey.
An ancient mural of Cleopatra bathing in milk and honey.

Natural cosmetics are all the rage right now and thank goodness as many people with sensitive skin or allergies.  But natural cosmetics have been around for a long time and honey has been around since the beginning.

Honey and beeswax have been used to make creams, cleanser, and tonics for skin and hair.

Cleopatra was said to have bathed in “ass’s milk and honey”.  Poppea, the wife of Nero (Roman Emperor) was said to use a honey lotion and helped her to remain younger-looking longer.  Many of today’s biggest stars believe in the health benefits of honey and receive honey hair treatments and facials.

Warm honey and spread it over the skin to remove dirt and oils from clogged pores and, along with its antiseptic properties, you have yourself a very nice skin cleanser….au natural.

Summary

Beekeeping is awesome, in and of itself.  No doubt.  Bees are wondrous creatures and their intelligence, efficiency, and social skill are near-unimaginable.  And they create honey! Oh my god, that’s like saying Tom Brady invented bacon.  Would you need anything else to like the guy?

Seriously, though, honey has a long shelf-life, is medicinal, is a natural sweetener, and can help you have a great complexion.  What isn’t there to like about honey?

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