Honey has been considered both food and medicine in many cultures around the world for millennia. It is a good source of antioxidants and micronutrients. It has antibiotic and antifungal properties and can act as an effective cough suppressant. Furthermore, it has been clinically proven to promote wound healing and is believed to boost one's memory and lower the risk of heart disease. But, do you know what honey actually is? If you said, “It’s a substance that bees make.” You would be right, of course. But could you describe in more detail about how it actually comes to be (no pun intended)? If not, read on for an amazing explanation….
A honey bee begins its honey-making journey by visiting a flower and collecting some of its nectar with its long, straw-like tongue. Flowers have evolved strategies to attract a variety of insects through their color, shape and scent. While gathering nectar, the bees also transfer pollen grains from one flower to another, which results in their pollination.
Nectar is very similar in composition to sugar water. However, nectar also contains important amino acids, lipids and micronutrients. After being sucked up through its proboscis, the bee stores the nectar in its special “honey stomach” where it mixes with critical enzymes.
One of these enzymes, invertase, converts most of the nectar’s sucrose into glucose and fructose. A second enzyme, glucose oxidase, changes some of the glucose into gluconic acid hydrogen peroxide. These two substances protect the honey from the growth of harmful microorganisms.
The bees then regurgitate drops of the honey-like substance (it’s still too watery to be called real honey) into their mouths and manipulate them with their mandibles before placing the drops into the hexagonal cells of the hive’s beeswax comb. To finish the honey making process, bees must remove most of the water from these drops and fan their wings to evaporate the water and thicken the substance into honey. For reference, nectar is approximately 80% water and honey is less than 18% water.
When the honey is finished drying, the bees cap each cell with more wax and painstakingly repeat the process. In order for a beehive to produce one pound of honey, bees must visit two million flowers! And, in order for that hive to do so, its bees must fly 55,000 miles!The resulting honey is a very healthy, nutritious and shelf-stable food. It is also naturally resistant to bacteria and mold.
So, while technically honey can blithely be described as bee vomit…there’s a lot of biochemistry that takes place in addition to just plain old-fashioned hard work on the part of the industrious honey bee in order to make honey for your honey jar.