What Is Honey, Exactly?

March 2, 2019

People who adore honey typically fall into two categories: those that use it for specific and beloved rituals (e.g. spreading it on their English muffin or sipping it in their tea) and those who are open to trying it in as many different culinary opportunities as possible (e.g., drizzling it over a salad, incorporating it into a marinade, baking it into bread, etc.). Regardless of what type of honey-lover you happen to be, have you ever asked yourself the question, “What is honey, exactly?”

Honeycomb Closeup

Sure you might know that honey is a thick, sticky, golden liquid made by busy honey bees and that it comes originally from flowers (somehow). But, how do bees really make the stuff? Well, the short answer is that honey is the result of a colony of bees working together to collect flower nectar and transform it into a high-energy source for the hive. Honey production is actually a carefully orchestrated series of chemical process including digestion, regurgitation, enzyme activity, and evaporation.

Transforming flower nectar into honey begins with forager bees first finding nectar-rich flowers. The bees use their straw-like tongues (i.e., proboscises) to extract the nectar and store it in their special honey stomachs. After visiting approximately, 50 to 100 flowers, a bee’s honey stomach is full and it returns to the hive. During this time, the enzymes in the bee’s honey stomach begin to process the complex sugars in the nectar, converting them by inversion to simple sugars, which are less prone to crystallization.

Once back at the hive, the forager bee hands off the mixture to a house bee via regurgitation. The house bees continue to process the modified nectar while also concentrating it to remove the nectar’s water content. They then deposit the mixture into a honeycomb cell. After which, the bees energetically beat their wings to fan the nectar and remove any additional moisture. As the water evaporates, the mixture’s sugars become more and more concentrated until the substance is reduced to what we know as honey. Once complete, the bees seal the honey up with beeswax for safekeeping, which is produced by glands on a bee’s abdomen.

By all accounts, it’s an impressive undertaking that involves many, many bees. In fact, it takes about eight bees their entire lifetime to make one single teaspoonful. Truly, honey is a substance that is something to be appreciated and savored—a prized gift from nature.

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