What is honey?

(Aside from amazing.)

Mmm...honey...photo courtesy of thepathfinderstore.com

Mmm…honey…photo courtesy of thepathfinderstore.com

Honey is essentially concentrated nectar.  It is produced by social bees and wasps as a form of food storage.  Solitary bees don’t store nectar because they don’t need to feed workers in the hive, or sustain themselves over the winter.

The Mexican Honey Wasp (Brachygastra mellifica) is an example of a non-bee insect that makes honey.  Photo by Jason Penney

The Mexican Honey Wasp (Brachygastra mellifica) is an example of a non-bee insect that makes honey. Photo by Jason Penney

The most familiar honey is produced by our friends, the honey bees (Apis mellifera), which were originally domesticated just for that purpose more than 4,000 years ago in ancient Egypt (Bachmann 2006).  But our desire for honey goes back even further; 8,000 year old cave paintings in Spain depict humans hunting for honey in trees.

Cave painting that shows a honey seeker found in la Cueva de Arana, courtesy of Wikipedia.org

Cave painting that shows a honey seeker found in la Cueva de Arana, courtesy of Wikipedia.org

To make honey, bees collect nectar in a special container in their abdomen called a crop (or “honey stomach”).  They collect as much nectar and pollen as they can carry on a foraging trip, then return to the hive, where the nectar is regurgitated into special containers and digestive enzymes are added (notably, the enzyme invertase).  For honey bees, these containers are the classic honey comb shape.  For other bees, they can take a variety of shapes, including pots for bumblebees (I call them, Winnie the Pooh bees).

In the hive, bees concentrate the honey by inducing air flow over the open container of regurgitated nectar.  They concentrate it to varying degrees, and the viscosity is an important factor in the shelf life of the honey.  The honey of other bees, like the native sugarbag bee (Tetragonula carbonaria) in Australia or bumblebees tends to be less viscous than honeybee honey.

Workers in the hive feed on the honey when they can’t forage because of bad weather or when food sources are scarce.  Apiarists take advantage of the fact that honey bees produce surplus honey and harvest it from the hive.

The honey that you can buy in stores is a supersaturated, supercooled liquid.  That means that it can readily crystallize with the introduction of a seed crystal or spontaneously.  Crystallized honey on your shelf is easily fixed by putting it in a hot water bath until it is fully liquid again.

I should also put in a shameless plug for my friend over at Empress Honey, who sells the most delicious honey and you should definitely contact her for a jar.  I’d include a photo of the jar I received, but between my flatmates and myself … it is already empty.  😦

NB: According to bureaucrats, only honey bees produce honey: “the National Honey Board has defined honey as: “the substance made when the nectar and sweet deposits from plants are gathered, modified and stored in the honeycomb by honey bees “.”  But they also think tomatoes are a vegetable and that blueberries are berries, so we can safely ignore them.

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9 thoughts on “What is honey?

  1. Pingback: Is there a pollination crisis? | standingoutinmyfield

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  3. Pingback: Australian sugarbag bees – theme and FairyLand zine research | explorations in textiles

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