Honey is a sweet syrupy substance produced by honeybees from the nectar of flowers and used by humans as a sweetener and a spread. Honey is comprised of 17-20% water, 76-80% glucose, and fructose, pollen, wax, and mineral salts. Its composition and color is dependent upon the type of flower that supplies the nectar. For example, alfalfa and clover produce a white honey, heather a reddish-brown, lavender an amber hue, and acacia and sainfoin a straw color.
Honey, golden and sweet, has always been held in high regard. The Bible refers to heaven as the "Land of Milk and Honey." In ancient times, honey was considered the food of the gods and the symbol of wealth and happiness. It was used as a form of sustenance and offered in sacrifice. In the Middle Ages, honey was the basis for the production of mead, an alcoholic beverage. Because of its antiseptic qualities, physicians found it a perfect covering for wounds before the advent of bandages. Even Napoleon was enchanted by it, choosing the honeybee for his personal crest.
Beekeeping is one of oldest forms of animal husbandry. Early beekeepers encouraged the establishment of bee colonies in cylinders of bark, reed, straw, and mud. However, when the honeycomb was removed from the cylinders, the colony was destroyed.
Honeybees were brought to North America in the mid-1600s. Although there were bees on the continent, they were not honeybees. Early settlers took note of the bees' penchant for hollow logs. They developed a "bee gum," by placing sticks crosswise over the opening of the logs to support the honeycombs. This not only allowed for the comb to be removed from one end, but also kept the comb intact so that the colony could use it again.
In Europe, beekeepers working toward a similar goal, developed a device called a skep. It was essentially a basket placed upside-down over the beehive. The full honeycombs were removed from underneath. A further innovation called for cutting a hole in the top of the hive and placing a straw or wooden box over the hole. The box would eventually fill with honey as well. It could then be removed without harming the comb.
In the mid-nineteenth century, an American named Moses Quimby improved upon the beekeeping system by layering a number of boxes over the main chamber. But it was the Reverend Langstroth who was responsible for creating the basis for the method that is currently used. Langstroth's moveable frame hive allowed for easy extraction and reinsertion of the combs. It consisted of a base, a hive body fitted with frames that contained the brood chamber, one or more removable sections (called supers) that were also fitted with frames for honey storage. The entire system is protected with waterproof covers.
Another popular type of hive is the leaf hive. This is a wooden box divided by means of a metal grid into an upper (honey) chamber and a lower (brood) chamber. Just above the floor and above the grid are racks of horizontal metal bars. Frames that hold the hanging honeycombs slide onto the racks.
An average bee colony produces 60-100 lb (27.2-45.4 kg) of honey each year. Colonies are divided by a three-tier organization of labor: 50,000-70,000 workers, one queen, and 2,000 drones. Worker bees only live for three to six weeks, each one collecting about one teaspoon of nectar. One pound (0.454 kg)of honey requires 4 lb (1.8 kg) of nectar, which requires two million flowers to collect.
When the worker bees are about 20 days old, they leave the hive to collect nectar, the sweet secretion produced by the glands of flowers. The bee penetrates the flower's petals and sucks the nectar out with its tongue and deposits the nectar into its honey sac or abdomen. As the nectar journeys through the bee's body, water is drawn out and into the bee's intestines. The bee's glandular system emits enzymes that enrich the nectar.
Pollen attaches to the bee's legs and hairs during the process. Some of it falls off into subsequent flowers; some mixes with the nectar.
When the worker bee cannot hold anymore nectar, she returns to the hive. The processed nectar, now on its way to becoming honey, is deposited into empty honeycomb cells. Other worker bees ingest the honey, adding more enzymes and further ripening the honey. When the honey is fully ripened, it is deposited into a honeycomb cell one last time and capped with a thin layer of beeswax.
Full honeycombs removed from
- 1 To remove the honeycombs, the beekeeper dons a veiled helmet and protective gloves. There are several methods for removing the combs. The beekeeper may simply sweep the bees off the combs and guide them back into the hive. Alternately, the beekeeper injects a puff of smoke into the hive. The bees, sensing the presence of fire, gorge themselves on honey in an attempt to take as much as they can with them before fleeing. Somewhat tranquilized by engorgement, the bees are less likely to sting when the hive is opened. A third method employs a separator board to close the honey chamber off from the brood chamber. When the bees in the honey chamber discover that they have been separated from their queen, they move through a hatch that allows them to enter the brood chamber, but not reenter the honey chamber. The separator board is inserted approximately two to three hours before the honeycomb is to be removed.
The majority of the cells in the comb should be capped. The beekeeper tests the comb by shaking it. If honey spurts out, the comb is reinserted into the honey chamber for several more days. Approximately one-third of the honey is left in the hive to feed the colony.
Uncapping the honeycombs
- 2 Honeycombs that are at least two-thirds capped are placed into a transport box and taken to a room that is completely free of bees. Using a long-handled uncapping fork, the beekeeper scrapes the caps from both sides of the honeycomb onto a capping tray.
Extracting the honey from the
- 3 The honeycombs are inserted into an extractor, a large drum that employs centrifugal force to draw out the honey. Because the full combs can weigh as much as 5 lb (2.27 kg), the extractor is started at a slow speed to prevent the combs from breaking.
As the extractor spins, the honey is pulled out and up against the walls. It drips down to the cone-shaped bottom and out of the extractor through a spigot. Positioned under the spigot is a honey bucket topped by two sieves, one coarse and one fine, to hold back wax particles and other debris. The honey is poured into drums and taken to the commercial distributor.
Processing and bottling
- 4 At the commercial distributor, the honey is poured into tanks and heated to 120°F (48.9°C) to melt out the crystals. Then it is held at that temperature for 24 hours. Any extraneous bee parts or pollen rise to the top and are skimmed off.
- 5 The majority of the honey is then flash-heated to 165°F (73.8°C), filtered through paper, then flash cooled back down to 120°F (48.9°C). This procedure is done very quickly, in approximately seven seconds.
Although these heating procedures remove some of the honey's healthful properties, consumers prefer the lighter, bright-colored honey that results.
A small percentage, perhaps 5%, is left unfiltered. It is merely strained. The honey is darker and cloudier, but there is some market for this unprocessed honey.
- 6 The honey is then pumped into jars or cans for shipment to retail and industrial customers.
The maximum USDA moisture content requirement for honey is 18.6%. Some distributors will set their own requirements at a percent or more lower. To accomplish this, they often blend the honey received from various beekeepers to produce honey that is consistent in moisture content, color, and flavor.
Beekeepers must provide proper maintenance for their hives throughout the year in order to assure the quality and quantity of honey. (pest prevention, health of the hive, etc.) They must also prevent overcrowding, which would lead to swarming and the development of new colonies. As a result, bees would spend more time hatching and caring for new workers than making honey.
Four major byproducts of the honey-making process: beeswax, pollen, royal jelly, and propolis. Beeswax is produced in the bee's body as the nectar is transforming into honey. The bee expels the wax through glands in its abdomen. The colony uses the wax to cap the filled honeycomb cells. It is scrapped off the honeycomb by the beekeeper and can be sold to commercial manufacturers for use in the production of drugs, cosmetics, furniture polish, art materials, and candles.
Pollen sticks on the worker bee's legs as she collects flower nectar. Because pollen contains large amounts of vitamin B12 and vitamin E, and has a higher percentage of protein than beef, it is considered highly nutritious and is used to the dietary supplement. To collect it, the beekeeper will force the bees through a pollen trap—an opening screened with five-mesh hardware cloth or a 0.1875-in (0.476-cm) diameter perforated metal plate. The single- or double-screened opening allows the pollen to drop from the bees' legs as they fly through. The pollen drops into a container and is immediately dried and stored.
Royal jelly is a creamy liquid produced and secreted by the nurse bees to feed the queen. Nutrient rich with proteins, amino acids, fatty acids, sugars, vitamins, and minerals, it is valued as a skin product and as a dietary supplement. Proponents believe it prolongs youthfulness by improving the skin, increases energy, andhelps to reduce anxiety, sleeplessness, and memory loss.
Propolis is plant resincollected by the bees from the buds of plants and then mixed with enzymes, wax and pollen. Bees use it as a disinfectant, to cover cracks in the hive, and to decrease the hive opening during the winter months. Commercially it is used as a disinfectant, to treat corns, receding gums, and upper respiratory disease, and to varnish violins.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, the honeybee industry has been hard hit by two factors: parasitic mites and Africanized bees. Mites, primary the tracheal and varroa types, have destroyed thousands of bee colonies. The destruction of bee colonies not only affects honey sales, but the fruit and vegetable farmers who depend on bees to pollinate their crops. It is estimated that the value of bee pollination reaches $10 billion annually. At the close of the century, researchers were exploring ways to prevent the mite infestation without chemical intervention.
Africanized bees were first detected in North America in the early 1990s. Their presence has been detected in Texas, southern California, New Mexico, and Arizona, but further migration has not been detected. As a subspecies of honeybee, Africanized bees can only be distinguished from the European honeybee by its more aggressive stinging behavior. Hence, they have earned the appellation "killer bees." Africanized honeybees can mated with the European honeybee, creating a hybrid with the more aggressive stinging behavior. By the early 1990s, almost 100% of honeybees in Mexico carried the aggressive gene. In tropical climates, the aggressiveness gene is a dominant trait. Scientists have isolated five genes linked to the aggressiveness, one of which triggers stinging behavior. The goal is to use such findings to limit the spread of the Africanized trait throughout the Western Hemisphere and the U.S. honeybee population.
Although it has long been known that the antioxidants in honey prevent the growth of bacteria, the use of honey to retard food spoilage has not garnered widespread support. In the late 1990s, proponents began to gather statistical evidence to support their case.
Where to Learn More
Bonney, Richard E. Hive Management. Pownal, VT: Garden Way Publishing, 1990.
Diemer, Irmgard. Bees and Beekeeping. London: Merehurst Press, 1988.
Melzer, Werner. Beekeeping: A Complete Owner's Guide. Hauppage, NY: Barron's Educational Services, Inc. 1986.
Cyberbee. http://www.cyberbee.net/ (January 16, 1999).
International Bee Research Association. 10 North Road, Cardiff CFI 3DY, UK. (+44)1222 372409. [email protected]
Sioux Honey Association. Sioux City, IA. (712)259-0638.
HONEY (Heb. דְּבָשׁ). The principal honey of Israel seems to have been a thick syrup made from either grapes or dates, called dibs in Arabic. It is often mentioned in lists of foodstuffs of the land (e.g., Deut. 8:8; ii Sam. 17:29; ii Chron. 31:5; for the phrase "land flowing with milk and honey" see *Milk). It is considered a delicacy (i Kings 14:3; Ezek. 16:13), and is mentioned as the epitome of sweetness (Ps. 19:11; 119:103; Prov. 16:24; Ezek. 3:3). Along with leaven it was prohibited in burnt offerings (Lev. 2:4). Manna had the taste of "wafers (?) in honey" (Ex. 16:31), but the Talmud declares that it had this taste only for children (Yoma 75b). Its quality of sweetness caused it to be used figuratively for gracious and pleasant things, such as the words of God (Ps. 19:11; 119:103), the wisdom of Torah (Prov. 24:13; 25:16), the speech of a friend (Prov. 16:24; Song 4:11), as well as the seductive language of the strange woman (Prov. 5:3). Bees' honey, found wild, is sufficiently rare to have been considered among the finest of foods ("honey out of the rock" in Deut. 32:13; Ps. 81:17). This wild honey figures prominently in the story of the wedding of *Samson at Timnah (Judg. 14), where Samson, having found honey amid a swarm of bees in the carcass (more plausibly, skeleton) of a lion he had killed, wagered 30 festal garments on the riddle "out of the eater came something to eat, out of the strong came something sweet" (Judg. 14:14). The Philistines, unable to solve the riddle, had Samson's wife learn the answer: "What is sweeter than honey, what is stronger than a lion?" (Judg. 14:18). Samson, enraged, slaughtered 30 men in Ashkelon to pay the wager, and departed. Bees' honey was also found in the forest, where it was eaten by Jonathan in violation of his father's oath (i Sam. 14:24–30). Because it is the source of honey, the date is included among the seven choice agricultural species of Ereẓ Israel (see Deut. 8:8). During the talmudic period, however, honey came to refer specifically to bees' honey, with the result that a distinction was made; regarding vows, the commonly accepted use of the word determined the extent of the vow, and it was decided that "He who takes a vow to abstain from honey is permitted to eat date honey" (Ned. 6:9).
In accordance with the rule "that which issues from an unclean creature is unclean" (Bek. 1:2) it should follow that bees' honey is forbidden since the bee belongs to the class of unclean insects. The rabbis, however, permitted its use by asserting that honey is not the product of the bee; it is merely stored in its body (Bek. 7b; likewise, a Neo-Assyrian text of the eighth century b.c.e. refers to the "buzzing insects that 'collect' honey"). The custom practiced in many families, of dipping bread in honey (instead of the usual salt), during the period from Rosh ha-Shanah to Hoshana Rabba, symbolizes the wish for a sweet new year. Similarly, on Rosh Ha-Shanah, an apple is dipped in honey and eaten, and a prayer for a "good and sweet year" is recited.
During the Middle Ages, there developed a picturesque ceremony of introducing the child to his Jewish studies; it included the custom of writing the letters of the alphabet on a slate and covering them with honey. These the child licked with his tongue so that the words of the Scriptures might be as "sweet as honey" (Ma'aseh Roke'aḥ, 295–6, Maḥzor Vitry, ed. by S. Hurwitz (1923), 628, 508). Honey cake was a feature of the same ceremony. Called "Honig lekakh" in Yiddish, it is a favorite pastry to this day.
et, 7 (1956), 195–201; Eisenstein, Dinim, 81. add. bibliography: cad, d 163a; E. Firmage, in: abd, 6:1150.
[Tikva S. Frymer /
Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]
hon·ey / ˈhənē/ • n. (pl. -eys) 1. a sweet, sticky, yellowish-brown fluid made by bees and other insects from nectar collected from flowers. ∎ this substance used as food, typically as a sweetener: his pancake is sometimes smeared with jam or honey. ∎ a yellowish-brown or golden color: [as adj.] her honey skin. ∎ any sweet substance similar to bees' honey. 2. inf. an excellent example of something: it's one honey of an adaptation. ∎ darling; sweetheart (usually as a form of address): hi, honey!
Hence honeycomb OE. huniġcamb. honeymoon XVI; expl. by early writers with ref. to affection of married people changing with the moon. honeysuckle clover XIII; woodbine, Lonicera XVI. ME. hunisuccle, -soukel, extension of hunisuce, -souke, OE. huniġsūce, -sūge (f. sūcan, sūgan SUCK). honeyed, honied sweetened as with honey. XIV.
Comb honey is honey stored by bees in cells of freshly built, broodless combs and sold in the comb; drained honey is drained from decapped combs.
See also where bees are, there is honey at bee.