How honeybees create honey

Honey is the only natural sweetener and also a healthy one! Worldwide there are only 6 bee species who actually produce honey. Its preparation is complex and for just one kilogram of honey, up to 100’000 foraging flights are necessary. A magical feat!

The creation of honey

Honey is produced from the natural materials nectar and honeydew, which are collected and processed by the bees. The nectar is secreted by flowers and consists mainly of water and the sugars sucrose, glucose and fructose. It also contains small amounts of amino acids, minerals and vitamins. Honeydew, on the other hand, is the excreted product of aphids, which feed on plant sap. Because this juice contains a lot of sugar and just small amounts of amino acids, the aphids excrete the surplus of sugar. In addition to sucrose and the polysaccharide melezitose, honeydew also contains small amounts of proteins, amino acids, minerals and vitamins.

Nectar and honeydew are taken up by forager bees who and brought to the colony in their honey stomach. The collected food is handed over to a hive bee who then passes the honey on from bee to bee. During this process the honey is thickened and enriched with enzymes and antibacterial acids. This makes the honey preservable and changes the sugar composition. Only at a moisture content below 40% the honey is stored in the honeycombs. This does not mean that the process is finished however. The bees will further thicken the honey by flapping their wings, in doing so the bees create a «airco» effect, which lowers the moisture content even further. Finally, the ripe honey is capped (at a moisture content below 18%)[1].

Types of honey

The composition of the various sugar molecules in nectar or honeydew is strongly influenced by the plant species. Over 500 different aromatic substances, which can be present in honey, have been described. The presence of these substances depends on the botanical origin of the honey. Consistency, color and taste are therefore all a result of the foraging area. A typical or distinguished type of honey can be produced in regions which are dominated by a particular plant. In Switzerland, 7 different types of honey are distinguished: Acacia, chestnut, alpine rose, lime, dandelion, rapeseed and pine honey. Their characteristics are summarized in Table 1 and are also described in detail in the handbook «Schweizer Sortenhonige» (ALP forum 2005, No. 23 d)[2-3].

Sidr honey from Yemen, also known as Allah’s nectar, is one of the rarest and most expensive honey varieties in the world. The collection area for this honey is a valley just 150 km long in which the Jujube tree grows. The honey obtained from this tree is so valuable that beekeepers guard their colonies with a machine gun during the Jujube’s flowering period. Sidr honey not only has a unique, spicy taste, it is also said to have healing powers. Similarly exclusive as the Sidr Honey is the Organic White Honey from the Kohala Desert of Hawaii which is extracted from the Kiawe tree. The Kiawe forest where the bees collect the nectar for this honey is just 4 square kilometers. The honey is not only said to have an excellent tropical taste, but also to have a high clarity.

Table 1: Types of honey common in Switzerland
Table 1: Types of honey common in Switzerland

Healthy properties

Honey is considered to be extremely healthy. Although the proportion of vitamins and minerals is relatively low compared to the daily requirement (Table 2), honey also contains hydrogen peroxide and flavourings as well as phenols and flavonoids, which are involved in plant pest control. These substances have antimicrobial, antiviral and antioxidant properties. Honey can therefore not only inhibit the growth of pathogens, but also activates the immune system and reduces oxidative stress, which can play an important role in the development of chronic diseases. These properties are influenced by the botanical origin of honey and can be reduced by heat and storage. Honey should therefore be processed as gently as possible and eaten fresh[4].

Table 2: Composition of honey
Table 2: Composition of honey

Literature

1 Ball, D. W. The chemical composition of honey. Journal of Chemical Education 84, 1643-1646 (2007).

2 Bogdanov, S., Bieri, K., Holeiter, M., Rieder, K. & Matzke, A. Das Schweizerische Bienenbuch – Bienenprodukte und Apitherapie. VDRB (2014).

3 Bogdanov, S., Bieri, K., Kilchenmann, V. & Gallmann, P. Schweizer Sortenhonige. ALP forum Nr 23 d (2005).

4 Bogdanov, S., Jurendic, T., Sieber, R. & Gallmann, P. Honey for nutrition and health: a review. American Journal of the College of Nutrition 27, 677-689 (2008).

Vatorex, Felix Poelsma
23 September, 2019
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