Honey must surely be among the most delectable natural foodstuffs and the good news is that it is a very healthy thing to eat, in moderation of course. There is a very wide range of flavors and consistencies among the honeys on sale but they all have one thing in common. They are made by the Honey Bee, which is currently suffering massive and unexplained decline in numbers in many industrial countries, including the USA and, to some extent, Britain.
Honey bees are social insects which live in colonies of tens of thousands, typically perhaps 60,000. A single Queen bee lives in each colony and lays the eggs which hatch to produce the Worker bees, who go out to forage. Worker honey bees spend the first few weeks of their life on various tasks inside the colony or hive. At about 20 days of age they take to the skies in search of resources to take back to their colony, to feed its larvae and the Queen.
Honey bees collect pollen, water and a resinous substance known as propolis but it is the nectar secreted by flowers which is gathered to produce honey. Nectar is a watery, sugar solution. Flowering plants produce it to lure bees and other insects to visit their flowers. As they drink it, they brush upon the flower’s pollen and transfer some of it to the next flower they visit, ensuring cross pollination occurs. Each Honey bee sucks the nectar into a special honey stomach using her long tongue, known as a ‘glossa’. When the honey stomach is full, she flies back to the colony or hive.
While the nectar is inside the honey bee, special chemicals called enzymes are secreted into it from the bee’s hypopharyngial gland. At the hive, each foraging worker transfers the nectar by mouth to a younger worker aged from about 6 to 18 days. This bee then transfers the solution from its stomach to the hexagonal wax cells used by bees to store their supplies and house their eggs and larvae.
The enzymes now in the nectar solution help break down the complex sugars it contains into mainly fructose and glucose. Honey typically consists of around 31% fructose, 38% glucose, 1% sucrose, 9% other sugars, 4% organic acids and other substances and 17% water. Excess water is allowed to evaporate out of the solution before the worker bees seal it inside the waxy honeycomb by putting a wax lid on the top of each cell. This can take many days. Honey bees will not seal honeycomb in which the solution is too watery.
In humid conditions, large numbers of honey bees will be sent to the hive entrance to fan with their wings. This produces a through draft of air to lower humidity in the hive and bring the water content in uncapped honey down to the required level. This is critical, as at 17% water content honey will keep indefinitely. If it were left more watery, it would ferment and be dangerous. It is said that honeycomb thousands of years old has been recovered from some ancient Egyptian Pharaoh’s tombs, with the honey still edible.
Honey bees produce honey to feed themselves through inclement weather and to keep them alive through the winter. Unlike wasps and hornets, worker bees live through the winter, maintaining a temperature of 32.5 to 35 degrees Celsius inside their colony or hive. They hang in a massive cluster, rotating which bees are on the outside, and keeping their Queen safe in the center until, with the coming of spring, she resumes her egg laying.
A typical colony may need around 30 lbs of honey (14kg) to overwinter safely, depending on location. At the height of the summer, a worker bee probably only lives for around six weeks before it dies of exhaustion from its toil. Each bee produces only a tiny amount of honey in its short lifetime, but the collective toil of tens of thousands mounts up. In a good year most colonies gather more honey than they need. Humans can harvest the surplus honey that bees store without endangering their survival. If too much is taken, the bees will starve and die, which is surely a cruel and unjust fate for these wonderful insects.