At Byrd's, we supply only local honey because we believe in the importance of pollinators in our local community, as well as the health benefits of truly local honey. Bob Silverstein, one of our local beekeepers, has kindly agreed to write this blog to teach us more about this magical substance. Come try the Burlingame-based Suki's Honey - it's delicious!
How do Honeybees make honey, and what is honey anyway?
Suki’s Honey Bees
Honey is a sweet fluid made by honey bees using the nectar from flowering plants.
That sounds pretty simple but, it’s the details that reveal a fairly complex process.
Honey bee foragers (worker honey bees over 21 days old) leave the hive during the day to seek out resources like nectar (carbohydrate), pollen (protein), water and sap from plants.
I’m going to stick to the nectar foragers who make up around 60-80% of all the foragers from the hive. These nectar foragers search for flowers because the flowers provide them a tasty, sugary treat in exchange for pollination service. That’s right, over the past 80 million years plants and honey bees evolved together so that both benefit from interacting with one another.
Flowers secrete nectar that attracts the honey bees. During the process of collecting the nectar, pollen sticks to the fine hairs on the honey bee’s body. The pollen is then carried from one flower to another as the bee collects nectar from each flower of the same plant species. When the male and female parts of the plant get together pollination takes place. It is said that one of every three bites of food we eat is a result of pollination.
Once the honey bee has filled her honey stomach, or crop, with nectar she flies back to the hive and transfers the nectar to a waiting “house” bee. During her flight home she adds enzymes (invertase) to the nectar to begin the honey making process.
Nectar ranges from 50-80% water and contains mainly the sugar sucrose. Sucrose is composed of two sugars linked together (disaccharide). Honey is less than 20% water and contains glucose and fructose. How does that change happen? The enzyme the bee adds to the nectar splits the sucrose into its two component monosaccharides, glucose and fructose. (The ratio of these two sugars determines how fast a natural honey will crystallize).
The receiving “house” bee then stores the nectar in her honey crop where more enzymes are added (glucose oxidase lowers pH) and the nectar continues dehydration. Eventually, the partially dehydrated nectar is deposited in one of the honey comb cells and other bees fan it using their wings until the nectar becomes honey. Once the dehydration process gets the water content down to about 17%, a wax capping is placed over the cell to preserve the low water content of the honey. Honey is the only food product that will NEVER spoil. As long as it is kept sealed to prevent water from the atmosphere raising the water content above 20%. Honey does not require refrigeration as long as it is kept sealed.
Honey is not just sugar. Plants secrete many different compounds called phytochemicals. These plant substances remain in the honey and have been shown to have beneficial health effects for the honey bees. Pollen can be found in honey as well. The origin of a honey can be determined by the pollen species found within it. As a matter of fact, US Customs uses this method to determine whether or not imported honey is coming from where it is said to be coming from. Unfortunately, unscrupulous honey producers may heat and ultrafilter honey to remove all of the identifying pollen particles in attempts to sidestep rules and regulations for pure honey. Some honey has been found to have high fructose corn syrup and other adulterants added.
For real honey know your supplier and/or beekeeper. You may pay a little more but you will be getting real local honey and its potential health benefits.