From food to medicine, cultures all over the world have recognized honey’s importance (even prior to written, recorded history). But, in today’s modern times, honey’s easy availability has a tendency to let consumers forget the amazing path it takes to get from the hive to the shelf. Learning more about how honey is made can help remind us of its roots so that we all can appreciate how complex of a product it really is.
It All Starts With A Flower and A Bee
Honey starts with two humble components – a flower and a forager bee. Once the bee finds a flower that it is attracted to, it uses its proboscis (or, long, tube-shaped tongue), to start the honey process by extracting the flower’s nectar by sipping it. That nectar, which is the sugar-rich liquid that is produced by the flower to attract the bees in the first place, travels down the proboscis and into the bee’s honey stomach to be stored.
Once the nectar reaches the bee’s honey stomach (also known as the “crop”), it immediately starts to be broken down by the bee’s crop enzymes. This process, known as inversion, turns the nectar’s complex sugars into more simple sugars that are less likely to crystallize. This also makes those sugars easier to store long-term.
An interesting fact about this part of the process is just how much the type of flower affects the color and flavor of the honey. For example, nectar from an orange blossom creates sweet honey that is light in color, while nectar from an avocado tree creates a thicker, darker, less sweet honey.
On To The Bee Chain
Once the forager bee is full (after visiting between 50 – 100 flowers), it heads back to the hive. The hive is full of waiting, younger house bees, which will “accept” the modified nectar from the forager bee when it regurgitates it into its mouth. The house bees then continue to break down the nectar with their own special crop enzymes. The process continues on, as the nectar is regurgitated from house bee to house bee until its water content reaches about 20 percent.
A Hive Full of Honeycomb
Once the nectar reaches the preferred viscosity, the final house bee in the bee chain regurgitates the now fully inverted product into one of the hive’s many honeycomb cells.
But the process still isn’t complete, as the nectar needs to have even more of its water content removed before becoming the final product that is ready to be extracted. To achieve that, the hive bees will all begin to beat their wings faster and faster, which fans the nectar. When paired with the warm temperature inside the hive (around 94 degrees Fahrenheit), the remainder of the water quickly evaporates and the honeycomb is ready.
The house bee then has one final job. When each honeycomb reaches maximum capacity, beeswax produced from the house bee’s abdominal glands seals it for future consumption.
The Harvesting Process
On average, a single hive will produce more than 200 pounds of honey a year. However, only 30 to 60 pounds of that can be safely harvested without affecting the bee colony’s ability to survive through the winter.
Wearing protective clothing, the beekeeper uses a fume box to chase the bees from the hive (this does not hurt the bees, they just don’t like the smell). After the bees have been cleared, the honeycomb frames can be removed from the hive and brought to a safe location to be harvested.
Using a hot knife, the beekeeper scrapes the wax caps off of each honeycomb before using a honey extractor to separate the liquid honey from the comb. This process, which can be done either manually or with an electric honey extractor, does not damage the comb which allows it to be reused. If retaining the honeycomb is not a concern, it can instead be cut entirely out of the frame before being crushed and strained.
The Finished Product: Edible Honey!
After the extraction process is complete, the honey can be poured into a closed container and allowed to settle for at least a few days. Honey never goes bad, so its shelf life is only limited to how long it takes the consumer to finish it off. With more than 300 different varieties of honey, the ways in which it can be eaten are nearly endless.
From flower to bottle, the honey process is far more involved than most people realize. Learning how honey is made can help all of us better appreciate and respect how this delicious, well-known product ends up on our table.