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Is Honey Just Bee Spit?

Updated: Jan 2, 2022

Well, kind of, but not really. First and foremost, Honey by definition can only be created by the honeybee, and only from a floral nectar source. There are other types of so called “honey”, but true honey is as stated.

Bees may gather nectar from a variety of plants. Here in the Piedmont of NC, some of the common ones in the spring are: Tulip Poplar Tree, Sweet Clover, Crimson Clover, Vetch, Blackberry, various Fruit Trees, Persimmon Tree, and etc. Flowers produce nectar in order to attract pollinators, such as the honeybee, to transport pollen from flower to flower for fertilization; a little reward shall we. Nectar sources vary widely in sugar content and chemical make-up. Some sources like a Pear Tree may have as little as 10% sugar content, while Sweet Clover may contain 40% sugar. The chemical make-up also varies to include Sucrose, Glucose, Maltose, Fructose, and a host of others. Honey bees are attracted to Sucrose more so than Fructose.

Honeybees actually have two stomachs, separated by a valve (proventriculus). When honeybees are foraging for nectar, they close this valve and take in nectar to the “Honey Stomach”, to be later regurgitated, and no digestion occurs. The honeybee will typically carry about 40 mg of nectar back to the colony on each trip.

Once the nectar is brought back to the hive, the real magic begins. The bees regurgitate the nectar from their Honey Stomach, sometimes directly into a cell, but more often to a “House Bee” (A younger bee whose duties are confined to the colony). This is when the physical and chemical change begins. The active evaporation phase is first, where the bee blows tiny bubbles of nectar on their mouth parts to increase the surface area and dry the nectar. They continue to dry, and then re-ingest the nectar, all while mixing it with an enzyme called Sucrase. This enzyme causes the various complex sugars to be broken down into two simple sugars, Glucose and Fructose. The bees also add another enzyme called Glucose Oxidase to the mix. This enzyme breaks some of the glucose down into Gluconic Acid (preservative), and Hydrogen Peroxide (anti-bacterial). The drying process continues within the honeycomb as well until it reaches a moisture content of about 18%.

(Sidebar)Just to put it into perspective, if the honeybee brought home 40 mg of nectar with 20% sugar content, there will be less than 10 mg of honey when the process is over. 1 Pound of honey will take a half-million trips to the bloom!

(Back to business) Once the honey is “ripe”, the bees will cap the honeycomb cells with a wax capping to protect it from the environment. Honey retains the original floral minerals, vitamins, acids, pigments, enzymes, and aroma from the original floral source. This makes up about 3% of the finished product.

Honey by nature will eventually crystallize, or granulate. The honey has not gone bad…but due to the unstable glucose molecules, it turns to sugar over time. Floral sources which have a higher concentration of glucose will of course crystallize quicker. Inputs such as cold storage will also speed granulation. Heating during the processing of honey can slow the process, but can also negatively impact the beneficial components of honey if done improperly.

Honey can also ferment if the moisture content is above 18.6%. If left in the open air, honey will attract moisture, and eventually ferment.

One other tidbit…Glucose and fructose are monosaccharides. They require no processing for our bodies to use for energy. If you need a quick pick-me-up, eat some honey!

I think it’s pretty amazing stuff…how about you?

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