Honey is a nutritious, delicious sweet food made by bees from the nectar of flowers.
Honey is also produced by bumblebees, stingless bees, and other hymenopteran insects such as honey wasps, though the honey is different from the honey from the “honey Bees” or Apis.
Honey bees convert the nectar using special enzymes. They store it as a source of food in wax honeycombs inside the beehive. Honey gets its sweetness from the presence of simple sugars fructose and glucose, and has about the same relative sweetness as granulated sugar. It has excellent properties for baking and has a distinctive flavor that leads many people to prefer it over sugar and other sweeteners. Most microorganisms do not grow in honey because of its low water content. This allows honey to be stored almost indefinitely.
However, honey sometimes contains dormant endospores of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which can be dangerous to infants, as the endospores can transform into toxin-producing bacteria in infants’ immature intestinal tracts, leading to illness and even death.
Honey has been eaten by humans for a long time, perhaps centuries and is one of the oldest sweeteners.
Flavors of honey vary based on the nectar source, and various types and grades of honey are available. It has been a staple in religious ceremonies. It has also been used in medicine to treat ailments.
Honey is Nutritious
Honey is a mixture of sugars and other compounds. With respect to carbohydrates, honey is mainly fructose (about 38.5%) and glucose (about 31.0%), making it similar to the synthetically produced inverted sugar syrup, which is approximately 48% fructose, 47% glucose, and 5% sucrose. Honey’s remaining carbohydrates include maltose, sucrose, and other complex carbohydrates. As with all nutritive sweeteners, honey is mostly sugars and contains only trace amounts of vitamins or minerals. Honey also contains tiny amounts of several compounds thought to function as antioxidants, including chrysin, pinobanksin, vitamin C, catalase, and pinocembrin. The specific composition of any batch of honey depends on the flowers available to the bees that produced the honey.
- Fructose: 38.2%
- Glucose: 31.3%
- Maltose: 7.1%
- Sucrose: 1.3%
- Water: 17.2%
- Higher sugars: 1.5%
- Ash: 0.2%
- Other/undetermined: 3.2%
Its glycemic index ranges from 31 to 78, depending on the variety.
Honey has a density of about 1.36 kilograms per litre (36% denser than water).
A honey bee on calyx of goldenrod
Honey is made by bees as a food source. To produce about 500 g of honey, honey bees have to travel the equivalent of three times around the world. When fresh food sources are scarce, bees use their stored honey as their source of energy. By gathering bee swarms to nest in artificial hives, people have been able to keep the insects, and harvest excess honey.
- A single female Queen Bee
- Many Male drone bees to fertilize The Queen
- Worker Bees: 20,000 — 40,000 females
The worker bees raise larvae and collect the nectar
that will become honey in the hive. They leave the hive and collect sugar-rich flower nectar and then return.
In the hive
the bees use their “honey stomachs” to ingest the nectar. The bees work together as a group with the regurgitation and digestion until the product reaches a desired quality. It is then stored in honeycomb cells. After the final step, the honeycomb is left unsealed. However, the nectar is still high in both water content and natural yeasts, which, unchecked, would cause the sugars in the nectar to ferment. The process continues as bees inside the hive fan their wings, creating a strong draft across the honeycomb, which evaporates much of the water from the nectar. This reduction in water content raises the sugar concentration and prevents fermentation. Ripe honey, as removed from the hive by a beekeeper, has a very long shelf life if properly sealed.
Honey is harvested from wild bee colonies, and/or from domesticated beehives. Wild bee nests are sometimes located by following a honey guide bird. The bees can be calmed using smoke from a bee smoker. The smoke triggers a feeding instinct (an attempt to save the resources of the hive from a possible fire), making them less aggressive and the smoke obscures the pheromones the bees use to communicate.
The fresh honeycomb is removed from the hive and the honey may be extracted from that. The honey is then filtered to remove beeswax and other debris.
Today beekeepers use removable frames. In the past bee colonies were often sacrificed in order to conduct the harvest. The harvester would take all the available honey and replace the entire colony the next spring. Since the invention of removable frames, most beekeepers ensure that their bees will have enough stores to survive the winter, either by leaving some honey in the beehive or by providing the colony with a honey substitute such as sugar water or crystalline sugar called “candyboard”.
Indicators of quality
High-quality honey can be distinguished by fragrance, taste, and consistency. Ripe, freshly collected, high-quality honey at 20 °C (68 °F) should flow from a knife in a straight stream, without breaking into separate drops. The honey, when poured, should form small, temporary layers that disappear fairly quickly, indicating high viscosity. If not, it indicates excessive water content (over 20%) of the product. Honey with excessive water content is not suitable for long-term preservation.
In jars, fresh honey would look like a pure, consistent fluid, without in layers. Within a few weeks to a few months of extraction, many varieties of honey crystallize into a cream-colored solid. Some varieties of honey, including tupelo, acacia, and sage, crystallize less regularly. Honey may be heated during bottling at temperatures of 40–49 °C (104–120 °F) to delay or inhibit crystallization. A fluffy film on the surface of the honey (like a white foam), or marble-colored or white-spotted crystallization on a containers sides, is formed by air bubbles trapped during the bottling process.
A 2008 Italian study found that nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy can be used to distinguish between different honey types even down to the area where it was produced.
Modern uses for Honey
The main uses of honey is in cooking, baking, as a spread on bread, in tea, and as a sweetener in some commercial beverages. According to The National Honey Board (a USDA-overseen organization), “honey stipulates a pure product that does not allow for the addition of any other substance…this includes, but is not limited to, water or other sweeteners”. Honey barbecue and honey mustard are common and popular sauce flavors.
Honey is used as a ferment-able
Honey is the main ingredient in the alcoholic beverage mead, which is also known as “honey wine” or “honey beer”. Historically, the ferment for mead was honey’s naturally occurring yeast. Honey is also used as an adjunct in some beers.
Honey wine, or mead, is typically (modern era) made with a honey and water mixture with a pack of yeast added for fermentation. but most meads require aging for 6–9 months or more in order to be palatable
Because of its special properties, honey is suitable for long-term storage and long term preservation. Honey, and objects immersed in honey, has been preserved for decades and even centuries. The key to preservation is keeping out humidity. Honey has a high sugar content which almost stops fermentation. If exposed to moist air though, its properties will pull moisture into the honey.
Regardless of preservation, honey may crystallize over time. The crystals can be dissolved by heating the honey.
In the US, honey grading is performed voluntarily (USDA does offer inspection and grading “as on-line (in-plant) or lot inspection…upon application, on a fee-for-service basis.”) based upon USDA standards. Honey is graded based upon a number of factors, including water content, flavor and aroma, absence of defects and clarity. Honey is also classified by color though it is not a factor in the grading scale. The honey grade scale is:
Grade Water content Flavor and aroma Absence of defects ClarityA < 18.6% Good—has a good, normal flavor and aroma for the predominant floral source and is free from caramelization, smoke, fermentation, chemicals and other odor causes Practically free—practically no defects that affect appearance or edibility Clear—may contain air bubbles that do not materially affect the appearance; may contain a trace of pollen grains or other finely divided particles of suspended material that do not affect appearance B > 18.6% and < 20.0% Reasonably good—practically free from caramelization; free from smoke, fermentation, chemicals, and other causes Reasonably free—do not materially affect appearance or edibility Reasonably clear—may contain air bubbles, pollen grains, or other finely divided particles of suspended material that do not materially affect appearance C < 20.0% Fairly good—reasonably free from caramelization; free from smoke, fermentation, chemicals, and other causes Fairly free—do not seriously affect the appearance or edibility Fairly clear—may contain air bubbles, pollen grains, or other finely divided particles of suspended material that do not seriously affect appearance Substandard > 20.0% Fails Grade C Fails Grade C Fails Grade C
Honey Health Properties
Honey was used medicinally by ancient Greeks and Egyptians and has been traditionally used in Ayurveda in India and in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
The Quran mentions honey as a medicine. Medieval Islamic and Christian scholars described the use of honey in medicine of that period.
Some yoga traditions recommend daily consumption of honey mixed with warm water to strengthen the circulatory system and for asthma.
The potential health benefits of honey have been studied in clinical trials and other experiments. Little to no efficacy has been identified.
Honey has been proven to be effective in reducing effects from Allergies
Consumption is sometimes advocated as a treatment for seasonal allergies due to pollen, however, honey is generally considered ineffective for the treatment of rhinosinusitis.
There is some weak evidence that honey may help treat mild burns if used in a dressing.
US and UK regulatory authorities recommend avoiding giving over the counter cold medication to children. UK authorities recommend “a warm drink of lemon and honey or a simple cough syrup that contains glycerol or honey” in children instead, but warn that honey should not be given to very young children because of the risk of infant botulism.
In history, culture, and folklore
Honey use and production has a long and varied history. Indeed, Honey has associations that go far beyond its use as a food. .
According to a cave painting in Valencia, Spain, humans apparently began hunting for honey at least 8,000 years ago. The painting is a Mesolithic rock painting, showing two honey-hunters collecting honey and honeycomb from a wild bee nest. The figures are shown carrying baskets or bowls, and using a ladder or series of ropes to reach the wild nest.
The greater honeyguide bird guides humans to wild bee hives and some think this behavior may have evolved with early humans.
The oldest remains of honey have been found in the country of Georgia. Archaeologists have found honey remains on the inner surface of ancient clay vessels, dating back some 4,700–5,500 years. In ancient Georgia, honey was packed for people’s journeys into the afterlife, and more than one type, too – along for the trip were linden, berry, and a meadow-flower varieties of honey.
Ancient Egyptian and Middle Eastern peoples used honey for embalming. The fertility god of Egypt, Min, was offered honey.
The spiritual and therapeutic use of honey in ancient India is documented in both the Vedas and the Ayurveda texts, which were both composed at least 4,000 years ago.
Pliny the Elder wrote in his book Naturalis Historia about the bee and honey, and its many uses. In the absence of sugar, honey was an important sweetening ingredient in Roman recipes, and references to its use in food can be found in the work of many Roman authors, including Athenaeus, Cato, and Bassus.
The art of beekeeping in ancient China has existed so long its origins cannot be traced. In the book Golden Rules of Business Success written by Fan Li or Tao Zhu Gong during the Spring and Autumn Period, some parts discuss beekeeping and the importance how the wooden box for beekeeping can affect the quality of its honey.
Honey was also cultivated in ancient Mayans. The Maya used honey from the stingless bee for food, and continue to do so today. The Maya also regard the bee as sacred.
Many cultures believed honey had many practical health uses. It was used as an ointment for rashes and burns, and to help soothe sore throats when no other practices were available.
In Hinduism, honey called Madhu is one of the five elixirs of immortality. In temples, honey is poured over the deities in a ritual. The Vedas and other ancient literature mention the use of honey as a great medicinal and health food
In Jewish tradition, honey is a symbol for the New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Apple slices dipped in honey and eaten to bring a sweet new year. Some Rosh Hashanah greetings cards show honey and an apple, symbolizing the feast. In some congregations, small straws of honey are given out to usher in the New Year.
The Hebrew Bible contains many references to honey. In the Book of Judges, Samson found a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of a lion (14:8). In Old Testament law, offerings were made in the temple to God. The Book of Leviticus says that “Every grain offering you bring to the Lord must be made without yeast, for you are not to burn any yeast or honey in a food offering presented to the Lord” (2:11). In the Books of Samuel Jonathan is forced into a confrontation with his father King Saul after eating honey in violation of a rash oath Saul made (14:24–47). The Book of Exodus famously describes the Promised Land as a “land flowing with milk and honey”
Pure honey is considered kosher even though it is produced by a flying insect, a nonkosher creature; other products of nonkosher animals are not kosher.
In Buddhism, honey plays an important role in the festival of Madhu Purnima, celebrated in India and Bangladesh. The day commemorates Buddha’s making peace among his disciples by retreating into the wilderness. The legend has it that while he was there, a monkey brought him honey to eat. On Madhu Purnima, Buddhists remember this act by giving honey to monks. The monkey’s gift is frequently depicted in Buddhist art.
In the Christian New Testament, Matthew 3:4, John the Baptist is said to have lived for a long period of time in the wilderness on a diet consisting of locusts and wild honey.
In Islam, there is an entire chapter (Surah) in the Qur’an called an-Nahl (the Bee). Prophet Muhammad strongly recommended honey for healing purposes. The Qur’an promotes honey as a nutritious and healthy food. Below is the English translation of those specific verses:
And thy Lord taught the Bee to build its cells in hills, on trees, and in (men’s) habitations; Then to eat of all the produce (of the earth), and find with skill the spacious paths of its Lord: there issues from within their bodies a drink of varying colours, wherein is healing for men: verily in this is a Sign for those who give thought [Al-Quran 16:68–69].
As of 2012, China, Turkey, and Argentina were the top producers of natural honey, followed by Ukraine and the United States.
Top Five Natural Honey Producing Countries
|Grade||Water content||Flavor and aroma||Absence of defects||Clarity|
|A||< 18.6%||Good—has a good, normal flavor and aroma for the predominant floral source and is free from caramelization, smoke, fermentation, chemicals and other odor causes||Practically free—practically no defects that affect appearance or edibility||Clear—may contain air bubbles that do not materially affect the appearance; may contain a trace of pollen grains or other finely divided particles of suspended material that do not affect appearance|
|B||> 18.6% and < 20.0%||Reasonably good—practically free from caramelization; free from smoke, fermentation, chemicals, and other causes||Reasonably free—do not materially affect appearance or edibility||Reasonably clear—may contain air bubbles, pollen grains, or other finely divided particles of suspended material that do not materially affect appearance|
|C||< 20.0%||Fairly good—reasonably free from caramelization; free from smoke, fermentation, chemicals, and other causes||Fairly free—do not seriously affect the appearance or edibility||Fairly clear—may contain air bubbles, pollen grains, or other finely divided particles of suspended material that do not seriously affect appearance|
|Substandard||> 20.0%||Fails Grade C||Fails Grade C||Fails Grade C|
Other countries may have differing standards on the grading of honey. India, for example, certifies honey grades based on additional factors, such as the Fiehe’s test, and other empirical measurements. China Cooks the honey to cover up the location of the honey harvest and they also have different standards so have been documented that they add filler such as sugars and starches so it is not 100% honey.
Mexico is also an important producer of honey, providing more than 4% of the world’s supply. Much of this (about one-third) comes from the Yucatán Peninsula. Honey production began there when the Apis mellifera and the A. mellifera ligustica were introduced there early in the 20th century. Most of Mexico’s Yucatán producers are small, family operations who use original traditional techniques, moving hives to take advantage of the various tropical and subtropical flowers.
Honey is also one of the gourmet products of the French island of Corsica. Corsican honey is certified as to its origin (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) just as are French wines, like Champagne.
Honey consumption per capita per year exceeds one kilogram in some countries like Austria, Germany and Switzerland.
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