When it comes to anything either golden or sweet, it’s regarded as something of value by the human mind. Fortunately, honey has both of these qualities. Heaven, according to the Christian bible, is “The Land of Milk and Honey.” In ancient times, honey was known as the food of the gods and was regularly offered as a sacrifice to the gods. Now, before your mouth starts watering, let’s take a peek at what it takes to create this natural food for the gods.
Honey is the sweet and syrupy substance produced by honeybees from the nectar of flowers. Honey is comprised of 17-20% water, 76-80% glucose, fructose, pollen, wax, and other mineral salts. The composition, consistency, and color of the honey are dependent on the type of flower from which the nectar is obtained. For example, alfalfa and clover produce white honey, heather produces a reddish-brown color, lavender leads to an amber hue, while acacia and sainfoin generate a straw color in honey.
A bee colony of average size can produce 27.2-45.7 kgs of honey every year. The hierarchical structure of a honeybee colony is three-tiered. There are the worker class bees, which consist of around 50,000-70,000 bees. The life span of a worker bee is only three to six weeks, where each bee collects close to one teaspoon of nectar. A half kilogram of honey requires close to 1.8 kilograms of nectar. All the worker bees are female. When the worker bees are 20 days old, they begin leaving the hive to collect nectar. Nectar is the sweet juice produced by the glands of flowers. The bees extract the nectar from the flower by penetrating the petals. The bee then sucks the nectar from the flower with the help of its tongue and stores it in its abdomen or pollen sac. A very unique process occurs when the nectar is stored in the bee. Water is drawn in from its intestines and the bee then produces special enzymes from its glandular system to make the nectar sweeter!
Not only do bees possess the ability to acquire nectar from flowers, but they also play a vital role in the pollination of flowers. When the bees land on a flower to collect the nectar, pollen grains get stuck to their hairy legs. When the bees fly to another flower, the pollen also goes to that other flower, which is primarily how pollen is transferred and flowers reproduce. When the worker bee is unable to hold any more nectar, she returns to the hive. The nectar is then poured into empty honeycomb cells. Other worker bees then ingest the nectar from the honeycombs, adding more enzymes into the nectar, ripening it into honey. When the honey is wholly ripened, it is poured back into the honeycomb one last time and sealed off as honey!
Once a honeycomb is filled with honey, it is the beekeeper’s responsibility to remove the honey. The beekeeper takes appropriate protection by wearing a veiled helmet and protective gloves. The removal of the honeycomb can be done by several methods. The beekeeper may simply sweep the bees off the honeycomb by brushing them back into the hive. The second method consists of driving the bees into the hive by puffing smoke onto the honeycombs. When sensing the smoke, the bees mistake it for fire and try to flee with as much honey as they can. When they are fully engorged with so much honey, the bees tend to become calmer and less likely to sting. A third method is done by separating the queen bee from the worker bees. This is achieved with the help of a separator board. When the bees in the honey chamber sense that the queen is missing, they exit through a slot that prevents them from re-entering back into the honeycomb.
After the extraction of the honeycomb, roughly two-thirds of the honeycomb is capped with beeswax. The honeycombs are then transferred somewhere without any bees. Using what is known as a long-handled uncapping fork, the beekeeper scrapes off the caps from both sides of the honeycomb. The honeycombs are then placed into an extractor. The extractor is a large drum that uses centrifugal force to draw the honey out. Each honeycomb can weigh as much as 2.27 kgs. Once the extractor starts spinning, the honey is pulled out and pressed up against the walls. It drips down the cone-shaped bottom and out of the extractor with the help of a spigot. Positioned under the valve is a honey bucket. This honey bucket consists of two sieves used for filtering the honey from the wax. One of the sieves is coarse, while the other is soft.
Once the honey is extracted, it is shipped off to a commercial distributor. The honey is then poured into tanks that are heated to a temperature of 48.9°C. The honey is held at this temperature for roughly 24 hours so that any other impurities, such as pollen and bee parts, rise to the top and can be skimmed off. After this, the honey is once again put through another heating process, known as flash heating, at a temperature of 73.8oC. It is then flash cooled back to a temperature of 48.9°C. This whole procedure of flashing heating and cooling is done in a matter of seven seconds. Although these heating procedures remove some of the honey’s beneficial health properties, consumers prefer the lighter, bright-colored honey that results. A small percentage, perhaps 5%, is left unfiltered and is merely strained. This honey is darker and cloudier, but there is also a market for this unprocessed form of honey. The honey is then pumped into jars or cans for shipment to retail and industrial customers.
That is the long and meticulous process that delicious honey takes before reaching your mouth!