We will be first time bee-owners in just a few short weeks. I helped my dad raise bees when I was younger, but this is the first time I will be the head-beekeeper. The queen bee, if you will.
I always knew that bees were pretty cool, but it wasn’t until I really dove into the books to learn about how to care for them, that I realized how absolutely amazing they really are.
Sometimes when I read about them, I forget that they are insects. It seems like they could be little people in that hive with hopes and dreams, personalities, and weekend plans.
I think for a long time I was under-appreciating honey. And not that I was wasting it or mis-using it in anyway, I just didn’t fully understand what it took to make it, and I wish I had.
So that I could have appreciated it that much more.
I bet if bees could talk (to us) they would want us to know every detail that went into making that honey; the thousands of flowers they visited to make one teaspoon of it, the hours of wing flapping to evaporate it, and the lives lost guarding it. They would want us to fully appreciate the perfectly orchestrated coordination of mother nature it took to make every golden drop.
And I think we owe them that. Plus, it’s just some really cool information…
From Flower to Honey Bear
The ladies of the hive, the worker bees, are responsible for honey-making.
It isn’t until a worker bee’s life is half over, around 22 days old, that she will finally be promoted to pollen and nectar gatherer. Up until this point she was assigned other duties in the hive, like feeding the young, making wax, and guarding the hive entrance.
The bee ventures out to find nectar, often up to three miles from the hive. Once she finds a suitable crop of flowers, she will remember exactly where it is so she is able to return to it until every drop of nectar is gathered. She will also tell her hive-mates how to find this stand of flowers.
She has a long tongue that she uses to suck nectar up from the inner parts of a flower. Nectar is a just-slightly-sweet liquid reward that the plant offers to potential pollinators. According to the Canadian Honey Council, bees will tap about two million flowers and fly 50,000 miles to make one pound of honey. (one pound!!)
The bee sucks up the nectar and stores it in her “honey stomach,” which is pretty much just a storage container inside of her abdomen. The bee will visit between 100 and 1500 flowers before she completely fills her honey stomach.
With a full honey stomach the worker bee returns to the hive. Inside the entrance she is greeted by several younger “house bees” who will suck the nectar into their own honey stomachs. The house bees will start to “chew” the nectar, adding enzymes to transform and break down the sugars. Yes, bee spit.
Bee spit is what makes all the difference. For example, molasses is another thick, liquid sugar with a similar acidity and water content as honey- but why does it spoil when honey won’t?
Because bees secrete enzymes that mix with nectar, and one in particular, glucose oxidase, breaks some of the nectar down into hydrogen peroxide. You may know this stuff as a great wound-cleaning agent! Well, the small amount of hydrogen peroxide in honey, along with its low moisture content prevents anything from growing in it, which is why it has an incredible shelf life.
When the nectar is sufficiently chewed, the house bee will place it into a honeycomb cell. Another crew of bees comes in, stands over the honeycomb and vigorously fans their wings in order to evaporate more water out of the nectar and concentrate it into honey. They often fan 24 hours a day until it is done- this is the buzzing that you hear coming from a beehive.
Once the honey is at the perfect water content, the bees will place a wax cap over the honeycomb cell.
This is where the beekeeper comes in. The frames with honeycomb on them are removed from the hive. A hot knife is used to remove the thin layer of wax that the bees capped the cells with. The honey is drained from the comb, often spun with a centrifuge to fling the honey out of the cells. It’s filtered, bottled, and then eaten…by Karl, probably. I’ve caught him in the kitchen, spoon in the honey jar, more times than I can remember…
Each worker bee will produce about 1/12 tsp of honey it its short lifetime. Power in numbers!
I can’t wait until we have our own bees here on the homestead. I love that I will see them around the yard, on the trees and flowers and drinking water from the birdbath. And I love that they will use pollen and make honey from the very plants that we have right here.
How to Find High Quality Honey
Find a trusted source. There have been reports of many brands of honey that are cut with sugar, or hardly contain any real honey at all. Do your homework. Chances are good that your local small-time beekeeper, or someone you find at the farmer’s market is selling the real stuff. If you are lucky enough to talk to the beekeeper, feel free to ask them lots of questions!
Seek out raw honey. Raw honey has so many wonderful nutrients, many of which are destroyed when commercial honey is heat-treated. I won’t eat heat-treated, cooked, pasteurized honey (partly because I am a honey-snob) but to me it just isn’t the same. I want those nutrients!
It is also likely that raw honey is not ultra-filtered, like the commercial pasteurized kinds will be. Filtering removes a lot of the pollen and propolis, part of what gives honey its health properties.
If you can’t find a trusted, local, raw source of honey in your area, you can find some good stuff online. I’ve mentioned before that Tropical Traditions (a company focused on healthy and high-quality foods) has one of my favorite honeys!
And don’t forget: when you eat honey, you’re eating something pretty special!
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