What is honey?
Honey is a thick, golden liquid produced by honey bees, using the nectar of plants.
Why do bees make honey?
Honey bees are one of the few insects that do not hibernate in winter, instead they stay awake in their hive. In the summer months when there are lots of flowers around, they make honey so that they’ll have something to eat in winter, when there are no flowers to forage from. Nectar from flowers is the base of all honey – it contains about 80% water, along with complex sugars. If left in its natural state, nectar would ferment, so in order to store the sugars to use during the winter, bees evaporate much of the water content, which converts the nectar into honey. They take the honey and cap it off in a beeswax cell, sealing it into the honeycomb so they can eat it later. Bees always make more honey than they need, so there is enough for us to have some too. Beekeepers always make sure that they leave enough honey for the bees to survive the winter months.
How do bees make honey?
Firstly, they land on a flower or a plant, suck the nectar up and store it in their stomachs. Back at the hive, they convert this nectar into honey, once the worker bees have ripened it. They ripen the nectar by taking a drop into their stomachs where enzymes turn the nectar into watery honey. They then deposit it into a honeycomb cell in the hive and the bees fan the watery honey with their wings until most of the water evaporates and it becomes thick and golden. They then seal the top of the honeycomb with wax, so it keeps for winter. The wax comes from the bees too, from four pairs of wax glands on the underside of their abdomens.
Why are there so many different types of honey?
We all know that honey is made by bees, after collecting nectar from flowers. But did you know that different nectars produce different types of honey? Which is lucky for us, because this means that we get loads of different flavours to try!
The different flowers that honeybees visit can affect the colour, flavour and even aroma of the honey produced. Clever beekeepers can control the types of flowers that bees visit and, in turn, effect the type of honey produced.
In many ways, this makes honey similar to wine or whisky – even small changes in climate, time of year, rainfall and temperature can produce differences in the honey at the end of the process. In wine, this is known as ‘terroir’ and we can think of honey in much the same way. Different ‘terroir’ produces different honey and because the season and weather is always changing, no two honeys will ever be quite the same.
When a beekeeper keeps a hive in an area where bees have access to only one type of flower, the honey produced is known as ‘monofloral’ honey. The best thing about this is that the honey takes on the unique and complex characteristics of the source flower, which is why different beekeepers like to try all sorts of flowering plants for their bees. Eucalyptus, clover, blueberry, avocado, sage, cactus – all of these have been used in honey-making and all make honeys that taste different.
To see the difference for yourself, try comparing our Orange Blossom honey, which has a fresh, fruity tanginess, to our Clover Honey, which has a more buttery vanilla taste. If you want to go to the complete other end of the spectrum, try a Manuka Honey. This comes from New Zealand and is made from the nectar of the flowers of the Manuka tree. Its taste is like nothing else – slightly herby, earthy and rich.
Why are different honeys different colours?
There are so many varieties of honey from all over the world. Some honeys are from a single flower or blossom and others are blended from different sources. Depending on where the honey is from and which nectar was used by the bees, the honey will have a different colour, taste and texture.
How long has honey been around?
Honey has been used by many different cultures all over the world for as long there have been people to collect it from honey bees. Early humans discovered how good honey was as a natural fuel and it has remained popular ever since.
Archaeologists have found jars of crystallised honey in tombs in Egypt, and scrolls of papyrus detailing how to use honey to heal wounds. Even thousands of years later, scientists have analysed the quality of the honey and have found that it is still an effective anti-bacterial ointment. The ancient Egyptians would even sacrifice honey to the Nile god and Ramses III once offered 14,000 KG of honey to the river.
Vikings loved Mead – a drink made out of honey, water, and fruits or spices – they would quaff it in their mead-halls, and believed it was the drink of the gods
The Tudors loved sweet things, but sugar was very expensive and only the rich could eat it. The poor kept beehives and used honey to sweeten their food instead. These days, sugar is inexpensive, but now many of us would prefer to use nature’s sweetener instead!