What is honey?
Honey is a thick, golden liquid produced by honey bees, using the nectar of plants.
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.
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.
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.
To try these differences 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.
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. 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!