Learn the Health Benefits of Honey

Author addresses the question 'What is honey,' and lists the different types of honey, the health benefits of honey, and why some believe in local honey for allergies.

| July/August 2015

The 1970s and ’80s saw a spike in generic food. Many supermarkets sold food (or “food”) in white containers labeled with only the name of the food. These days, consumers are more aware of where their food comes from, how it is processed, and the varieties available. 

Recently I learned – mostly as a result of making mead and judging some mead contests – that there is a wide variety of honeys out there, and each may be processed in different ways. To understand why different varieties of honey have different characteristics, and how processing affects these traits, it’s best to start with how bees make honey.

Winter In the Hive

Honeybees are eusocial insects, meaning they have a queen that lays eggs while all the other females in the hive are nonreproductive worker bees. All the worker bees are sisters. During winter, honeybees mostly remain in their hive. The numerous worker bees huddle around the queen, forming a winter cluster. The heat of their metabolic activity, which can be increased by shivering or beating their wings, keeps the queen and other members of the cluster warm – quite warm, in fact. The queen is kept at 81 degrees Fahrenheit during the coldest days of winter. The fuel for all this heat is the honey produced earlier in the year. 

Spring and Beyond

Once the first spring flowers emerge, worker bees visit them and collect nectar and pollen. Nectar is a liquid solution, produced by the plant, containing more than 50 percent water. The main solid dissolved in nectar is sucrose, followed by lesser amounts of fructose, glucose, maltose and other sugars. Whatever floral compounds responsible for the flower’s scent are also present in the nectar. A worker bee collects 50 to 60 milligrams of nectar – about 90 percent of her body weight – before returning to the hive. Much of this nectar is stored in the bee’s honey sac (or honey stomach), an outcropping of the digestive system.

Pollen is “plant sperm,” and worker bees collect this, too. Worker bees get pollen grains stuck on their “hair” when they visit flowers. They then groom themselves to roll the pollen into balls and move the balls to their pollen basket, a structure on their hind legs. They bring this pollen back to the hive. Of course, some pollen rubs off the bee whenever she visits a flower, potentially pollinating it, and that is why flowers maintain the necessary features to attract bees. 

Worker bees use some of the nectar and pollen for their own nutrition. They will also regurgitate it to feed their sisters. The remaining nectar and pollen, if any, goes toward honey production. In early spring, most of the nectar and pollen is immediately consumed by the workers to restore the health of the hive, fuel hive maintenance activities, and produce new bees. Typically, honey production lags behind the first appearance of flowers by several weeks.

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