What is Honey?


Plants live by the moisture and the nutrients they collect from the soil and from carbon dioxide absorb from the atmosphere. Within the green parts of the plant an involved process known as photosynthesis takes place. Chlorophyll, present in the cells, uses light energy to convert carbon dioxide and water into many complex building chemicals including glucose and other more complex sugars.

Plants secrete nectar, which is a watery solution of various sugars, from nectaries usually situated in the flowers. The main sugars are sucrose, glucose (dextrose) and fructose (laevulose) present in varying proportions and concentrations depending on the species of plant, the soil, and climatic conditions. Nectar also contains traces of protein, salts, acids, enzymes, and aromatic substances. So there is some justification in giving honey the “bottled sunshine” tag.

Having gathered some nectar, it is carried back to the hive in the bee’s honey sac, a non-digestive crop and passed on to the house bees. Two things have to be done to convert the nectar into honey. The sucrose in the nectar has to be split by the addition of an enzyme (invertase) produced in the glands of the bee, into two simple sugars fructose and glucose. This allows high concentrations of sugar solutions to be achieved. Secondly the water content, anything up to 80% has to be reduced to below 22% to prevent fermentation. The house bees do this by exposing small quantities of the liquid to the warmth (av. 33°C) of a well ventilated part of the hive. The object of these changes is to produce a food which when sealed over in the cells of the comb will keep until needed, and is suitable with the addition of water for feeding to larvae when rearing starts in the spring. Strong colonies in good foraging areas can store two to four times as much honey as they need for winter survival; it is this surplus that the beekeeper can take.

Beekeepers offer honey either as clear honey, set honey or comb honey. Comb honey is the least popular but is honey in its most natural state, just as the bees stored it. Clear honey is produced by extracting honey from the comb either by spinning or pressing. This is bottled after simple screening and filtering through fine mesh cloths.

All honeys will start to crystallize after a time as some of the sugars come out of solution. This is perfectly normal and the rate this happens varies with the ratio of glucose to fructose, which in turn depends upon the types of nectar which were collected. If you wish to clear a crystallizing honey simply warm the open jar in a microwave or in a pan of hot water.

Set honey is produced when the crystallization is allowed to continue. Many people prefer this on toast. As naturally set honey is a little coarse: most beekeepers control the crystallization to produce fine grained set honey known as soft set or creamed. This can be spooned from the jar without bending the cutlery!

In East Yorkshire most nectar is collected from a range of flowers giving a subtle flavour, but where beekeepers take the hives to specific sites where only one type of flower is available to the bees then monofloral honeys can be collected. Examples of these are heather, borage, and sometimes oilseed rape.

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