Why Do Bees Make Honey?

Honey bees are special in that they overwinter as a colony, unlike wasps and bumblebees. The colony does not hibernate but stays active and clusters together to stay warm. This requires a lot of food, which is stored during the summer. Although a hive only needs 20-30 lb of honey to survive an average winter, the bees are capable of collecting much more, if given storage space. This is what the beekeeper wants them to do.

Bees have been producing honey in the same way for over one hundred and fifty million years

How Much Honey Can One Beehive Produce?

One hive can produce 60lb (27 kg) or more in a good season, however an average hive would be around 25lb (11 kg) surplus.

Bees fly about 55,000 miles to make just one pound of honey, that’s 2.2 times around the world. Romans used honey instead of gold to pay their taxes.

How Does The Beekeeper Get The Honey From The Bees?

The queen bee is kept below the upper boxes (called ‘supers’) in the hive by a wire or plastic grid (called a ‘queen excluder’), which the queen is too large to fit through. As the bees cannot raise brood above the queen excluder, only honey is stored in the supers. As the season progresses the beekeeper adds more supers until the time to harvest the honey.

A special one-way valve is then fitted in place of the queen excluder and gradually all the bees are forced into the lowest part of the hive. The beekeeper can then simply lift off the ‘super’ boxes containing the honey comb. The honey is extracted from the comb using centrifugal force in a machine called a spinner, which looks like an old-fashioned upright spin dryer.

Do The Bees Miss The Honey That Is Taken?

No. A strong colony can produce 2-3 times more honey than it needs. If necessary the beekeeper can feed sugar syrup in the autumn to supplement for the loss of honey.

Why Are Some Types Of Honey Clear And Runny And Other Types Opaque And Hard?

The type of honey made by the bees is dependent on the types of foliage and flowers available to the bees. Crops such as oil seed rape (the bright yellow fields in the spring) produce large quantities of honey that sets very hard, so hard that the bees cannot use it in the winter; garden flowers tend to give a clear liquid honey. If the beekeeper wants to produce a monofloral honey, e.g. pure clover, orange blossom, etc, the beehive is put out of range from other floral sources. This can be difficult for the hobby beekeeper, who normally produces a blend of the season’s honey. In the autumn, some beekeepers move their hives onto the moors to harvest the nectar from wild heather. Heather honey is thought to be the king of honeys and has a clear jelly consistency.

How Do Bees Make Honey?

Bees take nectar, which is a sweet sticky substance exuded by most flowers and some insects (honeydew), and mix it with enzymes from glands in their mouths. This nectar/enzyme mix is stored in hexagonal wax honey comb until the water content has been reduced to around 17%. When this level is reached, the cell is capped over with a thin layer of wax to seal it until the bees need it. This capping indicates to the beekeeper that the honey can be harvested. Capped honey can keep almost indefinitely. For the school swot: Sucrose (nectar) + inverters (bee enzyme) = fructose + glucose = honey. Perfectly edible honey comb was found in the tombs of the Pharaohs, over three thousand years old. How’s that for ‘Best Before Dates’.

What Is Raw Honey?

There is no legal definition of raw honey in the UK, however raw honey is best described as honey “as it exists in the beehive”. It is made by simply spinning the honey from the frames, and passing it through a coarse strainer to remove bits of beeswax and dead bees etc.

Once strained, raw honey is bottled and ready to be enjoyed. The unprocessed nature of the honey not only preserves the differences in taste and consistency, but also its beneficial wholesome qualities, as more of the micronutrients and enzymes are preserved, as well as more pollen grains, which are good for keeping hayfever at bay.

On the other hand, the production of commercial honey involves several more steps before it is bottled — such as pasteurisation and filtration.

Pasteurisation is a process that destroys the yeast found in honey by applying high heat. This helps extend the shelf life and makes it smoother.

Also, filtration further removes impurities like debris and air bubbles so that the honey stays as a clear liquid for longer. This is aesthetically appealing to many consumers.

Some commercial honeys are additionally processed by undergoing ultrafiltration. This process further refines it to make it more transparent and smooth, but it can also remove beneficial nutrients like pollen, enzymes and antioxidants.

Moreover, some manufacturers may add sugar or sweeteners to honey to reduce costs, as shown in the “fake honey” reports on TV and other media.

Is Raw Honey More Nutritious?

Raw honey contains a wide variety of nutrients.

It has approximately 22 amino acids, 31 different minerals and a wide range of vitamins and enzymes. However, the nutrients are only present in trace amounts (1, 2, 3).

What’s most impressive about raw honey is that it contains nearly 30 types of bioactive plant compounds. These are called polyphenols, and they act as antioxidants (4, 5, 6).

Many studies have linked these antioxidants with impressive health benefits, including reduced inflammation and a lower risk of heart disease and certain cancers (7, 8, 9).

Conversely, commercial honeys may contain fewer antioxidants due to processing methods.

For example, one study compared the antioxidants in raw and processed honey from a local market. They found that the raw honey contained up to 4.3 times more antioxidants than the processed variety (10).

Interestingly, one unofficial study by the US-based National Honey Board found that minimally processed honey contains levels of antioxidants and minerals that are similar to those of raw honey.

However, there are very few studies comparing the two types. More research in this area can help shed light on the impact of processing on the antioxidants in honey.

Does Commercially Produced Honey Contain Any Pollen?

Bees travel from flower to flower collecting nectar and pollen.

The nectar and pollen are taken back to the beehive, where they are packed into the honeycomb and eventually become a food source for the bees (11).

Bee pollen is surprisingly nutritious and contains over 250 substances, including vitamins, amino acids, essential fatty acids, micronutrients and antioxidants (12).

In fact, the German Federal Ministry of Health recognizes bee pollen as a medicine (13).

Bee pollen has been linked to many impressive health benefits. Studies have found that it may help fight inflammation and improve liver function. It also has properties that may help fight against heart disease and stroke (14).

Unfortunately, processing methods like heat treatment and ultrafiltration can remove bee pollen (15).

For example, one unofficial study analyzed 60 samples of commercial honey brands in the US and discovered that over 75% of all samples contained no pollen.

Does Raw Honey Contain Additives?

No. The only treatment is straining honey to remove any wax debris produced during the extraction process.

Is Raw Honey The Same As Organic Honey?

No.

Honey is sometimes sold a being “Organic” and may come from various countries of origin. The European Union and the Soil Association both have a say on the question of organics and the definition varies on the exact terms. Other countries’ standards vary considerably. The standards for honey production are very stringent and one wonders if it would really be worth even to try. I will leave you to make up your own mind.

Summary of the Key Standards for Organic Honey Production:

  1. Siting of Apiary – must be on certified organic land that must not be treated with weed killers etc. The beekeeper must keep a map showing the location of all his/her apiaries.
  2. Hives (inc frames) – must be made of natural, untreated timber. (no plastics) Hives must not be painted, but may be treated with linseed oil.
  3. Conversion period – 12 months of organic management, during which time the wax must be changed to organic wax.
  4. Origin of bees – 10% of the hives in an apiary can be replaced/increased using non-organic queens or swarms, provided that organic wax (from organic hives) is used. In this case the 12 month conversion period does not apply.
  5. Foundation and comb – must be of organic wax, except when an apiary is first converted and organic wax is unavailable.
  6. Foraging – for a radius of 3km (EU regs) or 4 miles (Soil Association) around the apiary, nectar and pollen sources must be “essentially” either organic or wild/uncultivated. This area must not be subject to significant sources of pollution from eg: motorways, urban centres, dumps, incinerators, etc.. (what hope do we have?) This is the only significant difference between the EU and the Soil Association standards in the area of honey production.
  7. Feeding – must be organic honey (one of the Eurocratic eccentricities!) or organic sugar (white refined – not always available?) and this may only take place between the last honey harvest and 15 days before the first nectar flow.
  8. Disease control – similar to other livestock husbandry, the priority is to build up good health and vitality through positive management practices. Homeopathic and herbal treatments and natural acids (Lactic, formic and oxalic) and thymol may be used without restriction. Other medication requires veterinary prescription, the wax must be replaced and there must be a withdrawal period of one year. The use of medications such as “fumidil B” for nosema, is not allowed, although pressure is on for its use because of Nosema Ceranae” (USA allow its use). Drone culling is OK, although it disturbs natural colony activity.
  9. Queen rearing – artificial insemination is allowed but wing clipping is prohibited.
  10. Extraction and bottling – no requirements beyond the normal measures to ensure separation and product integrity.

How to Pick the Healthiest Honey

When it comes to choosing the healthiest honey, you should look for one that is raw. Raw honeys are not pasteurised and are not subjected to high levels of filtration, a process that may reduce its nutrients.

While minimally processed honeys are not bad, it’s hard to know which ones are minimally processed without actually performing tests beforehand.

If you would prefer a minimally processed, raw honey, it’s best to buy it from a local beekeeper, as they are far less likely to be ultra filtered. Many beekeepers sell direct to the public (look out for the “Honey for Sale” signs on their gates), or via local farm shops.