It’s what many beekeepers are looking for, the exciting feeling to crack open your hive to see your supers filled to the brim with honey. Your bees have brought in the liquid gold – Honey. But what is honey exactly and how is it even made by the bees? This is Honey 101.
80% to 18%
As a beginner you may have already come across the distinction between nectar and honey, one is starkly more desirable than the other if you are thinking of beekeeping to harvest the fruits of your bee’s labour (and your own labour too).
But all honey starts off as nectar, a sweet watery solution produced by flowers surrounding your apiary. Nectar is usually colourless and contains approximately 80% water and 20% of the complex sugar, sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide, a complex sugar composed of glucose and fructose with a glycosidic bond.
A single worker bee travels from flower to flower, pausing momentarily just to gather nectar through their proboscis, their naturally engineered straw-like tongue. The nectar is then stored in the ‘honey gut’ or the crop, where it is safe from being directly ingested by the foraging bee itself. Unsurprisingly, it is in the honey gut that the nectar starts it’s journey to becoming honey, the viscose solution we all know that contains around only 18% water.
The forager bee comes back to the hive once their honey gut is full of nectar, ready to be processed by their sisters. The nectar gets regurgitated over and over between the house bees. You may hear beekeepers exclaiming that honey is ‘bee vomit’ which although is quite true, it is also the essential process to chemically break down the nectar. Each time the nectar is passed between one bee to another, they add an enzyme called ‘invertase’ that is produced by the salivary glands to facilitate the break down of sucrose into the two simple monosaccharide sugars that it is molecularly composed of, fructose and glucose. This process is called ‘hydrolysis’.
Why would bees go through the process of hydrolysis? Well, by breaking down the sucrose into a blend of fructose and glucose makes it much easier to consume, it contains much more sugar than nectar therefore giving more energy to the bees (but taking up vastly less space in a cell) and of course, the reduction of water content allows the resulting honey to be stored without being spoiled, indefinitely if left undisturbed.
When the nectar has reached about 20% water content, the house bee will deposit the ‘almost honey’ into the cells. The bees will then fan their wings around the cells in order to evaporate more water from the nectar. Once the honey has ripened (at around 18% water content), the bees will put an air tight wax seal on the cell, stored for future use or to be extracted by the beekeeper.
Due to the lack of water in honey, no bacteria, fungi or even microbes could contaminate it. However, honey left out in the open, unsealed will draw in moisture from the air, making it susceptible to unwanted contaminants!
Now that we understand the molecular structure of honey (a mix of fructose, glucose and water) we can better understand why the crystallization process occurs. Natural honey in its simplest description is over saturated sugar water. This means it contains far more sugar than the water can hold, making it an ‘unstable’ solution. The crystallization process is actually a great indicator that your honey is a natural product that hasn’t been adulterated.
The exact percentages of fructose and glucose will differ according to nectar source. It is the glucose in honey that causes crystallization due to its lower solubility, it separates from the water in honey and forms tiny crystals that sets off a kind of domino effect of slow crystallization. If you have more glucose in your honey then it will set faster than if you have a higher percentage of fructose. Crystallization occurs even on the comb, making it almost impossible to extract without melting down the whole frame.
Beekeepers have incredibly learnt to harness the crystallization process to produce ‘soft set’ honey. A process that uses a honey with a high glucose content (such as oilseed rape honey) as a seed which is then mixed with another honey for a long duration, resulting in a smooth, creamy honey (the presence of the fine crystals is practically undetectable). This also means that the larger crystals will not form in the honey, because the process of controlled crystallization has already occurred.
Just like how the crystallization process varies because of the foraged nectar, so does the the taste, colour and even texture. It is amazing to see your honey side by side, it gives you such an amazing insight into the variation out there. Being a beekeeper gives us many delights and being able to harvest honey is just one aspect of this amazing hobby.
We hope that you have started to feel excited about what this year will bring to you, hopefully a few jars of honey will be on the cards.