Children's Encyclopedia Selection. Related subjects: Food
Honey is a sweet and viscous fluid produced by honey bees (and some other species), and derived from the nectar of flowers. According to the United States National Honey Board and various international food regulations, "honey stipulates a pure product that does not allow for the addition of any other substance…this includes, but is not limited to, water or other sweeteners". This article refers exclusively to the honey produced by honey bees (the genus Apis); honey produced by other bees or other insects has very different properties.
Honey gets its sweetness from the monosaccharides fructose and glucose and has approximately the same relative sweetness as granulated sugar (97% of the sweetness of sucrose, a disaccharide). Honey has attractive chemical properties for baking, and a distinctive flavor which leads some people to prefer it over sugar and other sweeteners.
Most micro-organisms do not grow in honey because of its low water activity of 0.6. However, it is important to note that honey frequently contains dormant endospores of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which can be dangerous to infants as the endospores can transform into toxin-producing bacteria in the infant's immature intestinal tract, leading to illness and even death (see Precautions below).
The study of pollens and spores in raw honey ( melissopalynology) can determine floral sources of honey. Because bees carry an electrostatic charge, and can attract other particles, the same techniques of melissopalynology can be used in area environmental studies of radioactive particles, dust, or particulate pollution.
A main effect of bees collecting nectar to make honey is pollination, which is crucial for flowering plants.
The beekeeper encourages overproduction of honey within the hive so that the excess can be taken without endangering the bees. When sources of foods for the bees are short the beekeeper may have to give the bees supplementary nutrition.
Honey is laid down by bees as a food source. In cold weather or when food sources are scarce, bees use their stored honey as their source of energy. By contriving for the bee swarm to make its home in a hive, people have been able to semi- domesticate the insects. In the hive there are three types of bee: the single queen bee, a seasonally variable number of drone bees to fertilize new queens, and some 20,000 to 40,000 worker bees. The worker bees raise larvae and collect the nectar that will become honey in the hive. They go out, collect the sugar-rich flower nectar, release Nasonov pheromones and return to the hive. These pheromones enable other bees to find their way to the site by smell. Honeybees also release Nasonov pheromones at the entrance to the hive, which enables returning bees to return to the proper hive. In the hive the bees use their "honey stomachs" to ingest and regurgitate the nectar a number of times until it is partially digested. The bees work together as a group with the regurgitation and digestion until the product reaches a desired quality. It is then stored in the honeycomb. Nectar is high in both water content and natural yeasts which, unchecked, would cause the sugars in the nectar to ferment. After the final regurgitation, the honeycomb is left unsealed. Bees inside the hive fan their wings, creating a strong draft across the honeycomb which enhances evaporation of much of the water from the nectar. The reduction in water content, which raises the sugar concentration, prevents fermentation. Ripe honey, as removed from the hive by the beekeeper, has a long shelf life and will not ferment.
Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)
|Energy 300 kcal 1270 kJ|
|Shown is for 100 g, roughly 5 tbsp.
Percentages are relative to US
recommendations for adults.
Source: USDA Nutrient database
Honey is a mixture of sugars and other compounds. With respect to carbohydrates, honey is mainly fructose (about 38.5%) and glucose (about 31.0%), making it similar to the synthetically produced inverted sugar syrup which is approximately 48% fructose, 47% glucose, and 5% sucrose. Honey's remaining carbohydrates include maltose, sucrose, and other complex carbohydrates.
The specific composition of any batch of honey will depend largely on the mix of flowers available to the bees that produced the honey.
- Typical honey analysis
- Fructose: 38.0%
- Glucose: 31.0%
- Sucrose: 1.0%
- Water: 17.0%
- Other sugars: 9.0% ( maltose, melezitose)
- Ash: 0.17%
- Other: 3.38%
The analysis of the sugar content of honey is used for detecting adulteration.
Types of honey
Most commercially available honey is blended, meaning that it is a mixture of two or more honeys differing in floral source, colour, flavor, density or geographic origin.
Polyfloral honey is derived from the nectar of many types of flowers.
Different monofloral honeys have a distinctive flavor and colour due to differences between their principal nectar sources. Beekeepers keep monofloral beehives in an area where the bees have access to only one type of flower, because of that flower's properties. In practice, because of the difficulties in containing bees, a small proportion of any honey will be from additional nectar from other flower types. Typical examples of monofloral or varietal honeys are "orange blossom", "sage", "eucalyptus", "tupelo", "manuka", "buckwheat", "sourwood", and "clover".
Instead of taking nectar, bees can take honeydew, the sweet secretions of aphids or other plant sap-sucking insects. Bees collecting this resource have to be fed protein supplements, as honeydew lacks the protein-rich pollen accompaniment gathered from flowers.
Germany's Black Forest is a well known source of honeydew-based honeys, as well as some regions in Bulgaria. Honeydew honey is popular in some areas, but in many areas beekeepers have difficulty selling the stronger flavored product.
Honeydew honey has a much larger proportion of indigestibles than light floral honeys, which can cause dysentery, resulting in the death of colonies in areas with cold winters. Good beekeeping management requires the removal of honeydew prior to winter in colder areas.
- Comb honey Honey sold still in the original bees' wax comb. Comb honey was once packaged by installing a wooden framework in special honey supers, but this labor intensive method is being replaced by plastic rings or cartridges. With the new approach, a clear cover is usually fitted onto the cartridge after removal from the hive so customers can see the product.
- Certified Organic Honey, according to TheOrganicReport.com, organic honey is quite scarce to find because most beekeepers "routinely use sulfa compounds and antibiotics to control bee diseases, carbolic acid to remove honey from the hive, and calcium cyanide to kill colonies before extracting the honey, not to mention that conventional honeybees gather nectar from plants that have been sprayed with pesticides." http://www.theorganicreport.com/pages/461_organic_honey.cfm
- Raw honey Honey as it exists in the beehive or as obtained by extraction, settling or straining without adding heat above 120 °F. Raw honey contains some pollen and may contain small particles of wax. Local raw honey is sought after by allergy sufferers as the pollen impurities are thought to lessen the sensitivity to hay fever (see Medical Applications below).
- Chunk honey or Cut-comb honey Honey packed in widemouth containers consisting of one or more pieces of comb honey surrounded by extracted liquid honey.
- Strained honey or Honey which has been passed through a mesh material to remove particulate material (pieces of wax, propolis, other defects) without removing pollen, minerals or valuable enzymes. Preferred by the health food trade — it may have a cloudy appearance due to the included pollen, and it also tends to crystallize more quickly than ultrafiltered honey.
- Ultrafiltered honey Honey processed by very fine filtration under high pressure to remove all extraneous solids and pollen grains. The process typically heats honey to 150-170 °F to more easily pass through the fine filter. Ultrafiltered honey is very clear and has a longer shelf life, because it crystallizes more slowly due to the high temperatures breaking down any sugar seed crystals, making it preferred by the supermarket trade. Ultrafiltration eliminates nutritionally valuable enzymes, such as diastase and invertase.
- Heat-Treated honey Heat-treatment after extraction reduces the moisture level, destroys yeast cells, and liquefies crystals in the honey. Heat-exposure also results in product deterioration, as it increases the level of hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) and reduces enzyme (e.g. diastase) activity. The heat also affects sensory qualities and reduces the freshness. Heat processing can darken the natural honey colour (browning), too.
- Ultrasonicated honey Ultrasonication is a non-thermal processing alternative for honey. When honey is exposed to ultrasonication, most of the yeast cells are destroyed. Yeast cells that survive sonication generally lose their ability to grow. This reduces the rate of honey fermentation substantially. Ultrasonication also eliminates existing crystals and inhibit further crystallization in honey. Ultrasonically aided liquefaction can work at substantially lower temperatures of approx. 35 °C and can reduce liquefaction time to less than 30 seconds.
- Churned honey or creamed honey See whipped honey.
- Crystallized honey Honey in which some of the glucose content has spontaneously crystallized from solution as the monohydrate. Also called "granulated honey."
- Honey fondant See whipped honey.
- Organic honey is honey produced, processed, and packaged in accordance with national regulations, and certified as such by some government body or an independent organic farming certification organization. For example, in the United Kingdom, the standard covers not only the origin of bees, but also the siting of the apiaries. These must be on land that is certified as organic, and within a radius of 4 miles from the apiary site, nectar and pollen sources must consist essentially of organic crops or uncultivated areas.
- Set honey All honey will eventually set or granulate and this process can be reversed by gently warming the honey to remelt it. Some honeys set naturally with large granules and taste a little like granulated sugar in honey. Others set like royal icing — very hard and unspreadable. To overcome this problem beekeepers will mix in a small amount of fine-grained honey before it sets and then gently stir the honey to fix the setting prematurely, before it becomes hard, thereby producing a "soft set" honey.
- Spun honey See whipped honey.
Due to its unique composition and the complex processing of nectar by the bees which changes its chemical properties, honey is suitable for long term preservation and is easily assimilated even after long conservation. History knows examples of honey preservation for decades, and even centuries. "...small residues of edible honey have even been found in the pharaoh's tombs…"
A number of special prerequisites are, however, necessary to achieve the conservation periods of this order. These might include sealing the product in vessels of chosen material, kept in a favorable environment of specific humidity, temperature etc. An example of natural sealing of the honey with wax by the bees in little separated honey comb cells could be taken for reference.
When conventional preservation methods are applied, it is not recommended to preserve the honey for longer than 2 (maximum 3) years. As honey has a strong tendency to absorb outside smells, it is advisable to keep it in clean, hermetically sealed vessels. It is also advisable to keep it in darkened (not lucid) vessels, or in dark store-places. When honey remains in direct sunlight for about one day its lysozyme (an antibacterial albuminous enzyme) is destroyed. Honey should also be protected from oxygen inflow, which brings about accelerated crystallization. Optimal preservation temperature is +4 – 10 °C. The store-place should be dark and dry, preventing the honey from absorbing any moisture. If excessive moisture is soaked up by the honey, it might start fermenting. "Bee honey can absorb the moisture from the air, therefore it might ferment in a damp place"
"Exposure to fresh air brings about the soaking up of external smells, oxygen and moisture, which cause fundamental chemical change of the product—decay of valuable amino acids, vitamins, enzymes and "antibiotics". The light has a similar influence."
Acacia honey is known to be more resistant to crystallization. "The acacia honey would not crystallize (as quick as other types)…"
Due to the above reasons (high tendency to absorb outside smells and moisture) it is not advisable to preserve honey uncovered in a fridge, especially together with other foods and products.
Honey is considered to gradually become toxic when preserved in metal containers. "Honey must not be preserved in metal containers, because the acids contained in its structure may cause oxidation. This leads to increased content of heavy metals in honey and decreases the amount of valuable healthy ingredients. Such a honey may cause obnoxious sensations in the stomach and even bring about a poisoning…" It used to be preserved in ceramic and wooden containers in ancient times. Glass bottles are recommended nowadays. "The wooden vessels of coniferous wood are not suitable for honey preservation (honey soaks up the coniferous smell in such vessels). In the oak wood vessels honey grows black."
Traditionally honey was preserved in deep cellars, but not together with wine or other products. It is considered even more sensitive to the store-place conditions than the best wines.
Honey should not be heated above 40°С (104°F) . See also .
"The best honey is in the uncut honey combs. After being pumped out from there it is very vulnerable, and the main losses of quality take place during preservation and distribution. Heating up to 37°С causes loss of nearly 200 components, part of which are antibacterial. Heating up to 40°С destroys the invertase—the main bee enzyme, thanks to which the nectar becomes honey; heating up to 50°С turns the honey into caramel (the most valuable honey sugars become analogous to synthetic sugar). Generally any larger temperature fluctuation (10°С is ideal for preservation of ripe honey) causes decay."
Distinguishing quality honey
The high quality natural honey can be distinguished by its fragrance and taste. The best period to stock up on honey is in summer, when it is being collected in large quantities. The ripe, freshly collected, high quality honey at 20°C (68°F) flows from the knife in a straight squirt, without breaking into separate drops. After falling down the honey should form a clear hillock. A saying goes: “the honey rustles and glues like viscose”. The ripe honey is being collected from the sealed honey combs, therefore it should always be of high quality.
The honey should not lay down in layers. If this is a case, it indicates the excessive humidity (over 20%) of the product, and such a honey would not be suitable for long term preservation.
A fluffy thin layer on the surface of the honey (like a white foam), or marble-coloured and white spots in crystallized honey at the wallsides of the bottle are caused by filling of liquid honey with subsequent sealing—the air bubbles are surfacing and part of them is concentrated at the wallsides. This is an indication of a high quality honey, which was filled without pasteurization (heating).
If the honey is transparent, burning with amber-like colours, then (unless it is very fresh) it has most likely been heated and is of little value. Transparent and reluctant to thicken honey can also indicate its being a result of feeding the bees with sugar syrup or even sugar itself, which is bad both for the bees and for the honey they produce, as naturally they are supposed to feed on flower nectar.
A true honey that is at least one month old is usually of demure (not translucent) colours.
Honey in history, culture, and folklore
In many cultures, honey has associations that go far beyond its use as a food. In language and literature, religion, and folk belief, honey is frequently a symbol or talisman for sweetness of every kind.
Honey collection by humans is an ancient activity. Bee Wilson (2004) states that humans began hunting for honey at least 10,000 years ago. Bee Wilson (2004: p.5) evidences this with a depiction a line drawing of a Mesolithic rock painting showing two honey-hunters collecting honey and honeycomb from a wild nest. The two men are naked and employ a long wobbly ladder which appears to be made out of a kind of grass in order to reach the wild nest. Both men carry baskets or bags. This rock painting is on a wall in a cave in Valencia, Spain.
The Old Testament contains many references to honey. The book of Exodus famously describes the Promised Land as a "land flowing with milk and honey" (33:3). However, the claim has been advanced that the original Hebrew (devash) actually refers to the sweet syrup produced from the juice of the date. In The Book of Judges, Samson found a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of a lion (14:8). In Matthew 3:4, John the Baptist is said to have lived for a long period of time in the wilderness on a diet consisting of locusts and wild honey. The word "honey" appears 73 times in the King James Version of the Bible.
In Jewish tradition, honey is a symbol for the new year— Rosh Hashana. At the traditional meal for that holiday, apple slices are dipped in honey and eaten to bring a sweet new year. Some Rosh Hashana greetings show honey and an apple, symbolizing the feast. In some congregations, small straws of honey are given out to usher in the new year.
Honey plays an important role in the festival of Madhu Purnima, celebrated by Buddhists in India and Bangladesh. The day commemorates Buddha's making peace among his disciples by retreating into the wilderness. The story goes that while he was there, a monkey brought him honey to eat. On Madhu Purnima, Buddhists remember this act by giving honey to monks. The monkey's gift is frequently depicted in Buddhist art.
In some parts of Greece, it was formerly the custom for a bride to dip her fingers in honey and make the sign of the cross before entering her new home. This was meant to ensure sweetness in her married life, especially in her relationship with her mother-in-law.
In the accounts of the Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I, one hundred pots of honey were equivalent in value to an ass or an ox. Ancient Egyptian and Middle-Eastern peoples also used honey for embalming the dead.
Scythians, and later the other Central Asian nomadic people, for many months drove a wagon with a deceased ruler around the country in their last rites mourning procession, carrying the body in a casket filled with honey.
After his death in battle, the head of Vlad III Ţepeş (of later Dracula fame) was cut off and presented to the Sultan of Turkey, preserved in a jar of honey.
In Western culture, bears are depicted as eating honey, even though most bears actually eat a wide variety of foods, and bears seen at beehives are usually more interested in bee larvae than honey. Honey is sometimes sold in a bear-shaped jar.
"Honey", along with variations like "honey bun" and "honeypot" and the abbreviation "hon", has become a term of endearment in most of the English-speaking world. In some places it is used for loved ones; in others, such as the American South, it is used when addressing casual acquaintances or even strangers.
The Qur'an mentions the benefits of honey.
"And thy Lord taught the bee to build its cells in hills, on trees and in (men's) habitations…there issues from within their bodies a drink of varying colours, wherein is healing for mankind. Verily in this is a Sign for those who give thought".
There is an entire Surah in Qur'an called al-Nahl (the Bee). According to hadith, Prophet Muhammad strongly recommend honey for healing purposes.
Honey producing countries
In 2005, China, Turkey, and the U.S. were the top producers of natural honey, reports the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Mexico is also an important producer of honey, providing about ten percent of the world's supply. Much of this (about one.-third) comes from the Yucatan peninsula. Honey production began here when the Apis mellifera and the A. Mellifer ligustica were introduced here early in the 20th century. Most of Mexico's Yucatan producers are small, family operations who use primitive techniques, moving hives to take advantage of the various tropical and sub-tropical flowers. The honey-producing cycle depends on the rainy season. The first and best harvest takes place in the dry season between February and May. Many species flower at this time. After the rainy season begins, there are still plenty of flowers but the bees have a difficult time traveling for nectar and producing the honey because of the weather conditions. Bees may not make enough for sale and what may be produced is of lower-quality.
Due to the natural presence of botulinum endospores in honey, children under one year of age should not be given honey. The more developed digestive systems of older children and adults generally destroy the spores. Infants, however, can contract botulism from honey.
Honey produced from the flowers of rhododendrons, mountain laurels, sheep laurel, and azaleas may cause honey intoxication. Symptoms include dizziness, weakness, excessive perspiration, nausea, and vomiting. Less commonly, low blood pressure, shock, heart rhythm irregularities, and convulsions may occur, with rare cases resulting in death. Honey intoxication is more likely when using "natural" unprocessed honey and honey from farmers who may have a small number of hives. Commercial processing, with pooling of honey from numerous sources generally dilutes any toxins.
Toxic honey may also result when bees are in close proximity to tutu bushes ( Coriaria arborea) and the vine hopper insect ( Scolypopa australis). Both are found throughout New Zealand. Bees gather honeydew produced by the vine hopper insects feeding on the tutu plant. This introduces the poison tutin into honey . Only a few areas in New Zealand (Coromandel Peninsula, Eastern Bay of Plenty and the Marlborough Sound) frequently produce toxic honey. Symptoms of tutin poisoning include vomiting, delirium, giddiness, increased excitability, stupor, coma, and violent convulsions. As little as one teaspoon of toxic honey may produce severe effects in humans. In order to reduce the risk of tutin poisoning, humans should not eat honey taken from feral hives in the risk areas of New Zealand. Since December 2001, New Zealand beekeepers have been required to reduce the risk of producing toxic honey by closely monitoring tutu, vine hopper, and foraging conditions within 3 km of their apiary.