Up until the 16th century, honey was considered to be the most important sweetener. But by this time, however, sugar made its arrival on the scene, and it was welcomed by many because of its neutral flavor and sweetness. Interestingly, while the rest of the world has enjoyed honey for hundreds (and some thousands) of years, it was only introduced into North America at around 1625 by European settlers.
Bees are pretty standard in most areas, but not necessarily the types that we want for making honey. Native North American bees differ quite significantly from their European cousin, the honey bee. American bees are tropical, not only living off of flower nectar, but also fluids from fruits, carrion, and even poop. Not exactly the types of flavors you want in a honey! So, before the settlers arrived, the native honey would have tasted quite, uhm, interesting.
The main constituent of honey is nectar, which bees forage from flowers. The flowers use nectar to attract pollinators (insects and birds). The bee collects the nectar with its long, thin mouthpart called a proboscis. While the bee sucks up the nectar, it passes through its body and goes to the bee’s honey sac (yes, that’s a real thing). Here, enzymes break the nectar down into simpler sugars.
When the bees arrive back at the hive, they get to work concentrating the nectar in such a way that it won’t be vulnerable to spoilage. There’s an entire ripening process that occurs, and after about three weeks, the honey is loaded into honeycomb cells and topped with wax. This is of course a huge oversimplification, but wrap your head around these facts:
- To make only one pound of honey, the honey bee would need to travel about 50 000 miles – that’s the same as going around the world, twice!
- Bees are pretty small, so they can only carry a load of around 0.002 of an ounce. But it’s pretty fuel efficient – it gets 7 million miles to a gallon!
- One hive contains a mature queen, a few hundred male bees (also called drones), and about 20 000 female worker bees.
- The male bees do not have stingers, so if you have ever been stung by a bee, it would have been by a female worker bee!
- Recently, archeologists found a sealed alabaster jar filled with honey, in an ancient tomb in Egypt. The big surprise – it was still unspoiled!
- Babies (children under 1 years old) should never eat honey. It contains Clostridium botulinum spores which, in the underdeveloped gut of the baby, can develop into bacteria which produce deadly toxins.
With all these amazing facts in mind, next time you eat some honey: bee grateful! (pun intended)