Honey is a sweet viscid fluid produced and stored by honeybees (Apis sp.) and some related bee species from the nectar of flowers and popularly used by humans as a sweetener and food source. The color, flavor, and composition of honey depends on the flowers that serve as the source of the honey, with popular honeys derived from clover, alfalfa, orange blossoms, buckwheat, and sage, among many others. This article will exclusively deal with the honey produced by honeybees.
Those consuming honey may not appreciate the great effort expended by the honeybee in producing this product. To produce one pound of honey requires thousands of worker bees visiting and collecting nectar from two million flowers, processing the nectar through repeated ingestion and digestion, and through fanning the processed product with their wings to remove water. Finally, when fully ripened, the bees store it in honeycomb cells, capping it with a thin layer of beeswax.
For the bee, the honey serves as an important food source. When collected by people, honey is used for diverse culinary purposes as well as for medicinal purposes through topical application, taking advantage of its antiseptic and antibacterial properties. Honey has been popularly used by humans for at least ten thousand years, with depictions on Mesolithic rock and many biblical references, as well as references in the Quran, and use in the Roman empire and in Buddhist and Jewish tradition.
A major benefit also accrues to the flowering plants, which are pollinated by the honeybees in the process of collecting the nectar.
A honeybee (or honey bee) is any member of the highly social bees of the genus Apis, all of which produce and store liquefied sugar ("honey") to some degree. Some other bee species also produce and store honey, although such honey has very different properties (Crosby 2004).
Honey is laid down by bees as a food source. The worker bees collect nectar, convert it into honey, and store it in honeycombs for later use. The nectar is ripened into honey through inversion of most of the sucrose into glucose (dextrose) and fructose (levulose) and removal of water, using enzymes and evaporation. In cold weather or when food sources are scarce, bees use their stored honey as their source of energy (NHB 2008a).
By contriving for the bee swarm to make its home in a hive, people have been able to semi-domesticate the insects. 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 (Somerville 2001).
Honey is mainly composed of glucose, fructose, and water, with a small percentage (1 to 2 percent) of sucrose, as well as enzymes, minerals, vitamins, other sugars, and amino acids. Some pollen also gets mixed in the honey. Honey gets its sweetness from the monosaccharides fructose and glucose and has approximately the same relative sweetness as granulated sugar (97 percent of the sweetness of sucrose, a disaccharide) (NHB 2008b). Honey has attractive chemical properties for baking, and a distinctive flavor which leads some people to prefer it over sugar and other sweeteners (NHB 2008b).
Color, composition, and flavor of honey depends on the type of flower used for the nectar, with alfalfa and clover offering a white honey, lavender an amber hue, heather a reddish-brown color, and acacia a straw color (McNulty 2002). There are more than 300 types of honey manufactured in the United States alone (NHB 2008a).
Most microorganisms do not grow in honey because of its low water activity of 0.6 (Prescott et al. 1999). 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 (Shapiro et al. 1998). Thus, honey should not be feed to a child less than one year old. Older children and adults normally are not affected by the spores.
The study of pollens and spores in raw honey (melissopalynology) can determine floral sources of honey (Bryant 2001). 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 (Mercuri and Porrini 1991; Tonelli et al. 1990).
Nutritional value per 100 g
|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 the monosaccharides glucose (D-glucose or dextrose) and fructose. According to McNulty (2002), the glucose and fructose component averages to about 76 to 80 percent of the honey, while water is about 17 to 20 percent. Bender and Bender (2005) places the average composition of honey at 74 percent (69-75 percent) glucose and fructose and 18 percent (12-26 percent) water. The National Honey Board (2008b) states that the fructose composition averages about 38.4 percent (30.9-44 percent) and the glucose component about 30.3 percent (22.9-40.8 percent), making it similar to the synthetically produced inverted sugar syrup, which is approximately 48 percent fructose, 47 percent glucose, and 5 percent sucrose. Sucrose, a disaccharide, averages about 1.3 percent (0.25 to 7.6 percent)(NHB 2008b) to 1.9 percent (0-4 percent) (Bender and Bender 2005). Honey's remaining carbohydrates include such disaccharides as maltose, kojibiose, turnanose, and other complex carbohydrates.
Honey contains trace amounts of several vitamins and minerals. As with all nutritive sweeteners, honey is mostly sugars and is not a significant source of vitamins or minerals. Honey also contains tiny amounts of several compounds thought to function as antioxidants, including chrysin, pinobanksin, vitamin C, catalase, and pinocembrin (Martos et al. 2000; Gheldof et al. 2002).
Honey has a density of about 1.36 kilograms per liter (36 percent denser than water) (Krell 1996).
In a bee colony, there are three types of bee: the single queen bee, a seasonally variable number of drone bees to fertilize new queens, and tens of thousands of worker bees. An average bee colony may have 50,000 to 70,000 workers and 2,000 drones (McNulty 2002), although 20,000 to 40,000 worker bees may be more common in nature. The worker bees raise larvae and collect the nectar that will become honey in the hive.
In collecting the nectar, the worker bees sucks the nectar out with their tongues and deposit it into a honey sac. Upon collecting the sugar-rich flower nectar, they 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.
Worker bees, which live three to six weeks, collect about one teaspoon of nectar during their lifetime. To produce one pound (0.454 kilograms) of honey requires four pounds (1.8 kilograms) of nectar, which is collected from two million flowers. About 60 to 100 pounds (27.2 to 45.4 kilograms) of honey are produced each year by an average bee colony of 50,000 to 70,000 workers.
After the honey is deposited into the honey sac, it is further processed by the honeybee by drawing out water and adding enzymes, and enriching it to yield honey. Once the bee returns to the hive, the partially processed product is deposited into empty honeycomb cells. It is then ingested by other worker bees, who add more enzymes, and further ripen the honey. In the hive, the bees use their "honey stomachs" to ingest and regurgitate the nectar a number of times until it is partially digested (Standifer 2007). The bees work together as a group with the regurgitation and digestion until the product reaches a desired quality.
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 (NHB 2008a). The reduction in water content raises the sugar concentration and prevents fermentation. Ripe honey, as removed from the hive by the beekeeper, has a long shelf life and will not ferment (NHB 2008b). When it is fully processed, the honeycomb cell with the honey is capped with a thin layer of beeswax.
Bees today are raised in especially designed boxes with removable sections that allow easy extraction of the honey and reinsertion of the combs, without loss of the colony. A sufficient amount of honey, about one-third, is kept in the hive for the use of the bees.
Generally, the caps are scraped from both sides of the honeycomb, and a large drum is used to draw out the honey from the honeycombs using centrifugal force, making sure the combs do not break. The honey is then poured into tanks and heated to 120°F (48.9°C) to melt out the crystals. The pollen and bee parts that rise to the top are scraped off. The honey is then flash heated, filtered, and flash cooled (all within about seven seconds). Some may not be filtered, but simply strained, giving a darker, cloudier, unprocessed honey (McNulty 2002).
The USDA has a maximum moisture content requirement of 18.6 percent. Different honeys may be blended to yield that manufacturers preferred moisture content (McNulty 2002).
Four major byproducts of the production process are beeswax, royal jelly, propolis, and pollen. Beeswax was used by the bee to cap the honeycomb cells, while propolis is a plant resin that is collected by the bees and mixed with enzymes, wax, and pollen to yield a disinfectant that also is used to cover cracks in the hive and decrease the hive opening in winter. Royal jelly is produced and secreted by nurse bees to feed the queen and is nutrient rich (McNulty 2002).
In 2005, China, Turkey, and the Unites States 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 is also one of the gourmet products of the French island of Corsica. Corsican honey is certified as to its origin (Appellation d'origine contrôlée) just as French wines are. This also is true for other other areas in Europe as well.
Types of honey
The three basic forms in which honey is sold is comb honey (with the honey still in the original comb, which also is edible), liquid honey (extracted from the comb, and generally pasteurized to prevent crystallization), and chunk-style honey or cut-comb honey (honey with pieces of honeycomb) (Herbst 2001).
The following are some more specific categories of honey.
Blended. Most commercially available honey is blended, meaning that it is a mixture of two or more honeys differing in floral source, color, flavor, density, or geographic origin.
Polyfloral. Polyfloral honey is derived from the nectar of many types of flowers (Hughes 2005).
Monofloral. Different monofloral honeys have a distinctive flavor and color because of 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."
Honeydew honey. 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.
Certified organic honey. Certified 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.
Crystallized honey. Crystallized honey is honey in which some of the glucose content has spontaneously crystallized from solution as the monohydrate. Also called "granulated honey."
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 (for example, diastase) activity. The heat also affects sensory qualities and reduces the freshness. Heat processing can darken the natural honey color (browning), too.
Raw honey. Raw honey is 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.
Strained honey. This is honey that 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 because of the included pollen, and it also tends to crystallize more quickly than ultrafiltered honey.
Ultrafiltered honey. Ultrafiltered honey is processed by very fine filtration under high pressure to remove all extraneous solids and pollen grains. The process typically heats honey to 150°F to 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 because of 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.
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 inhibits 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.
Whipped honey. Whipped honey also is called creamed honey, spun honey, churned honey, candied honey, and honey fondant. It refers to honey that has been processed to control crystallization. Whipped honey contains a large number of small crystals in the honey. The small crystals prevent the formation of larger crystals that can occur in unprocessed honey. The processing also produces a honey with a smooth spreadable consistency.
Because of its unique composition and the complex processing of nectar by the bees that 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.
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, and so forth. 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 storage places. Honey should also be protected from oxygen inflow, which brings about accelerated crystallization. Optimal preservation temperature is 4–10°C. The storage 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. Honey is considered to gradually become toxic when preserved in metal containers.
Honey used to be preserved in ceramic and wooden containers in ancient times, although it can absorb the smell of the wood. Glass bottles are recommended nowadays. 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 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. Wilson (2004) states that humans began hunting for honey at least 10,000 years ago. This is evidenced 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 employ a long wobbly ladder that 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 (Gindi; Wein 2008). 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.
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 the Roman Empire, honey was possibly used instead of gold to pay taxes. Pliny the Elder devotes considerable space in his book Naturalis Historia to the bee and honey, and its many uses. Ancient Egyptian and Middle-Eastern peoples used honey for embalming the dead.
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.
After his death in battle, the head of Vlad III Ţepeş (of later Dracula fame) was cut off and presented to the Ottoman Sultan, preserved in a jar of honey (Linke).
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 and bees than honey (ABA). Honey is sometimes sold in a bear-shaped jar or squeeze bottle.
"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.
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 Bees). According to hadith, Muhammad(S.A.W) strongly recommended honey for healing purposes (Sahih Bukhari vol. 7, book 71, number 584, 585, 588, and 603).
Modern use of honey
The main uses of honey are in cooking, baking, as a spread on breads, and as an addition to various beverages, such as tea, as well as a sweetener in commercial beverages such as Sprecher's root beer.
Medicinal uses and health effects of honey
For at least 2700 years, honey has been used by humans to treat a variety of ailments through topical application. Its antiseptic qualities found use by physicians as a covering for wounds before the development of bandages (McNulty 2002).
Wound gels that contain antibacterial honey and have regulatory approval for wound care are now available to help conventional medicine in the battle against drug resistant strains of bacteria MRSA. As an antimicrobial agent, honey may have the potential for treating a variety of ailments. One researcher says a particular type of honey may be useful in treating MRSA infections (Knox 2004). Honey appears to be effective in killing drug-resistant biofilms, which are implicated in chronic rhinosinusitis (AAO 2008).
Topical honey has been used successfully in a comprehensive treatment of diabetic ulcers when the patient cannot use other topical antibiotics (UWM 2007). Antioxidants in honey have even been implicated in reducing the damage done to the colon in colitis (Bilsel et al. 2002). Such claims are consistent with its use in many traditions of folk medicine (Molan 1992).
Honey has also been used for centuries as a treatment for sore throats and coughs, and according to recent research may in fact be more effective than most common medicines (GS 2007). Mixed with lemon juice and consumed slowly, honey coats the throat, alleviating discomfort. The antibacterial and antiseptic properties of honey aid in healing sore throats and laryngitis.
Some studies suggest that the topical use of honey may reduce odors, swelling, and scarring when used to treat wounds; it may also prevent the dressing from sticking to the healing wound (WHRU 2006). Honey has been shown to be an effective treatment for conjunctivitis in rats (Al-Waili 2004).
Honey is widely believed to alleviate allergies. A recent study has shown pollen collected by bees to exert an anti-allergenic effect, mediated by an inhibition of IgE immunoglobulin binding to mast cells. This inhibited mast cell degranulation and thus reduced allergic reaction (Ishikawa et al. 2008).
Honey mixed with water and vinegar was also used as a vermifuge. The concoction was called Oxymellin.
Honey may reduce the time it takes for a burn to heal—up to four days sooner in some cases. A review of 19 studies, with 2,554 participants, showed that the honey treatment healed moderate burns faster than traditional dressings did, although the author of the review recommends viewing the findings with caution, since a single researcher performed all of the burn studies (HBNS 2008).
Chemical explanation for antibacterial properties
Only recently have the antiseptic and antibacterial properties of honey been chemically explained. Antibacterial properties of honey are the result of the low water activity causing osmosis, high acidity (WHRU 2006), and hydrogen peroxide effect (Wahdan 1998).
Osmotic effect. Honey is primarily a saturated mixture of two monosaccharides. This mixture has a low water activity; most of the water molecules are associated with the sugars and few remain available for microorganisms, so it is a poor environment for their growth.
Acidity. The pH of honey is commonly between 3.2 and 4.5 (WHRU 2006). This relatively acidic pH level prevents the growth of many bacteria.
Hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide in honey is activated by dilution. However, unlike medical hydrogen peroxide, commonly 3% by volume, it is present in a concentration of only 1 mmol/L in honey. Honey chelates and deactivates the free iron, which starts the formation of oxygen free radicals produced by hydrogen peroxide and the antioxidant constituents in honey help clean up oxygen free radicals present (Molan 2001).
When used topically (as, for example, a wound dressing), hydrogen peroxide is produced by dilution with body fluids. As a result, hydrogen peroxide is released slowly and acts as an antiseptic.
Because of 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 (NHB 2008b).
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 (FDA 2007).
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 (Marquis 2016). 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. 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.
Images of harvesting honey
- Qur'an 47:15
- Translation of Quran 16:68–69
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