Honey bees (Apis mellifora) are economically extremely important. In the UK the honey bee industry (production of honey, beeswax and other products) is worth around £13 million a year, but this pales into insignificance compared to their value as pollinators which is said to be worth upwards of £200 million a year. Many farmers keep bees or ask local beekeeping groups to put their hives near to their crops, particularly orchards, so that there are enough bees in the vicinity to ensure a good yield - the fortuitous by-product of this is honey!

What is it?

Honey is perhaps the oldest sweetener in the world, made by bees from the nectar of various flowers. Honey varies in colour, density and flavour and this is attributed to the type of flower that was the main food source for the particular hive of bees. Honey is a complex of different carbohydrates, trace elements, vitamins and amino acids. It has been documented as having healing properties as well as being good to eat and was of great importance in Ancient Egyptian times as a sacrificial offering to the gods. Indeed, honey has been found sealed in Egyptian tombs which is still edible today, with very little loss of quality.

Types of honey

A true connoisseur of honey will delight in the large variety of single flower honeys available, each having its own unique characteristics of density, colour and flavour. Most of the cheaper honeys available in the shops are blended from a variety of sources. The list of types of honey is very long, so I have only mentioned a few:

  • Clover honey was once the major type of honey found in Britain. It is very pale and aromatic, although it quickly granulates once the jar is opened. The use of clover as a crop has declined greatly over recent years, leading to a reduction in the amount of clover honey produced.
  • Acacia honey is a pale, runny, mild flavoured honey, produced primarily in Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania. Its high fructose content means that it remains liquid for a very long time.
  • Heather honey is dark, rich and fairly thick.
  • Australia produces a variety of extremely high quality and good flavoured honeys. Eucalyptus honey is very strong with a slight medicinal aftertaste.
  • Orange blossom honey, produced in Florida, California, Texas and Arizona is very pale amber and has the distinctive aroma of the flower.
  • Mexican honey. Mexico has become one of the leading countries making honey worldwide.
  • China is a major exporter of good quality honey, supplying about 20% of Britain's needs.

How honey is made

In the early morning scout bees fly from the hive in a radius of up to 1.5 miles searching for food sources. They then fly back to the hive and the best nectar is sampled and selected. The 'chosen' honey bee then does the waggle dance - a figure of eight movement which provides a map for other bees to follow.

When the bee reaches a flower it inserts its long tubular tongue and sucks the nectar into its honey stomach, which takes anywhere between 100-1500 flowers to fill. (Bees have 2 stomachs, one to collect and store nectar, the other being its regular stomach)

The bee then returns to the hive where other worker bees, or 'house bees', suck the nectar from its honey stomach through its mouth. The house bees then 'chew' the nectar for about half an hour so that enzymes from their saliva break down the complex carbohydrates of the nectar to simple sugars which are both more easily digestible and less prone to bacterial attack.

The resulting liquid is put into the cells of the honeycomb and then evaporated until it is thick and syrupy. The bees fan the cells with their wings to aid evaporation, until a concentration of about 60% sugar is reached. The cells are then capped with wax and the honey is safely stored until needed by the colony ( a colony can consume between 100-200 pounds of honey a year) or extracted by man.

Glowing Fish says: Honey is also the only animal product that can be fermented...well, milk can too, but no one wants to drink it when it is :)