I think I was a bee in another life. As a kid, I was fascinated with honeysuckle blossoms. I’d pick a flower from the vine, pull the stile out slowly through the bottom of the stem, and slurp up the drop of sweet nectar it released. I did this over and over, losing track of time, gorging myself in nature’s little candy shop. And that’s precisely what bees do in order to make the honey we all love so much.
Humans have been harvesting honey from beehives for over 8,000 years. It was possibly the Egyptians who first started “keeping bees” around 2400 BC. And honey was valued not only as a sweet delicacy, but also for it’s medicinal value, and it was even used as currency for trade. I wonder who first tasted honey and thought, “Oh, this would be perfect for treating burns… or dressing the sword wound I got this morning?” but evidence suggests ancient civilizations were aware of the healing properties of honey. Honey’s low moisture content and high acidity make it a natural antibacterial, and when applied to an injury, its unique enzymes produce hydrogen peroxide.
I recently donned a bee suit and helped with the honey harvest at the Gilcrease Orchard, the local farm where I buy all my produce. I joined farm director, Mark Ruben, and farm worker and mom of two, Molly Nebiker, as they collected this molten magic. And, boy, did I get an education!
I knew, probably from some biology class decades ago, that bees make honey by gathering nectar from flowers and bringing it back to their hive where it somehow turns into honey. What I didn’t realize is how hard a bee works in order to produce just one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey over its six week life span. According to retired Nevada entomologist Richard Hicks, who has been a beekeeper for over 50 years, one of the reasons worker bees life spans are so short is because their wings become tattered. And it’s no wonder, considering a bee’s wings flap at around 200 beats per second, and they sometimes make 30 trips a day to distances of several miles, visiting up to 100 flowers per trip!
Standing there in my bee suit, I am mesmerized by the music thousands of bee’s wings make as they buzz around me. And I am struck by the amount of energy that goes into honey production. I watch, almost hypnotized, as hundreds and hundreds of bees exit the bottom of the hive, and return with their honey stomachs full, and the pollen baskets on their hind legs loaded with pollen.
Later, I spend some time observing bees at very close range as they land on bok choy and pomegranate flowers. They work furiously with long tongues (called a proboscis) to suck up nectar into those special stomachs (entirely separate from their alimentary system) where enzymes turn it into honey. At the same time, their little mandibles and feet brush pollen onto their hind legs, combining it with saliva and honey to form a “bread” that sticks onto the “basket,” the flat part of the tibia, ringed with long hairs which create a sac for transport.
Once the bee returns to the hive, the honey is deposited into a honeycomb cell, where it is stored for food. Other worker bees help clean pollen grains from the bee’s hairs and bread from the pollen sacs then pack that into cells as well. During the winter months, when temperatures are low and plants are not in bloom, the hive will be less active and depend on the honey and pollen to survive. Of course, we are here to rob some of it today but only part. Mark knows, as does any responsible beekeeper, to leave the lower levels of the hive alone, as well as any frames where “brood” cells full of larvae are abundant. Less responsible beekeepers take too much honey, even in winter, and provide sugar water for the bees to consume instead. This can weaken the hive and ultimately result in inferior honey.
We remove frame after frame, loaded with golden colored honey and some with brightly colored pollen, then carefully brush off any clinging bees and place the frames in boxes. Each hive has a distinctly pitched sound – the particular vibration of all those wings that reflects the temperament of the hive. Most hives are fairly calm, others a bit aggressive. In my conversation with Mr. Hicks, he corrects me, “Not aggressive. Defensive.” We are, after all, the thieves here.
Back at the farm’s industrial kitchen, the frames are cleaned of excess wax and loaded into a giant centrifuge. The honey is then spun out into a series of vats and screened of extraneous material like bits of comb, before being siphoned into containers. The entire process is very simple, if a little labor intensive. I don’t know if it’s because I helped collect it, or because it came from a farm loaded with amazing fruit and vegetable blossoms, but this honey is possibly the best honey I have ever tasted! And it’s pure, raw honey. It’s appearance is not completely clear, but it’s not supposed to be. Although minimally filtered, it still contains tiny, tiny grains of pollen. The presence of pollen is what officially defines honey as honey, and where some of the healing properties lie.
A great deal of commercial honey is pasteurized (heated and sterilized), destroying the very vitamins, minerals, and enzymes for which we prize it. It is frequently over filtered, to make it more attractive. Some honey on your supermarket shelf could even be mixed with corn syrup, sugar, or artificial coloring, may contain no measurable pollen, and can possibly even be tainted with traces of unwanted ingredients, like heavy metals or antibiotics! Honey production is not closely monitored by the FDA, and none of this information may be disclosed on the label.
This is why it is important to buy from a local, reliable source, particularly since honey is often consumed to ward off allergies. Honey from any given region will contain many of the pollens to which its residents are allergic. Eating just a spoonful of raw local honey a day is said to reduce seasonal allergic reactions significantly. People also find that honey helps treat sore throats and coughs, balances blood sugar levels, can be an effective acne treatment, reduces acid reflux, and may even help fight cancer. Read up on the health benefits of honey and try it for yourself!
One note of caution: Doctors advise against giving raw honey to children under one year of age, as they lack sufficient immunity to protect them from botulism. Botulism spores naturally occur in the environment and can end up in raw honey.
1) Nowadays, it’s more cost effective for honey manufacturers to package their product in plastic containers. I like to transfer mine to a sterilized, pretty, glass jar for long term storage in the pantry.
2) Honey lasts forever, literally. It’s normal for honey to crystallize over time. Simply place your airtight jar in some warm water to return it to its liquid state!
Health Benefits of honey: https://www.honeycolony.com/article/7-ways-raw-honey-heals/
Food Safety info on honey: http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/11/tests-show-most-store-honey-isnt-honey/#.WQybdBiZORs
General information on bees: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5306468.pdf
For info on The Gilcrease Orchard: http://www.thegilcreaseorchard.org