Following on from our earlier blog post "How Honey & Beeswax are Produced" we now have our jar of honey produced by so much effort, but what is honey?
Well it’s a blend of fructose, glucose and water and contains a whole array of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. It’s also antifungal, antiviral, antiseptic.
Honey is only food source to never to go off. It has even been found in the pyramids in Egypt. It will however ferment if the moisture contents is too high.
All natural honey will eventually granulate. The rate of granulation depends on what the bees have foraged on. Brassicas for example will speed up granulation. Ivy will granulate almost as quickly as the bees store it.
Honey will look and taste different depending on where the bees have foraged. Honey taken in the spring will be different to honey taken in the late summer. It will vary from year to year and even from 2 hives side by side.
We all know bees collect nectar and pollen from flowers. The bees you see out and about on the flowers are actually the older bees and they work very hard collecting nectar which will be taken back to the hive.
Nectar will be sucked up by the bees and transported back to the hive in what is known as the “honey stomach”. Enzymes will be added to the honey and on arrival back at the hive the nectar load will be transferred to one of the younger house bees. The house bees will store the nectar in open honeycomb cells.
Nectar contains a high percentage of water and if left like this the combination of sugars and moisture would ferment. The bees now reduce the water content to below 20 % by keeping the temperature of the hive at 35 degrees and by fanning. Once the water content has been reduced to less than 20% the honey is now ready to be stored and the bees cap the honey over with a thin layer of beautiful white wax. This keeps the honey in perfect condition for the bees to use later.
Beeswax is typically produced by the younger house bees between 12 and 20 days old, although swarms of bees will rapidly produce of wax comb, because they need to get going quickly with somewhere for the queen to lay eggs and somewhere to store food. Bees wax is produced in the glands of the bees after they have consumed pollen and large quantities of honey. The bees will hang in strings and as wax is extruded from the glands of the wax producing bees it will be passed along the chain between legs and mouths, being chewed and moulded to shape. The bees will then use this wax to build the hexagon shaped honey cells we are all familiar with.
Producing wax takes vast quantities of honey. It takes 10 kilos of honey to produce a kilo of beeswax.
Bees will fly 90,000 (3 orbits of the earth) miles to collect 1kg of honey so a 340g jar is the equivalent of 30,000 bee miles. Next time you have an empty honey jar, spare a moment. Is there a little drizzle of honey in there you can scrape out? A 10th of a teaspoon of honey is the amount collected by one bee in her entire life so every drop is precious.
I love giving talks to children’s groups because they ask such wonderful questions and I have learnt so much from talking to them.
One of my favourite questions is, “Where do bees come from?”. Especially when I can answer that bees were around when the dinosaurs roamed the earth!
Around 135 million years ago when dinosaurs walked the earth there were also some insects. Some of these insects were oversized butterflies and dragonflies.
Plants had been mostly wind pollinated up until this point, but insects and plants had recently discovered a beneficial relationship. In return for a sugary reward in the form of nectar insects were now pollinating flowers. Prior to this time flowers were drab greens and browns which blended well with the rest of the vegetation, but they had now started to evolve different colours and shapes to attract the most beneficial insects to pollinate them.
Another group of insects, the wasps, had also evolved. The term “wasp” usually conjures up images of black and yellow insects being a nuisance at late summer picnics. There is very much more to wasps then this though.
Some wasp species catch prey which they feed to their young. The female wasps stock a nest, often an underground burrow, with the corpses or paralysed bodies of their prey for the young grubs to feed on. For some reason some of these wasps started to stock their nests with pollen. It may have been that there was a shortage of their preferred prey, or the pollen may just have been a supplement. Pollen is very rich in protein (as other insects had discovered) and eventually a wasp species evolved to feed their young solely on pollen and had become the first bees.
As insects rarely form fossils it is difficult to be precise as to when bees first evolved. DNA suggests that bees have been around for approximately 130 million years and so were evolving alongside the first flowers.
Since that time bees and flowers have continued to evolve and diversify side by side.
Flowers have adapted various ways and means to attract the bees best adapted to pollinating them, whilst bees have evolved to become specialised nectar and pollen feeders/collectors. Many species have hairy bodies which trap pollen as they fly from flower to flower.
Others have stiff hairs on their back legs on to which they pack pollen to transfer it back to their nests.
Some have evolved longer and longer tongues with which to reach nectar, and so the variations go on.
Today there are approximately 25,000 known species of bee worldwide.
In the UK we have around 280 different bees. 1 of these is the honey bee, 27 are bumble bees and the rest are solitary bees.