by Peter Cole
Since the Honey flow is in full swing, these last few weeks & months, I decided to dive into the details of Honey. How the bees make Honey, different ways beekeepers get Honey, and some medical benefits of Honey, are all things we as beekeepers should know a little bit more about. Many beekeepers know a lot about these topics, while some beginning beekeepers might know nothing at all.
Most people know that Honey Bees make Honey using Nectar, but they don’t know the specifics of how they do this. Honey Bees have many different jobs, one of them is as a foraging bee. A forager bee’s main job is to collect pollen and nectar, some of which the bee eats immediately to sustain itself, but the majority is taken back to the hive for storage. While the bees are foraging, they store the nectar that they collect in a special organ called the honey stomach, which is used for storing Honey, and Nectar.
When the forager bee gets to the hive she hands her load of nectar to a receiving bee who puts it in her Honey Stomach. While it is in the Bee’s Honey Stomach the Nectar mixes with different enzymes, and after about twenty minutes of mixing with enzymes, it becomes a transformation process into honey and is then ready for storage and dehydration. When the bees put the Honey in the cells it is about 20% water. The next step is when the bees will come to the uncapped cells, and fan their wings. The fanning allows air to circulate through the hive, and dehydrates the honey. Once the Honey is about 18% water the bees cap it with beeswax for long-term storage. The Beeswax cap prevents the Honey from rehydrating, or fermenting.
Langstroth hives, and Top-bar hives are the two primary styles of beekeeping. Each style has its own way of extracting the Honey. The Langstroth style of beekeeping is the most common way. The bees build their wax in frames of wood and then store honey in the wax. The frames of wood make it easier for the beekeeper to extract, by cutting off the capping and putting the frame in an Extractor. The Extractor spins the frames and uses centrifugal force to draw the Honey out. Once the Honey is out, the beekeeper can then put the empty frames back in the hive they came from. This process preserves the majority of the wax on the frames, which is the most valuable resource in the hive.
The Top-bar style of beekeeping is more natural, the beekeeper allows the bees to make their own comb, without the frame, just a top bar they use to build on. This makes extracting harder for the beekeepers. Since there is no frame to strengthen the comb an Extractor can’t be used. Instead, beekeepers cut the comb from the bar, and put the wax in a bucket with holes on the bottom. Then the beekeepers have to crush the comb to pop the capping, and let the honey drain out of the bucket into a bucket underneath. This method is not only hard and long, but it ruins the comb making it unable to go back into the hive, and makes the bees restart.
The use of honey as a treatment for wounds, burns, and other infections, has been recorded in historical Egyptian documents dating to before 2000 BC. A book published in 2002 determined that honey’s anti-microbial effectiveness comes from four properties found in different honey varietals, but these properties are not found in every varietal of honey to the same degree, here are the three most common. The first thing is honey has hydrophilic properties which draw water into it. When honey is in contact with other tissues, the honey draws the water out of the cells and kills them. Next, honey has a very acidic pH. The average pH level across all varietals of honey is lower then 4.0. The low pH inhibits the growth of many bacteria. Third, under certain conditions honey can generate Hydrogen Peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide has been used as a disinfectant for decades, but since it is unstable in the presence of light and air, it is hard to store and utilize, also in large concentrations is toxic to humans. Honey solves this allowing for an easy way to apply hydrogen peroxide in non-toxic amounts. One enzyme that the bees allow to mix with honey is glucose oxidase. This enzyme breaks down the glucose in the honey into hydrogen peroxide, and gluconic acid. However, this enzyme only becomes active in a pH level of 5.5 and a sodium content of 2,300 ppm. The sodium content of pure honey is only about 20 to 40 ppm. When honey is applied to a wound, burn, or infected area the honey draws out the moisture killing the infected cells. As the liquid from the cells dilutes the honey it raises the pH and sodium content activating the glucose oxidase, which breaks down the glucose into small amounts of hydrogen peroxide which are delivered right to the infected area. Not all honey has the ability to make hydrogen peroxide, some honeys have an enzyme called Catalase. This enzyme nullifies the effect of glucose oxidase.
Honey is an interesting liquid. not only is it an amazing tasting sweeter, but it also has many healing benefits as well. I learned a lot while researching this article, and I hope you did as well. I wish you much luck during your extracting honey in your own hives!!