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The ABC’s of Bees & Honey

We’ve come a long way with the production of honey, and in the last century we have learned a lot more about the science of bees and honey. And, all our scientific 'know how' has led to the understanding that all sweeteners are not created equal.

Honey is a processed food …"processed" in a factory so efficient it would even make Henry Ford jealous. Of course, I am talking about beehives and those tireless worker bees. Bees travel as much as 55,000 miles and visit more than two million flowers to gather enough nectar to make just one pound of honey – and you thought maple syrup was a time consuming activity…

Bees produce honey the same way today as they have for at least 150 million years. Bees produce honey so that they have food for the hive during the long months of winter when flowers aren't blooming and when little or no nectar is available to them. Bees consume mainly pollen, a good source of protein and vitamins, for the first half of their lives, but come winter they switch to honey. European honeybees, genus Apis Mellifera, produce such an abundance of honey - far more than the hive can eat over a single winter - that humans can harvest the excess without risk to the honeybees.

Honeybees are social insects, and bee colonies have a marked division of labor that includes a queen, drones and workers. The smallest bees in the colony, the workers, are the busiest. A typical colony can have between 50,000 to 60,000 of these sexually undeveloped females. The life span of a worker bee varies according to the time of year, but it is typically 28 to 35 days – so many of the worker bees that are reared in September and October will live through the winter. The workers main jobs are to feed the queen and larvae, guard the hive entrance, and help to keep the hive cool by fanning their wings. They also produce wax comb, and collect nectar to make honey.

Drones are large male bees that have no stingers. Drones do not work. Their sole purpose is to mate with the queen.

The largest bee in the colony is the queen. A two-day-old larva is selected by the workers to be reared as the queen, and eventually become the largest bee in the colony. Throughout her life the Queen bee will be the only sexually developed female in the colony. She will emerge from her cell 11 days later to mate in flight with approximately 18 drones. During this mating, she receives million of sperm, which last her entire life span of nearly two years. The queen starts to lay eggs about 10 days after mating, laying as many as 3,000 eggs in a single day.

Mature worker bees run about ten one-hour trips to and from the hive every day. Each can fly up to five miles in search for nectar, storing what she gathers in her “honey sac.” As the worker bees buzz on flowers, they collect a little water, a substance called propolis, (also referred to as “bee glue) and nectar (the sweet liquid flowers excrete to attract bees and other insects.) Their movement from flower to flower also provides one of nature’s most crucial functions – pollination. While collecting nectar, pollen collects on and falls off the bees’ legs, helping to fertilize flowers so they can produce seeds and fruit. Each variety of flower produces a unique type of pollen and a unique type of nectar both of which will affect the color, texture, flavor, and others properties of the honey. Since it is a product of nature, nectar and pollen can change from season to season and from year to year.

Back at the hive, bees will turn the nectar into honey, which is their primary food. Inside the hive, house worker bees remove and handle the nectar, passing it off from one another and fanning their wings rapidly to help evaporate moisture and concentrate the nectar. During this process known as "ripening," special enzymes on their bodies work with evaporation to transform the nectar into honey. When ready, the worker bees deposit the droplets of honey into hexagon-shaped wax cells and seal the cell with more wax. In her lifetime, the average worker bee makes only 1/12 teaspoon of honey, just a few small drops. Bees consume about 8 pounds of honey for every pound of surplus taken by the beekeeper.

Next article >> What's in Your Honey?

(c) ChefShop.com, 2005
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