How is honey produced?
Honey bees of the genus Apis are the primary source of honey consumed by humans, however honey is also produced by bumblebees, stingless bees and some wasps. Honey is made from the nectar of flowers. Nectar is a sugary fluid that also includes the aromatic oils that give flowers their unique scent. It acts as an inducement to attract the insects and birds that pollinate the flowers. Foraging bees draw the nectar up through their proboscis and then store it in their ‘honey stomachs’. Some may be used to support the metabolism, but the majority is taken back to the hive. Each bee carries only about 40 milligrams of the precious nectar.
At the hive, the nectar is repeatedly regurgitated and ingested until it is partially digested. The incorporation of digestive enzymes serves to break down sucrose to a mixture of glucose and fructose. The bees work cooperatively on this process for up to 20 minutes, after which the product is placed into honeycomb cells. The bees constantly fan the uncapped cells with their wings, which induces evaporation. Nectar comprises as much as 70% water and also contains natural yeasts which can cause sugars to ferment, whereas honey typically has a water content of about 18%. Evaporation raises the sugar concentration and prevents fermentation. Finally, the bees seal the honeycomb cells with a wax cap. The honey is stored as a food source for both adult and larval bees in winter, or when other food is scarce.
Honey bees produce more honey than is essential for the needs of the hive, and this is harvested by modern beekeepers using removable and reusable honeycomb frames. The wax caps are scraped off and the frames are then placed into a centrifuge that forces the honey out of the comb. The honey is then strained and bottled. Honey has an extremely long shelf life; it is resistant to microbial activity and will keep for thousands of years if adequately sealed. It is common for large commercial producers, and some smaller beekeepers, to heat the honey or process it in other ways. This may denature many of the natural enzymes, vitamins and phytonutrients which can confer health benefits. Raw, organic honey has an opaque colour and can be obtained direct from local apiarists in Melbourne and around Australia.
Pollen is also collected by foraging bees as a food source for their larvae, and may be accidentally introduced into honey. Although the amount of pollen in honey is very small, it is sometimes used to determine the floral source. Honey is classified by the floral source of the nectar from which it is produced, and the colour and flavour of the honey varies accordingly. Australia’s endemic flora produces some distinctive and popular varieties of honey, including yellow box, blue gum, ironbark and macadamia.
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