What is honey? Where does it come from?
Where can I learn more about bees and beekeeping in Kent and East Sussex?
Honey is mostly produced from nectar, created by flowers, collected by honeybees and transformed, by the action of enzymes, into honey. Over millions of years the earth’s flora and fauna have evolved and formed mutually beneficial relationships to ensure the survival of future generations.
Such an association is between flowering plant life and honeybees. Flowers produce nectar and pollen. Bees are attracted to these flowers by scent, colour and a variety of other means. Nectar is a sweet, watery liquid that provides bees with their energy, helping them to exist and thrive. Once taken by bees it becomes a dilute honey. It is too watery at this stage to be harvested by the beekeeper. As bees move among flowers, syphoning nectar with their tongues, powdery pollen grains from male parts of the flowers adhere to hairs on their bodies. As they continue foraging, from flower to flower and on to flowers of neighbouring plants of the same type, they will take pollen with them. Some will stick to female receptors leading to pollination and the formation of fruit and seeds. Pollen is greatly over produced by flowers and is avidly collected by bees. Using their legs they brush the grains and pass them to their rear legs where they are clumped together and pressed into ‘pollen baskets’. Bees can often be seen carrying these heavy loads on their hind legs and the sight is often marvelled at during our beekeeping lessons. Although often pale in colour, pollen varies; some plants producing vivid hues of blue, red and orange. Others are even black! Another aspect of this symbiotic relationship is that pollen is an essential food for honeybees. It is high in protein and once processed by them, converts to Royal Jelly. This forms a major part of the larval food and possibly helps in maintaining the adults’ physical structure. Occasionally a honeybee colony, for a number of reasons, will need a new queen. A newly hatched female larvae, if fed entirely on royal jelly, will produce a queen.
Siphoned nectar enters the bees’ ‘honey stomachs’ and mixes with enzymes, in particular invertase. This is now a dilute honey which the bees need to reduce in volume. A concentrated, thick honey is required as the bees need to conserve storage space and prevent fermentation. This reduction is carried out employing a number of methods which involve driving off excess water by fanning their wings. As this is performed more invertase may be added. The honey is stored in hexagonal, interlocking cells and capped with a thin layer of wax to prevent fermentation. By storing honey and pollen, bees have food for lean times and, in particular, to take them through the winter. In this way they have a ‘kick start’ in the spring as they will have a laying queen already in place to begin the new season. Wasp colonies, on the other hand, die out in late summer, having produced a number of queens that will mate and pass the winter in a dormant state. Individually, in the spring, they will find nesting sites and rear their first flush of youngsters before spending their time laying and leaving their daughters to raise the young. All this takes time and is why wasp populations do not fully develop fully until well into the summer.
HAY FEVER SUFFERERS HELPED BY LOCAL HONEY
Come along to a bee keeping lesson and learn more. Relief can often be achieved by eating local honey as it contains suspended pollen grains. If a teaspoon is eaten each day the body slowly builds up an immunity as the digestive system can more readily cope with the pollen it assimilates than that entering the eyes, nose or mouth. It is essential to continue the treatment over winter. It is vitally important that honey used to treat hay fever should not be heated as this could destroy its health giving properties. Stored honey usually sets hard and has to be melted by warming before it can be poured into jars. The honey I produce for hay fever sufferers is sieved and poured into jars before it sets naturally; no heating is involved. It then spreads easily on toast and will not run if spooned.