If you had to guess as to the most prolific product bees produce, what would your guess be? Pat yourself on the back if honey is your answer. Beekeepers get all sorts of products from their hives, including royal jelly and propolis. But honey is by far the most prolific. It is the one that beekeepers truly covet.
If you have ever wondered what is actually in honey, you’re not alone. What appears to be a very simple substance is actually quite complex in its chemical makeup. It has to be. Honey is a food source that keeps bees alive during the winter. Without it, hives would not survive.
How Honey Is Made
Before discussing the actual constituents of honey, it is a good idea to discuss how it is made. We human beings tend to think of food production as a manufacturing process. Bees do, too. They take raw ingredients and work with them to produce honey.
The first step in the process is for worker bees to go out and collect nectar. Bee bodies have storage sacs known as crops. A worker bee may consume a bit of nectar for its own food, but most of what is collected goes in the crop. When the crop is full, the bee returns to the hive.
Other workers in the hive ingest the nectar, let it sit for a while, then regurgitate it. Another bee ingests it, and the process continues until the nectar’s water content has been significantly reduced. Meanwhile, each worker bee’s body contributes enzymes. Nectar is eventually injected into honeycombs where it remains unsealed until most of the water is gone. Honeycombs are then sealed, and the substance matures into honey.
Honey’s Chemical Makeup
We have finally arrived at the point you have been waiting for: a discussion of honey’s chemical makeup. The nectar that eventually becomes honey is more than two-thirds water. But by the time it is completely processed, the water content has been reduced to about 17%. That is why honey is thick, sticky, and viscous.
As for the rest of the ingredients, honey contains:
- 22 amino acids
- 31 minerals
- 30 bioactive compounds (antioxidants)
- dozens of vitamins and enzymes
- varying levels of pollen.
You may be interested to know that unprocessed honey has more than four times the oxidants of its processed counterpart. If you were to consume honey solely for its antioxidant benefits, raw honey would be the better choice.
I could go into much more detail with all of honey’s ingredients. However, space does not allow for such in-depth analysis. Instead, here is a breakdown of the most common honey constituents by volume:
- Fructose – 38.2%
- Glucose – 31%
- Water – 17.1%
- Maltose – 7.2%
- Carbohydrates – 4.2%
- Sucrose – 1.5%.
Glucose content is important because it affects how honey reacts to temperature changes. Glucose crystallizes when temperatures begin to drop. Therefore, high levels of glucose make a batch of honey more likely to crystallize when taken out of the hive. Bear in mind that the average temperature inside a hive can be as high as 95°F.
Beekeepers sometimes use electric blankets to keep harvested honey warm, thereby preventing crystallization. Otherwise, a batch of honey allowed to crystallize could suffer from diminished quality. The key to keeping it warm is to not allow the honey to get warm enough to pasteurize.
Health Benefits for Humans
We can deduce that honey is the perfect food for adult bees. It provides the right nutrients in the right amounts. But what about human health? Are there any benefits to regular honey consumption? Though the science is far from conclusive, research seems to indicate that there are.
According to the Mayo Clinic, research seems to indicate that honey could be beneficial in fighting cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and neurological disease. It has long been used as a homeopathic treatment for respiratory infections and wounds.
In summary, honey is made up of more than a hundred different substances and compounds. Its ingredient profile can be affected by everything from the species to the plants a colony feeds on. Either way, it is one of the most prolific products bees make.