Snyders Honey, La Honda, California

What is Honey and How to Extract It?

Snyders Honey spinner

The products of the hive represent some of the most important contributions to human civilization and economic development. It is remarkable that one animal species has evolved to provide so many valuable products. Honey represents the most well known of the honeybee products. Pliny of ancient Rome is said to have written, "drink a glass of honey and cider vinegar every morning; it cleans the system and promotes good health. Mohammed, the founder of Islam said, "honey is the remedy for every illness". In 400 B.C. Greek athletes were given honey as a carbohydrate boost and Egyptians used honey to embalm cuts which protected them from a variety of bacteria and viruses.

One of the most frequently asked questions is, "what is the difference between sugar and honey?" To understand how sugar differs from honey, one must first learn what is sugar. Common table sugar is known as sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide (die-sack-uh-ride). It contains two monosaccharides -- glucose and fructose -- linked together. Monosaccharides are made up of just one sugar molecule.

Sugar as we know it today is a manmade substance. While sucrose does exist naturally, it grows in combination with fiber. Most unrefined sugar comes from sugar beet and sugarcane plant. God designed each of these plants to have large amounts of fiber to balance the sugar content. Man has removed the fiber and concentrated the remaining sugar. As a result, the sucrose in our sugar bowls contain concentrates far exceeding those on any food that exists naturally.

Honey, unlike table sugar which is 99.5 percent sucrose, is a natural sweetener made up of at least 165 identifiable components. It contains "amino acids, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and at least twenty-five different kinds of sugar" (Perman, The Magic of Honey). The exact composition of honey varies, depending upon the nectars from which it is made. For example, bees collecting nectar from oak or avocado blossoms produce a dark, strong flavored honey that is rich in minerals. My favorite is avocado because it tastes like molasses.

The sugars in honey are also varied. Unlike table sugar, which is almost pure sucrose, honey contains several simple sugars. Honey has a complex nature -- at least eleven disaccharides are present in addition to the monosaccharides. These disaccharides include maltose, isomaltose, nigerose, turanose, and maltulose. Honey even contains a few sugars known as oligosaccharides (ahl-ih-go). An oligosaccharide is a sugar which contains more than two molecules. These sugars include erlose, kestose, raffinos, dextrantriose, and melezitose. All of these sugars are the result of enzymes that bees add to the nectar they collect. The enzymes break down the raw sugars in nectar and then rearrange their components into a wide variety of new sugars. Honey is such a complex substance that, when eaten in moderate amounts, it contributes to the metabolic balance of our bodies rather than detracting from it.

When bees fly to visit flowers and collect nectar, it is known as foraging. When the bee returns to the hive, it passes on its drop of nectar to other bees, who "ripen" the honey further. Eventually, a worker bee spreads the drop of nectar as a thin film on the floor of an empty honeycomb cell. The bees fan their wings and cause the honey to evaporate. When the water content reaches twenty percent or less, other bees continue to fill the rest of the empty space with nectar. When the cell fills up, the bees seal it with an airtight wax cap. Now the honey is sealed and protected from increasing in water content. This also insures bacteria will not be able to grow. Honey will never go bad. Bacteria and germs cannot live in honey. However, if it is watered down, then it will spoil or ferment. Edible honey has been found in tombs dated back thousands of years.

Honey is absorbed more slowly than table sugar which stretches out the available energy from honey over longer periods of time and prevents the excessive swings of energy and fatigue associated with table sugar. Honey also has many of the necessary enzymes required to digest and convert its sugars into energy properly.

Honey is one of the best topical dressings for wounds and burns because it is sterile. As I mentioned before, bacteria cannot live in honey. In addition, honey contains ingredients that actually fight against bacterial growth. Pasteurization damages honey. Many of honey's nutrients and antibacterial properties are heat sensitive. My experience with knowing how to look for the most natural honey is from having my own bees. Having your own beehive may not always be practical. Finding a local beekeeper who can supply you with honey may be the next best thing. If it is the health food store, the honey with a cloudy texture is usually less refined. All honey crystallizes within time which is very natural. Usually but not always, honey that begins to crystallize uniformly in the jar and has small, waxy particles on the surface is really raw honey. Remember when its heated it melts any wax. Honey needs to be heated to filter it through a fine cloth or mesh. The cleaner the honey, the more likely it has been finely filtered.

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