Honey is a syrupy, energy-rich food that honeybees make out of flower nectar. People use it for a variety of culinary purposes, including as a spread and a sweetener.
The largest single ingredient in honey is glucose, which usually accounts for 76 to 80 per cent of honey’s weight. Water makes up a further 17 to 20 per cent, with the remainder consisting of fructose, wax, pollen, and mineral salts. The precise makeup of honey, as well as its colour, is dictated by the specific flowers the bees use to create it. Alfafa and clover deliver white honey, for example. Heather produces a reddish-brown hue, lavender amber, and acacia and sainfoin make straw honey.
Bee colonies are made up of three different classes of insect. Each colony has a single queen, roughly 2,000 drones, and 50,000 to 70,000 workers. The lifespan of a worker bee is a mere three to six weeks; in that time it will collect roughly one teaspoon of nectar. To create one pound (0.454 kg) of honey, bees collect four pounds (1.8 kg) of nectar from two million flowers. In one year, an average colony can produce 60 to 100 pounds (27.2-45.4 kg) of honey.
Once the bees have created the honey, it’s collected by human beekeepers. This is the process:
1) The beekeeper first dons protective gear, including heavy gloves and a veiled helmet. Then, she prepares the colony for collection by inserting a separator board. This is done two to three hours before removing the honeycombs. The board splits the bees off from their queen. They go in search of her, entering the brood chamber through a one-way hatch that keeps them out of the honey chamber while the beekeeper accesses it.
2) The beekeeper removes each honeycomb and tests it by shaking it. If most of the honey cells are still uncapped, this will shake out loose honey. Combs that spurt honey are returned to the colony and left for several more days. Honeycombs that have at least two-thirds of their cells capped are ready for honey extraction. In any case, the beekeeper will leave at least a third of the honey in the hive so that the bees have an ample food supply.
3) Combs that are ready for honey extraction are loaded into a transport box and removed from the area of the colony. The caps are removed from both sides of each comb using a tool designed specifically for the task, an uncapping fork. The caps fall onto a capping tray.
4) The opened honeycombs are loaded into an extractor. This is a drum-shaped machine that spins around, using centrifugal force to draw the honey from the combs. The honey comes to rest on the walls of the extractor; from here it is poured into drums. The drums are ready for transfer to a commercial distributor.
5) At the distributor, raw honey is collected and poured into heated tanks. These tanks bring the honey up to a temperature of 120°F (48.9°C) and kept there for a full day. This melts any crystals in the honey and makes its consistency more uniform.
6) Most of the honey is then filtered. It is flash-heated up to 165°F (74.8°C), pushed through a paper filter and then flash-cooled back to tank temperature. Using these automatic systems the entire process is quick, lasting roughly seven seconds. Filtering makes honey lighter and more brightly-coloured, which most consumers prefer.
A small portion of honey is left unfiltered (i.e. ‘raw’) to meet the desires of consumers who prefer its cloudier but also more healthful consistency.
7) The honey (filtered and raw) is then pumped into cans, jars, and bottles. It is ready to be shipped to retailers and commercial customers.