Honey Chemistry: What is Honey Made Of?

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The difference between raw honey and pure honey is lost on many. Runny honey? Rock hard? “Who cares! Just pop it in the microwave!” Well, hypothetical person, honey is actually more complex than that. Honey is made of delicate sugars, water, vitamins, antioxidants, enzymes, and minerals that can be damaged when overheated.  Let’s take a proverbial “Magic School Bus” dive into the honey pail. It’s time to get educated on the chemistry of this ancient ambrosia, how to keep it from pasteurization, and why.

The Sting: A Bee’s Process for Makin’ Honey

So why do bees make honey in the first place? Turns out we’re not the only ones who like honey on our toast. Bees eat honey and save it to live on during the winter. Forager bees collect nectar from flowering plants and take it back to the hive in their honey stomach (also known as honey crop), and transfer it over to house bees. Over a 20-minute period they will process the nectar in their crop, absorbing the water and breaking down the larger sucrose sugar molecules into smaller glucose and fructose sugars. No, honey isn’t “bee vomit,” or “bee-barf” as my coworker likes to call it. This is because regurgitation is voluntary, and never passes through the bees central digestive system. The bees will then deposit the nectar-turned-honey into honeycomb, and will fan it with their wings. This helps to further dehydrate the honey, which gives it preservative qualities. The low water content in honey, below 20%, also makes it uninhabitable for bacteria. This low water content and acidic properties gives honey antiseptic qualities too, good for topical use and health treatments, like for a common sore throat. 

What is Honey Made Of? A Sticky Situation

Honey is made of different sugars, water, vitamins, antioxidants, enzymes, and minerals. Raw honey comes straight from the hive, after being lightly filtered by hand to remove any debris. This preserves the nutritional qualities of the honey. Processed honey is heated at 70 degrees Celsius and then rapidly cooled, killing and destroying beneficial bacteria, enzymes, pollen, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. This, and intense straining “purify” the honey and is done mostly for aesthetic reasons. All in all, processed honey is significantly less beneficial for your body just so it will look pretty on the shelf.

Crystal Clear: Decrystallize Raw Honey

When apiarists and beekeepers remove honey from the hive, they usually keep it in pails. Hive temperatures average between 89º to 95º Fahrenheit. If the weather is cold enough, depending on the type of honey, it will begin to crystallize. A honey bucket heater or honey drum heater is a great solution to decrystallize raw honey without heating it enough to pasteurize it and helping preserve its nutritional value. 

Check out this infographic for more information on what honey is made of!

Sources

Charlotte, Beekeeper, Pete Jones, and Beekeeper Charlotte. “What Do Honeybees Do With Pollen?” Carolina Honeybees. October 15, 2018. Accessed November 13, 2018. https://carolinahoneybees.com/why-pollen-is-vital-for-honeybee-survival/.

Common Disease Problems. Accessed November 13, 2018. https://www.uaex.edu/farm-ranch/special-programs/beekeeping/about-honey-bees.aspx.

“Honey, Recipes, Research, Information.” National Honey Board. Accessed November 13, 2018. https://www.honey.com/faq.

https://www.livescience.com/4255-oldest-bee-fossil-creates-buzz.html

http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/webprojects2001/loveridge/index-page3.html

https://www.compoundchem.com/2014/08/21/chemistryofhoney/

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