Yesterday I had a visit from a local homeschool group. They are involved in a national competition that examines natural phenomena and attempts to innovate based on technology systems they find. They interviewed me a couple years ago for a project that focused on climate change and this time around they were interested in the chemical nature of honey that makes it anti-bacterial and gives it its long shelf life. I have no idea what they took away from here, but they asked a lot of great questions and were a respectful, intelligent group.
So for those of you in the adult audience who may always have wanted to know, here’s the answer. When honey first enters the hive it is actually just nectar, collected from the throats of flowers. As an aside, not all flowers are nectar sources for the bee. Some provide only pollen, some provide only nectar, and some provide both. The amount of honey the bees are able to collect in any given year is dictated by the weather. If it is too rainy, the rain will wash all the nectar out of the flower and there won’t be anything to collect. If it isn’t rainy enough, the flower doesn’t have enough extra fluid to put towards creating nectar and instead focuses on operating its own water pumps to keep its leaves turgid and to carry out respiration.
Anyway…. when nectar is carried into the hive, and this is done in a special honey container within the bee’s body… it’s not carried in the stomach…. honey is NOT bee vomit! =) The nectar is deposited into the comb. At this point it is highly liquid and contains sucrose, glucose and fructose. Bees use an enzyme called invertase to convert sucrose into glucose first. This contributes to the overall stability of the honey because it concentrates the sugar content and contributes to honey’s osmolarity. Big word- osmolarity basically means that it becomes water loving… when a bacterial cell now comes in contact, the honey covets the water in the cell so much that it sucks the little sucker dry- effectively killing the bacteria.
So now we have a super concentrated liquid with just glucose and fructose. The bees now furiously work their wings like a big fan system to dehydrate the honey. They also add an enzyme called glucose oxidase that helps to lower the ph to a more acid level- further ensuring shelf stability.
What’s really neat is that this low acidity, combined with the glucose oxidase is a chemical reaction waiting to happen when it hits the saltiness of our skin. On contact, this reaction creates small amounts of hydrogen peroxide…. a substance well known for killing bacteria! Starting to wonder why you would ever buy OTC antibiotic creams?
Finally, the last component that contributes to the healing qualities of honey in a topical application is the type of flower that the bees collect the nectar from in the first place. Inside every plant is a complex combination of chemicals called phytochemicals. These phytochemicals have been created inside to produce color, smell, even sometimes a toxic cocktail served up for specific insect predators that the plant wishes to ward away. These phytochemicals are often the very things that we as humans use for medicinal purposes. They are the basis for much of our pharmaceutical patents, and they are found in our raw honey. Many have now heard of Manuka Honey, a variety that has been licensed for inclusion in bandages and used in hospital settings. Beyond the basic chemical makeup of honey, this particular plant is putting out a chemical identified as Mehylglyoxal. Just an added punch. All of our local medicinal herbs are contributing antibacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-biotic qualities to honey. Our honey here is collected mainly from our acres of medicinal herbs…. we believe this is why our bees are so healthy.
One more thing to add. Bees do not blindly collect nectar and pollen. A healthy bee seeks out the healthiest, highest sugar content that she can. She will even pick over pollen grains within a flower to find the best quality. This is a dance between her health and the health of the plants around her. As we are biodynamic, we focus on the health of the soil and the health of our plants- ensuring that each plant is able to uptake the nutrients it requires to be fully healthy. This means that the plants we grow have high sugar content (ever heard of Brix readings?…more on this in the next post) and are easy pickings for our bees.
An unhealthy bee will not have the energy to pass over unhealthy plants. She will have to gather the first available and get back to the hive before she tires. She will be less choosy.
Here at our farm we taste the difference between honey collected from healthy flowers by healthy bees. We count on that honey to contain the highest amounts of good phytochemicals to provide the best health properties for our family and those of our customers.