Sweet Gold

Have you ever spread soft thick honey on fresh bread, drizzled it into a cup of sour lemonade, or sneaked a sweet spoonful straight from the jar? If you love eating honey, you’re one of millions of people (and animals) who have enjoyed this sweet treat for as long as people can remember.

Honey really isn’t made for people at all. This syrupy food is made and kept by a hive of insects as a winter food supply. The story of honey begins with a flower and a bee.

A worker bee makes many trips a day from its hive to nearby flowers. The bee follows the flower’s perfume and nectar guides (lines on the petals only her ultraviolet light-sensitive eyes can see) to the sweet watery liquid inside. With her hollow tongue (proboscis), she sips it into a special pouch in her abdomen called the honey stomach. When she’s full, she flies back to the hive.

Other worker bees are waiting for her. The field bee moves the nectar from her stomach back to her mouth (regurgitates it), and passes it to a hive bee tongue to tongue. But that’s wrong! Because it’s no longer nectar. Already it has begun to change into honey.

The change from nectar to honey begins when the nectar enters the bee’s body. In the bee’s stomach are proteins called enzymes. Before the bee even gets back to the hive, these enzymes begin their work.

In the hive, the thin honey is passed from bee to bee. Water evaporates from it and the honey begins to thicken. Next a hive bee places the slightly thick
honey into a wax cell. But before it’s ready, more water must come out of it. Hundreds of hive bees fan their wings to make a breeze in the hive and help the water evaporate from the honey.

When the honey is about one fifth water (nectar is about four fifths water), a hive bee covers the cell with beeswax from her wax glands. Another honey pot is ready for winter’s cold!

But the beekeeper wants the honey too. One sunny day in late summer, he takes the frames of honeycomb out of the hive. In his work shed he does the sticky chore of extracting the honey.

With a heated knife he cuts the wax top off the honeycomb. Then he puts the frames of opened comb into a large, round tub (extractor). It spins around, forcing the honey out like a spin drier forces water out of wet clothes. The fresh honey is then strained, bottled, and ready for people to eat!

And eat it you may, for honey, in small quantities, is good for most people. It’s a simple sugar that people digest easily. It contains vitamins and some minerals that other sweeteners like corn or cane syrups and sugar don’t have.

Honey comes in many flavors and colors. They depend on what flowers the bees collected the nectar from. A farmer’s market, fruit stand or apiary (a place bees are raised) may have honey that you couldn’t buy in a supermarket. From creamy white clover to dark buckwheat honey, they’re all delicious.

But if you think that honey is only to eat, you’re in for a surprise. For honey has many other uses.

Thousands of years ago, the Egyptians used honey to help embalm the bodies of their Pharaohs. The Greeks and Romans used honey as a medicine for sick stomachs, coughs, colds, and as a covering for wounds and burns. Throughout the ages women have used honey to beautify and soften the skin of their faces and hands.

These uses of honey were probably a result of the germ killing or antibiotic substance in honey called ‘inhibine.’ Also, because honey is slightly acid and thick, germs and fungi don’t easily grow in it. In fact, honey is still used today to preserve skin that will be used for skin grafts.

So, whether you prefer honey on a sandwich or in hand lotion you owe the bee a big thanks. After all, it takes all the sweet gold one bee gathers in her entire lifetime to make the teaspoon of honey you devour in a few minutes.


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