Drizzle it on your toast or infuse some in your tea — when it comes to sweeteners, honey is the bee’s knees. Bees make honey as a source of food to get them through the winter, and even early humans took their share of the sweet treat. Honey consumption has been prevalent throughout human history, but what exactly makes it such a highly-desired food item? Get a taste of that sweet knowledge with these interesting honey facts.
- The composition of honey is around 82% carbohydrates.
- The water content of high-quality honey should not exceed 20%.
- Honey is an acidic substance with an average pH of 3.9, but its pH can be from 3.4 to 6.1.
- Crystallized honey typically melts at temperatures of about 104 to 122 °F (40 – 50 °C).
- The glycemic index of honey is around 31 to 78.
- Bees store honey in waxy honeycombs.
- Honey is often viscous and sweet.
- Its relative sweetness is comparable to that of table sugar.
- The term “honey” came from the Old English word “honig”, which has Germanic roots.
- Humans practice beekeeping or apiculture to collect bee products such as honey from domesticated bees.
- Honey is a product made by animals and therefore is not strictly vegan.
- Glucose and fructose make up the majority of sugars in honey.
- Honey contains electrolytes, which makes it a good conductor of electricity.
- One of the ingredients of the elixirs of life in Hinduism (Panchamrita) is honey.
- In the Christian Bible, the New Testament says John the Baptist survived the wilderness for a long time on a diet consisting of locusts and honey.
- Honey contains all three macronutrients. Carbohydrates make up most of it, but there are also small amounts of proteins and fats.
- 3.5 oz (100 g) of honey contains around 304 kcal or 1,270 kJ.
- The ancient Egyptian pharaoh Pepi II allegedly had honey smeared on naked slaves to keep flies away from him.
- Some scholars believe that the nectar and ambrosia that Greek gods ate are actually forms of honey.
- In the Hebrew Bible, the Promised Land is also known as the “Land of Milk and Honey”.
Bees use honey as a reserve food source in the winter.
One of the most essential honey facts is that honey provides food for the bees that make it. Bees and other related insects make honey as a food source in the winter or when food isn’t readily available. During these periods, they can’t go out and forage from flowers, so the adults and larvae eat the honey and stored pollen instead.
Contrary to popular belief, honey is more complex than just “bee vomit”. Bees have a specialized stomach for carrying liquids (such as nectar) to be turned into honey, which some refer to as a “honey stomach” (proventriculus). This honey stomach lies behind the bee’s food stomach and can hold nectar around half the bee’s body weight. Enzymes and proteins in the bee’s mouthparts begin to break down the sugars. The bees then pass the nectar on mouth-to-mouth to other workers in the hive. Afterwards, hive bees use their honey stomachs to ingest and spit out the nectar, then they pass it on to the next bee. This process leads to the hive bees partially digesting the nectar, making it slightly acidic, and removing its water content by evaporation.
When the hive bees are done with the nectar, they store it in honeycombs. This newly-formed honey still has a high water content, however, and is prone to fermentation. The hive bees have to raise their body temperatures to heat the honey up and fan the water out of it using their wings. This results in honey that has about 18% water content, making it thick and viscous. Finally, the bees seal off the honey using beeswax!
Honey isn’t always made of nectar.
Although bees typically make honey out of flower nectar, they can also utilize other sources of sugar to make honey. One of these sources is honeydew, which are sweet secretions from insects that eat sap (such as aphids). The honey derived from honeydew is typically dark brown in color, strong in flavor, and not as sweet as honey derived from flower nectar. Honeydew honey, sometimes referred to as myelate, tree honey, or forest honey, also has a distinct fruit-like fragrance. This type of honey is prevalent in Northern California in the US, the Black Forest in Germany, and the Tara in Serbia.
Although a lot of people enjoy honeydew honey for its unique aroma and flavor, honeydew isn’t as good for the bees as flower nectar. This is because honeydew can cause dysentery in some bees due to the indigestible contents in these sweet secretions. Another reason is that flowers provide protein for the bees in the form of pollen. This means that bees don’t get enough protein just by collecting honeydew. Thus, beekeepers who seek to collect honeydew honey often have to give protein supplements to their bees.
Honey can come in different colors.
There are a lot of types of honey. Honey derived from different sources can have slightly different flavors, textures, and properties. Honey generally bears a yellow or golden-brown color, but one of the most interesting honey facts you have to know is that honey can also come in different colors as well.
In northeastern France, particularly, some beekeepers noticed some domesticated bees producing green and blue honey. This strange phenomenon puzzled scientists and beekeepers alike, and they sought to find out what was causing the bees to produce this oddly colorful honey. They later found out that the bees had been harvesting sugars from residues in an M&M’s candy factory near the area. Truly one of the most surprising honey facts!
There is a type of honey that can cause psychoactive effects, and it’s called “mad honey”.
There is a type of honey that can induce hallucinogenic effects in those who consume it. It even has a slightly sinister name: mad honey. Mad honey results from honey bees collecting the nectar and pollen of rhododendron flowers, such as the Rhododendron luteum and Rhododendron ponticum species. These plants contain grayanotoxin, a type of neurotoxin that can produce several physiological effects on the animals that consume it. Therefore, the honey that derives from rhododendron plants also contains an amount of grayanotoxin. This honey is often found at high altitudes in certain regions of Nepal and Turkey.
Mad honey is reddish in color and has a mildly bitter taste. It can have several effects on the human body when a person eats it. A person may experience hallucinations, dizziness, paralysis, or a slowed heart rhythm. Mad honey can even knock a person unconscious if the person eats too much. This honey is the primary reason why humans get grayanotoxin poisoning, or the so-called “mad honey disease”.
The discovery of mad honey is nothing new to humans, because even Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and Xenophon of Athens have accounts of the effects of mad honey. In fact, in Anabasis, Xenophon documented that King Mithridates used the honey as a trap to poison Pompey’s army in 69 BC. After the Roman soldiers consumed the mad honey, they were left intoxicated, which prompted Mithridates’s troops to attack and defeat the intoxicated soldiers.
A jar of honey takes a lot of work for bees.
An individual worker bee can produce around 1/12 teaspoons of honey in its lifetime. The worker bees have to visit around 2 million flowers to make a pound (454 g) of honey. Fortunately for us, hives can contain tens of thousands of bees, with new worker bees constantly replacing old and dying ones. This makes for an impressively efficient honey-making system!
Not all bee species can make honey.
The clade of bees can be quite extensive. There are over 16,000 species of bees, leading many to believe that there could be no shortages when it comes to honey. However, only a small fraction of bee species make honey. Most popularly, humans gather honey from the western honey bee (Apis mellifera), a well-known semi-domesticated species of honey bees. Eastern honey bees (Apis cerana) and stingless bees are also popular honey-making bees.
Some wasps make honey, too.
The honey we enjoy today mostly comes from bees. However, wasps can also produce honey, even on a large scale. Although most wasps cannot produce honey, the wasp species Brachygastra lecheguana and Brachygastra mellifica have the ability to make honey using nectar as well. These wasp species are native to South and Central America. The Mexican honey wasps (Brachygastra mellifica) are especially useful to humans because they pollinate avocados and act as a natural form of pest control.
A lot of animals eat honey.
Humans aren’t the only creatures that get sweet honey from bees. Various other animals such as raccoons, bears, birds, and of course, honey badgers also raid beehives to consume honey (and bee larvae).
Vulture bees don’t actually make “meat honey”.
The vulture bee (genus name: Trigona) is a type of stingless bee that eats rotting meat. Some sources state that they make “meat honey” from the rotting flesh they consume, but this is a misconception. Vulture bees don’t collect pollen, and instead get their protein from rotting meat. Although they substitute pollen with meat, they still make honey from the nectar of flowers. The claim that they make “meat honey” holds some truth to it, however, because honey naturally contains trace amounts of pollen. Therefore, vulture bee honey contains small amounts of rotten flesh!
There is an ancient cave painting that depicts humans collecting honey.
The activity of collecting honey from hives is nothing new to us. At the Araña Caves in Valencia, Spain, there is a cave painting that depicts humans collecting honey from wild bee nests. The painting dates back to around 8,000 years ago. These early humans in the painting collected honey in baskets or gourds.
Other early humans also have records of collecting honey. Ancient people in the country of Georgia buried their dead with jars of honey for them to carry to the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians and Middle Eastern peoples also used honey to embalm their dead.
Babies shouldn’t eat honey.
Having a sweet tooth is perhaps one of the most universal things among children. However, parents should be extremely wary about feeding honey to their babies. Many health organizations strongly recommend that babies under the age of 12 months should never eat honey. While honey may sound promising when giving babies a sweet treat or soothing them when teething, honey can actually be lethal to babies.
Why shouldn’t babies eat honey, then? In older children and adults, the developed gut bacteria aid in digesting a wide variety of foods and help protect against foreign bacteria. Babies, in contrast, have mostly sterile digestive systems. This means that their gut bacteria haven’t been properly developed yet and therefore is more prone to harmful bacteria thriving within their digestive system.
Honey may contain dormant spores of Clostridium botulinum bacteria, which can live in the digestive tract. In older children and adults, this bacteria cannot compete with the already-existing gut bacteria and is therefore harmless. However, because babies don’t have the same gut bacteria, these harmful bacteria can thrive and cause infant botulism, which can be a lethal disease. Infant botulism will cause the child’s muscles to weaken, resulting in limpness and overall affecting their limb ability. More dangerously, this condition may eventually lead to respiratory failure. Although there are antitoxins available to fight off the bacteria’s devastating effects, prevention is better than cure — never feed honey to babies.
Honey doesn’t have an expiration date.
Most people assume that honey that has been sitting too long on their cupboards has probably gone bad. However, honey is just one of the few food items that never spoils, given the right conditions. For example, modern archaeologists have unearthed something truly interesting from the ancient Egyptian tombs: pots of honey that are thousands of years old but are still perfectly edible. This is a testament to the notion that honey does not expire, given that it’s in a sealed container.
This notion also holds true for the jars of honey you can purchase from grocery stores. If you seal honey properly, it will remain fresh throughout the years. There is a caveat to their eternal shelf-life, however. Never leave honey out unsealed, as this will lead to honey absorbing the moisture from the air and potentially spoil it.
Honey has antibiotic properties.
One of the secrets of honey’s long shelf life is in its unique chemical and physical properties that make it hard for bacteria and other microorganisms to thrive within it. Honey has a naturally low water content and readily saps out water from its surroundings, including microorganisms. The sheer concentration of honey essentially smothers the microorganisms, draining the water from their microscopic bodies. Because these microorganisms can’t thrive in the harsh environments of honey, they can’t spoil it. Honey is also acidic, which very few microorganisms like. Finally, another factor in the antibiotic properties of honey is the special compounds that bees incorporate into the honey: gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide, which can be powerful weapons against microorganisms.
With the alarming rise in antibiotic resistance among bacteria nowadays, scientists are trying to find out if honey can have implications for modern medicine. Manuka honey, in particular, shows exceptional promise in the medical field due to its strong antimicrobial properties.
Some studies show that honey can be used for skin conditions.
Ancient Greeks and Egyptians have used the healing properties of honey to treat a number of ailments even as early as 2000 BC. They used honey to treat wounds, burns, and other disorders of the skin. Up to now, honey still holds about the same reputation as a healing substance.
Although honey is popular in traditional medicine, it also holds promise in modern medicine. Scientists found that aside from honey’s antimicrobial properties, it can also modulate the skin’s immune system and aid in repairing its tissues. Therefore, even in modern times, humans can still use honey for treating wounds, burns, eczema, and various other skin conditions.
The honeyguide is a bird that aids humans in getting honey.
Humans have a mutualistic relationship with the greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator), a bird native to sub-Saharan Africa. As their name suggests, these birds guide humans to bee colonies, helping humans get the precious honey. The birds lead humans near honey bee colonies, and after the humans harvest the honey, the birds swoop in to eat the remaining wax and bee larvae. They do this even without domestication or training. Experts suggest that honeyguides co-evolved with early human ancestors that used stone tools, such as the Homo erectus. There is also a popular belief that the birds also perform their famous guiding behavior towards honey badgers, but experts have found this claim to be false.
Honey used to be a form of currency.
Money can take the form of various things that humans find valuable, such as gold, silver, gemstones, or even diamonds. However, people from 11th century Germany have actually used honey as an important form of currency. Back then, people used honey to sweeten beer and other alcoholic beverages. For this reason, honey became a valuable commodity. Feudal lords during that period even took honey as a form of payment from their peasants.
Honey is rich in antioxidants.
This is one of the honey facts that health buffs should remember. The cells in your body naturally deteriorate due to the free radicals that are naturally present in the environment. Antioxidants work to minimize the damage that free radicals cause in our body, and we get a significant portion of it through the food we eat. Not only does honey have antimicrobial properties, but it also helps protect our body from free radicals because it contains a lot of antioxidants.
Mead consists of fermented honey.
Honey isn’t the only thing humans have been consuming for millennia. Alcoholic beverages have also proved to be a timeless tradition, and honey is one of the key ingredients of an early form of booze. Mead is a type of alcoholic beverage whose fermentable sugars come from honey. Ancient artifacts reveal that the tradition of making mead dates back to around 7000 BCE.
This is created by fermenting honey with water. Depending on preference, the fermentation process can also include grains, hops, fruits, and other spices for added flavor. The alcohol content of mead varies, ranging from 3.5% to 18%. Notably, some people use the terms honey-wine and mead interchangeably. However, this depends on the culture. Other countries create mead and honey-wine differently. Mead comes from the fermentation of honey, water, and barm or beer-yeast, while honey-wine comes from honey, water, and the pomace of fruits such as grapes.
Beekeepers don’t take all the honey from beehives.
To collect the honey, beekeepers take extra care not to harm the bees. The beekeepers use smokers that don’t have harmful chemicals. Instead, these bee smokers use natural materials like pine needles, herbs, cotton, or wood to produce smoke. The smoke doesn’t harm the bees — it just calms them down and makes them less defensive. When the bees are calm, the beekeepers then carefully remove the bees using bee brushes or by gently shaking the honeycombs. After ensuring that the bees are safely removed from the honeycomb, beekeepers then extract the honey.
Because making honey takes an awful lot of work for the bees and they need it to survive the winter, ethical beekeepers don’t take all of the honey from bees. Typically, beekeepers only harvest the excess honey and leave enough of it for the bees to eat throughout the winter. How sweet of them!
To address more ethical concerns, beekeepers also don’t place any pressure on bees to produce honey. The bees do it all on their own, at their own carefree pace.
In 2018, 1.9 million metric tons of honey were produced for commercial use.
The honey bees of the world collectively produce a lot of honey. Together, they produced around 1.9 million metric tons of commercial honey in 2018 alone. China led the production of honey by a large margin, with 446,900 metric tons of honey. Turkey, Argentina, Iran, Ukraine, the United States, India, and Russia are also among the top producers of honey worldwide.
According to statistics in 2019, the top producer of honey in the United States is the state of North Dakota, accounting for about 33.8 million lbs (15.3 million kg) of honey that year. Following North Dakota are the states of South Dakota, California, Montana, and Florida.