Even if you’re not a fan of bees, you have to give them credit for creating one of the most delicious substances on earth. Not only is honey great for sweetening a spot of tea, it also has some incredible properties that set it apart from all other food products. This National Honey Month, stock up on 15 surprising facts about the honey bee's original all-natural sweetener.
1. HONEY NEVER SPOILS.
When sealed in an airtight container, honey is one of the few foods known to have an eternal shelf life. There are even reports of edible honey being found in several-thousand-year-old Egyptian tombs. Honey’s longevity can be explained by its chemical makeup: The substance is naturally acidic and low in moisture, making it an inhospitable environment for bacteria.
A lot of hard work from bees goes into imbuing honey with these magical properties. While transforming nectar (honey’s main ingredient) into honey, bees flap their wings so hard that they draw excess moisture out of the initially water-filled substance. Bees also have a special enzyme in their stomachs that helps to break the nectar down into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide, the latter of which acts to further prevent the growth of bacteria and other organisms in the honey.
2. BEES MAKE A LOT OF HONEY.
A typical beehive can produce anywhere from 30 to 100 pounds of honey a year. To produce a single pound of honey, a colony of bees must collect nectar from approximately 2 million flowers and fly over 55,000 miles. This amounts to a lifetime’s worth of work for around 800 bees.
3. HONEY WAS A HOT COMMODITY IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE.
In 11th century Germany, honey was so highly valued for its beer-sweetening abilities that German feudal lords required their peasants to make them payments of honey and beeswax.
4. BEES SURVIVE ON HONEY IN THE WINTER.
Bees work hard all summer to ensure they’ll have enough honey to sustain the hive through the winter. During the colder months, bees occupy their time by clustering themselves around the queen and shivering their bodies to fill the hive with warmth. All that shivering burns a lot of calories, so honey makes for the perfect high-energy diet.
5. HONEY IS MEDICINAL.
Evidence of honey being prescribed as a medical treatment dates back as far as ancient Mesopotamia. Because the substance is so inhospitable to bacteria, it was often used as a natural bandage to protect cuts and burns from infection. Today, honey is still used as a natural treatment for dandruff, stomach ulcers, and even seasonal allergies.
6. FOR BEES, A LITTLE HONEY GOES A LONG WAY.
On average, a honey bee produces 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey over the course of its life. To put that into perspective, two tablespoons of honey would be enough to fuel a bee’s entire flight around the world.
7. THERE ARE DIFFERENT FLAVORS AND COLORS OF HONEY.
Honey’s depth of flavor is determined by the source of the nectar it was made from. Linden honey is delicate and woodsy, buckwheat honey is strong and spicy, and eucalyptus honey has a subtle menthol flavor. The darkness or lightness of certain honey varies as well. Bees in the southeastern U.S. have even been known to produce honey that’s deep purple in color, though scientists can’t agree why.
8. NOT ALL BEES MAKE HONEY.
There are 20,000 species of bees on earth and only a small fraction of them make honey. The species of honey bee used for commercial beekeeping in the U.S. is known as Apis mellifera. It’s one of only seven known honey bee species.
9. AND NOT ALL HONEY IS MADE BY BEES.
While bees are most associated with honey, the Mexican honey wasp also produces honey on a large scale, a fact that pre-European Native Americans are known to have taken advantage of. In 2013, researchers did a survey of honey wasp nests in Texas to attempt to get insight into honey bee behavior. But be aware, this honey can occasionally be poisonous thanks to the flowers that the wasp likes visiting.
10. BEES HAVE MADE HONEY FOR MILLIONS OF YEARS.
Around 130 million years ago, flowering plants first appeared, and a few million years later, bees began separating from wasps. At some point after that, bees began producing honey, with one fossilized honeycomb dating from around 3 million years ago. Humans, meanwhile, have been harvesting the sweet stuff for thousands of years. An ancient cave painting was discovered in Valencia, Spain, that depicts a human figure removing honey from a hive, and it could date from as far back as 15,000 years ago.
11. EVOLUTION ALLOWS US TO EASILY FIND THE HONEY IN THE SUPERMARKET.
In 2007, researchers took men and women on a circuitous route through a large farmer’s market, showing them a wide variety of foods and having them rank the food and stalls. They then took the subjects to the center of the market and had them point in the direction of each of the food items that they had sampled. Women were, on average, 9 degrees more accurate than men. But both men and women were most accurate when pointing towards the high-calorie foods, like honey and olive oil—even if they didn’t particularly like them. It’s believed that this power for locating high-calorie foods can be tied back to our time as hunter-gatherers, when locating honey was a prime goal.
12. BEEKEEPERS ONLY TAKE WHAT’S EXTRA.
A productive bee colony makes two to three times more honey than it needs to survive the winter. When harvesting honey from a beehive, beekeepers try not to take anything the bees will miss. If necessary, beekeepers will feed bees sugar syrup in the autumn to compensate for the honey they take.
13. HONEY IS GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND THE ECONOMY.
The environment depends on the pollination that occurs when honey bees gather nectar. Bees pollinate $20 billion worth of U.S. crops each year, and approximately one third of all food eaten by Americans is either directly or indirectly derived from honey bee pollination.
14. BEES ARE A SURPRISINGLY VERSATILE FOOD SOURCE.
Though Westerners are still squeamish about using insects themselves as a source of protein, we seem to have no problem eating something that’s been regurgitated by them. And bees also provide us with Royal Jelly, beeswax, bee pollen, and other interesting and exotic foods.
15. HONEY VENDORS WENT THROUGH GREAT LENGTHS TO ATTRACT CUSTOMERS.
In the 1830s (and possibly much earlier), some honey vendors started sporting “bee beards” as a way to draw attention to their products. This is done by holding a caged queen bee beneath your chin and allowing the bees to cluster across your face. Today, bee beards are more fashionable than ever. There's even a competition held in Ontario, Canada, each year to create the most impressive bee beard.
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