Mad About Science: Honey

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Have you ever wondered what goes into making a delicious spoonful of honey? I have two simple words for you: bee vomit.

Bee vomit is an extreme oversimplification of what honey actually is, but it’s also not far from the truth behind your favorite sweetener.

It all begins with flowers. Flowers produce nectar to attract bees, keeping this liquid substance behind the plant’s primary sex organs in their flowers that are covered in pollen. This forces a forager bee to rummage around the flower, which causes grains of pollen to transfer onto the bristles of the bee’s body. A single bee may visit as many as 1,500 flowers per day, accidentally transferring pollen grains as it goes along, which triggers another reaction in the flowers allowing for the formation of seeds — a topic for another day.

A bee uses its proboscis, which is like a built-in drinking straw, to suck up some of the plant’s nectar and into its crop, which is a space the bee uses similarly to how we use our mouths for slobbering all over our food before it travels to our stomach. In this compartment, the forager bee introduces an enzyme called invertase to the nectar.

In its pure form, nectar is primarily sucrose, a form of sugar called a disaccharide, which is formed from two simple sugar molecules: glucose and sucrose. It also has a high water content, unlike honey. The invertase enzymes from the bee’s salivary glands work in a similar fashion to how lactase enzymes work in the human gut. While lactase cleaves the lactose sugar found in milk into two simple sugars, invertase splits sucrose into glucose and fructose, which is easier for bees to convert into energy.

However, the process doesn’t stop there. Forager bees return their haul to the hive and regurgitate the sugary substance for house bees. The house bees repeatedly ingest and then regurgitate this substance; and, often, pass it along to other house bees over a 20-minute period. Each time the bees do this, they add new enzymes to the mixture and further break it down. Once it has reached a specific consistency, the bees regurgitate the mixture a last time into a honeycomb and fan it with their wings to force any remaining water to evaporate from the substance until it forms something resembling honey.

In an apiary, where people collect honey from bees for sale, a human removes the honeycombs from the hive and scrapes them into a container — often with large chunks of wax and debris still inside. The apiarist takes this collected honey, wax and debris to a drum that is designed to spin and separate the debris from the honey using centrifugal force. Because the honey is a different weight and density than anything else trapped inside, it separates inside of the drum and is easily retrieved by the processor. This isn’t a perfect process, as you will sometimes find random bits of gunk inside of your bottle of honey.

That’s perfectly fine. Honey has an extremely low water content, which makes it exceedingly difficult for bacteria to propagate and allows you to leave it in your cabinet without the need for refrigeration. This does not mean that honey will never spoil, but it does mean that it will take a very long time to do so.

When honey goes bad, it begins to ferment because of yeast that’s suspended in the honey. Over time, the sugar molecules inside of the honey begin to crystallize. You’ll notice this happening in your honey bottle, as the very bottom turns a milky white color and won’t squeeze out of the bottle. The more crystallized honey you have in a jar, the faster the rest begins to follow suit, which also fosters fermentation from the yeast.

There are a vast number of reasons why your honey may crystallize. Sugar naturally wants to crystallize, and it usually begins to do so around objects that aren’t sugar, such as bits of wax. Once this process starts, changes in temperature foster the reaction. The more crystals present in the substance, the faster it begins to crystallize all the sugar around it. It’s very similar to the apocalyptic “gray goo” scenario, another fun topic about which to ask your local librarian.

Most of the time, there’s nothing wrong with crystallized honey. You can submerge your jar in a pot of warm water and it should melt some of the crystals back into a liquid form — though if your jar is plastic, you need to be extremely careful so as to not melt the plastic, which is something you do not want mixed in with your food.

If you use honey as a sweetener, you can carve off a chunk of the crystallized honey from the mass and dunk it into your hot drink, stirring it in to sweeten the whole drink and not just the bottom of your mug.

It’s worth noting that if your honey starts to smell funny or has a sour taste to it, you should dispose of it. This means that it’s started fermenting and it’s no longer safe to consume. While it’s possible to convert fermented honey into mead, this is only done under controlled conditions, where the brewer knows exactly what kind of yeast is used to ferment the honey. Rogue yeast from store-bought or farm-to-table honey could yield unpredictable and unsafe results.

Stay curious, 7B.

This topic was suggested by Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey. Thanks, Lyndsie!

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