What’s All the Buzz About?

By Melissa Conroy

There is no glamorous way of getting around this fact: Honey is essentially bee spit. This miraculous process starts when honeybees vacuum up nectar from flowers and store it in their “honey stomach” (one of two stomachs) where enzymes get to work converting it. This honey stomach can hold almost 70 mg of nectar when full, almost as much as the bee. Back in the hive, the bees spit up the nectar where house bees “chew” on it for approximately 30 minutes to break down the complex sugars. The bees spread the nectar through the honeycombs and fan it with their wings, making the water evaporate and the honey gooey. When the honey is the right consistency, the bees seal off each honeycomb cell with wax to be eaten later, either by the bees, a hungry bear or a human.

Countless thousands of years ago, humans discovered that honey is addictively delicious and went through great risk to gather it. To this day, Gurung honey hunters in southern Nepal clamber 300 feet up cliffs on ropes to do battle with the world’s largest honeybee (Apis laboriosa) and gather its honey. The Bayaka people in the Congo Basin still scramble up tall trees to harvest honey, dodging bee stings and risking falls to harvest a sweet treat for their eager friends and families waiting below.

Luckily, those of us in the states can simply roll into our nearest health store or log onto the Internet to obtain honey. If you are a typical American, your exposure to this delicious nectar probably begins and ends with the ubiquitous plastic bear sitting on a grocery shelf. However, there are actually more than 300 varieties of honey available in the US, all of which vary in color, taste and scent.

Honey varieties depend on where the bees get their nectar. You are probably familiar with clover honey, since clover is the most common honey-producing flower. However, there are many other flowers bees can harvest to create this treat. Here are some different types:

Avocado: No, this honey is not green! It comes from the California avocado tree and is dark with a buttery taste.

Buckwheat: The next time you make buckwheat pancakes, why not douse them in buckwheat honey? Made from buckwheat flower nectar, this variety is dark brown with a strong flavor.

Orange blossom: This type comes from citrus trees. It may be solely from orange trees or may have a combination of lemon, lime and grapefruit nectar, yielding a very light-colored honey with a citrus aroma.

Tupelo: Southeastern US is home to tupelo trees, which have greenish flowers that develop into soft fruits. The honey from these trees is white or extra light amber with a mild flavor.

Alfalfa: You might be surprised to learn this, but alfalfa is actually a legume. Its blue flowers are favored by bees, which produce a very light-colored honey from its nectar.

Honey is more than just a delectable treat to spoon into your tea; it also has a number of health benefits. Raw honey (unrefined, unpasteurized honey) contains all of the B complex vitamins as well as A, C, D, E, and K vitamins. A spoonful of raw honey contains copper, manganese, potassium, zinc, calcium, copper, magnesium and iron as well as thiamine, niacin, riboflavin and pantothenic acid. Raw honey is also a source of antioxidants, which may help ward off serious diseases such as cancer.

Long before the invention of modern penicillin, honey was often used to treat wounds. Applied topically, honey has broad-spectrum antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. There is evidence that Egyptians used honey for treating wounds as early as 3000 BC. Other cultures throughout history used honey on the battlefield and home front to help treat wounds, but the invention of modern antibiotics pushed this ancient treatment to the sidelines. However, honey is making a comeback as researchers search for ways to combat drug-resistant superbugs. Developing a new antibiotic can take 10-15 years and a billion dollars, so some researchers are bringing honey back as a modern era treatment.

In 1999, the first medical-grade honey product became commercially available. Called Medihoney, it is made from a seaweed-based material saturated with manuka honey, which is produced by bees in New Zealand. Manuka honey is special for its high antibiotic properties. Most honey contains methylglyoxal, which fights infection, but manuka also contains high levels of dihydroxyacetone. Together, these create a potent disease-fighter.

However, don’t drizzle your Dutch Gold Honey over your paper cut. Only medical grade honey should be used on a wound. Also, commercially prepared honey is usually missing most of its health-giving benefits. Most mass-produced honey is ultra-filtered, meaning it is heated up, and then forced through a very fine strainer to catch any pollen. Sometimes it is mixed with high-fructose corn syrup. Commercially prepared honey is often pasteurized, a process that removes many of its beneficial components such as propolis, which is a mixture of resins and other substances that the bees use to seal off the hive and protect it from infection. Propolis is shown to have cancer-fighting abilities. Other important phytonutrients are largely eliminated with pasteurization.

Raw honey is your best nutritional option if you have a choice. Raw honey contains all its natural nutrition and natural antibiotic properties. There are a few caveats. Raw honey should not be fed to infants under one year old because of the slight risk of botulism. If your immune system is weak, raw honey may not be safe for you to consume, so check with your doctor first. Also, people who are allergic to bees can react strongly to the pollen in raw honey. However, most people can eat the raw product safely.

Sugar is sweet, but there is something rich, decadent and homey about streams of golden honey spiraling into a cup of tea or drizzling across a mound of hot oatmeal. Delicious, nutritious and good for you, honey is a wonderful treat. Thank goodness for hard-working bees and the sweetness they create.

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