If you asked 12 year-old me if I liked honey, the answer would have been a hard no. If you asked a more open-minded 20 year-old me the same question, the answer still would have been no. If you asked me that same question today, the answer would be a bit different: heck yes!
Growing up, honey meant one thing and one thing only: that stuff you get in the plastic bear at the grocery store (which is usually overly sweet and not exactly raw, pure honey). Since joining the Starks Lab, working with honey bees, and extracting honey from our lab’s hives, I have found that there is a whole different world of honey that I was missing…raw honey!
The taste of the generic grocery store clover honey that I grew up with does not compare to the diversity of tastes that raw honey can offer. Honey comes in a variety of tastes, colors, and textures—it all depends on which plant(s) the honey came from.
To make honey, older forager bees collect nectar from flowers and carry it back to the hive in their honey stomach (where digestive enzymes begin to break down the sugars). Once back at the hive, the forager passes her goods to a food storer bee who then finds an empty cell to store the nectar in (see picture above). Once the nectar is stored in a cell, younger bees have to turn the nectar into honey. Nectar is mostly water (about 80%), and so would ferment if stored in the cells as is.
In order for the nectar to keep, the bees fan the stored nectar and evaporate the water—honey is only 14-18% water (one reason why honey doesn’t go bad)! The honey-making bees also add a few more enzymes (from their saliva) to the honey, further protecting their sugar-y liquid gold from microbes. Once the honey-making process is complete, the bees cap it over with wax. This capped honey is what the bees eat to get through the winter—when extracting honey, beekeepers have to be sure not to take too much from the bees!
From the perspective of both the bee and the beekeeper, honey truly is liquid gold—it takes about 1,200 bees, travelling 112,000 miles, visiting 4.5 million flowers to make the equivalent of a one-pound jar (or one big plastic bear) of honey. On the beekeepers’ end of things, we have to uncap all that finished honey (left) and then put the uncapped honey comb into an extractor (right), which spins really fast, allowing the honey to (slowly…) drip through a strainer (to remove any stray wax cappings) and into a bucket. And from that bucket, the honey can be jarred. (The process differs with different styles of managed bee hives–we extracted honey from our Langstroth hives.)
To keep track of all the honey I have tasted (more than just a sample), I am keeping a honey life list where I provide information about the honey itself and what the honey goes well with (you will soon see that I really enjoy putting honey on cheese and crackers).
Life list honeys are not listed in any particular order; this list will be updated as necessary!