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honey comb
honey comb
A capped frame of honeycomb
A capped frame of honeycomb

Honey is a sweet and viscous fluid produced by bees and other insects from the nectar of flowers. "The definition of honey stipulates a pure product that does not allow for the addition of any other substance. This includes, but is not limited to, water or other sweeteners," according to the United States National Honey Board 2003 and other nations' food regulations.

Honey is significantly sweeter than table sugar and has attractive chemical properties for baking. Honey has a distinctive flavor which leads some people to prefer it over sugar and other sweeteners.

Liquid honey does not spoil. Because of its high sugar concentration, it kills bacteria by plasmolysis. Natural airborne yeasts cannot become active in it because the moisture content is too low. Natural, raw honey varies from 14% to 18% moisture content. As long as the moisture content remains under 18%, virtually no organism can successfully multiply to significant amounts in honey.

The study of pollens and spores in raw honey ( melissopalynology) can determine floral sources of honey. Because bees carry an electrostatic charge, and can attract other particles, the same techniques of melissopalynology can be used in area environmental studies of radioactive particles, dust, or particulate pollution.

A main effect of bees collecting nectar to make honey is pollination, which is crucial for flowering plants.

Composition of honey

Honey is a mixture of sugars, water, and other compounds. The specific composition of any batch of honey will depend largely on the mix of flowers consumed by the bees that produced the honey. Honey has a density of about 1500 kg/ m3 (50% denser than water) which means 12-13 pounds per gallon.

Typical honey analysis
  • Fructose: 38%
  • Glucose: 31%
  • Sucrose: 1%
  • Water: 17%
  • Other sugars: 9% ( maltose, melezitose)
  • Ash: 0.17%
Source: Sugar Alliance

The analysis of the sugar content of honey is used for detecting adulteration.

Types of honey

The flavor and colour of the substance is largely determined by the nectar source. Common flavors of honey include orange blossom honey, tupelo honey, buckwheat honey, clover honey, blackberry, and blueberry honey. In Australia, the most common honey is from the eucalyptus trees, such as redgum, yellow gum and stringybark. Tasmanian leatherwood honey is considered a delicacy for its unique flavor.

While it is rare for any honey to be produced exclusively from one floral source, honey will take on the flavor of the dominant flower in the region. Orange blossom, tupelo, and sourwood are favored types in the United States. Greece is famous for wild thyme honey, as is France for lavender and acacia honey.

In 2005, New Zealand had 320,000 beehives that produced an average annual crop of 8,600 tonnes of honey. These honeys cover a huge range of flavour types and properties. From mild to very strong flavoured, light to dark coloured, delicately perfumed to pungent and even honeys with significant antibacterial properties.

Most commercially available honey is blended. Monofloral honeys are especially valuable on the market. New Zealand is a major producer of several of these fine monofloral honeys: Manuka Honey, Viper's Bugloss Honey, Nodding Thistle Honey, Kamahi Honey, Honeydew Honey, Tawari Honey, Rewarewa Honey or Thyme Honey. Another is Rata Honey, considered by many to be the best of New Zealand Honeys. It is very white in colour, has a subtle, mild yet rich and distinctive flavour - not overly sweet, almost salty.


Instead of taking nectar, bees can take honeydew, which appears similar to honey and consists of the sweet secretions of aphids or other plant sap-sucking insects. Most important of these is the aphid Marchalina hellenica which feeds on the sap of the Turkish Pine. Honeydew from pine forests has a "piney" taste and is prized for medicinal use in Europe and Turkey. Bees collecting this resource have to be fed protein supplements, as honeydew lacks the protein-rich pollen accompaniment gathered from flowers. In New Zealand honeydew nectar is produced from a small, scale insect (Ultracoelostoma assimile) living in the bark of two of New Zealand's beech forests, mostly black beech (black from the sooty mould growing on the surplus nectar covering the trunks and branches) and to a lesser extent, red beech. In the early morning sunlight, the droplets of nectar glisten like the morning dew, giving the name honeydew.

Germany's " Black Forest" is a well known source of honeydew produced honeys.

Honeydew honey has full flavour aroma, is heady, almost pungent and malty with a thick red amber colour.

Honeydew has strong markets in some areas, but in many areas beekeepers are disappointed with a honeydew crop as they are unable to market the stronger flavored product. Honeydew has a much larger proportion of indigestibles than light honeys, which can cause dysentery resulting in the death of colonies in areas with cold winters. Good beekeeping management requires the removal of honeydew prior to winter in colder areas.

Use of honey

The main uses of honey are in cooking, baking, spreading on bread or toast, and as an addition to various beverages such as tea. Because honey is hygroscopic (drawing moisture from the air), a small quantity of honey added to a pastry recipe will retard staling. Raw honey also contains enzymes that help in its digestion, several vitamins and antioxidants.

Honey is the main ingredient in the alcoholic beverage mead, which is also known as honey wine, and methelgin.

Honey is used in traditional folk medicine and apitherapy, and is an excellent natural preservative.

Most vegans consider honey to be an animal product and avoid using it, instead choosing sweetening alternatives such as golden syrup.

Without commercial beekeeping, large-scale fruit and vegetable farming and some of the seed industry would be incapable of sustaining themselves, since many crops are pollinated by migratory beekeepers who contract their bees for that purpose.

In ancient history, the Egyptians and Middle-Eastern people also used honey for embalming the dead. However only rich and powerful people had the luxury of this type of funeral.

Honey in culture and folklore

In many cultures, honey has associations that go far beyond its use as a food. In language and literature, religion and folk belief, honey is frequently a symbol or talisman for sweetness of every kind.

The Old Testament contains many references to honey as a symbol for all that is pleasant and desirable. For example, the book of Exodus famously describes the Promised Land as a 'land flowing with milk and honey' (33:3). So important is honey in Jewish tradition that some scholars believe an exception was made for it in the dietary laws: Insects and their products are normally considered unclean, but honey is kosher. The word "honey" appears 61 times in the King James Version of the Bible.

Honey plays an important role in the festival of Madhu Purnima, celebrated by Buddhists in India and Bangladesh. The day commemorates Buddha's making peace among his disciples by retreating into the wilderness. The story goes that while he was there, a monkey brought him honey to eat. On Madhu Purnima, Buddhists remember this act by giving honey to monks. The monkey's gift is frequently depicted in Buddhist art.

In some parts of Greece, it was formerly the custom for a bride to dip her fingers in honey and make the sign of the cross before entering her new home. This was meant to ensure sweetness in her married life, especially in her relationship with her mother-in-law.

In popular culture, bears are frequently depicted as eating honey, even though most bears actually eat a wide variety of foods, and bears seen at beehives are usually more interested in bee larvae than honey. Honey is sometimes sold in a bear-shaped jar. Teddy bears are almost invariably associated with honey, possibly because of the influence of Winnie-the-Pooh.

Many people believe that honey is more wholesome or healthful than refined sugar, although most nutritionists say that all sweeteners are pretty much alike. Honey-based sweets are often sold as health food.

'Honey,' along with variations like 'honey bun' and 'honeypot,' has become a term of endearment in most of the English-speaking world. In some places it is used for loved ones; in others, such as the American South, it is used when addressing casual acquaintances or even strangers.


Honey is not always healthful. Because it is gathered from flowers in the wild, there are situations in which it may be toxic.

There are several types of honey that are known to be toxic to humans. The most common of these in the northern hemisphere, popularly known as Mad Honey, is produced from the flowers of Rhododendrons, Mountain Laurels and azaleas. The nectar of these plants may contain Grayanotoxin, a compound which is both psychoactive and poisonous to humans but harmless to bees. The effects of Mad Honey have been reported in Western literature as early as 401 BC (See Xenophon's description of the effects of toxic honey in the Anabasis [1]) The shape of the Azalea flower, however, makes access to nectar difficult for honeybees. And during the time at which Azaleas bloom, there are usually other flowers available which are more appealing to the honeybee. So lethal honey is rarely encountered.

Toxic honey may also result when bees are in close proximity to Tutu bushes (Coriaria arborea) and the vine hopper insect (Scolypopa australis). Both are found throughout New Zealand. Bees gather honeydew produced by the vine hopper insects feeding on the tutu plant. This introduces the poison tutin into honey. Only a few areas in New Zealand (Coromandel Peninsula, Eastern Bay of Plenty and the Marlborough Sounds)frequently produce toxic honey. Symptoms of tutin poisoning include vomiting, delirium, giddiness, increased excitability, stupor, coma and violent convulsions. It is generally agreed that as little as 1 teaspoon of toxic honey may produce severe effects in humans. In order to reduce the risk of tutin poisoning, humans should not eat honey taken from feral hives in the risk areas of New Zealand. Since December 2001, New Zealand beekeepers have been required to reduce the risk of producing toxic honey by closely monitoring tutu, vine hopper, and foraging conditions within 3 km of their apiary.

Nonetheless, honey, corn syrup and other natural sweeteners are a potential and acute threat to infants. Harmless to adults because of a mature person's stomach acidity, botulinum spores are widely present in the environment and are among the few bacteria that can survive in honey. Since an infant's digestive juices are non-acidic, ingestion of honey creates an ideal medium for botulinum spores to grow and produce sufficient levels of toxins to cause infant botulism. For this reason, it is advised that neither honey, nor any other sweetener, be given to children under the age of 18 months. Once a child is eating solid food, the digestive juices are acidic enough to prevent the growth of the spores.

Honey formation

Honey is laid down by bees as a food source. In cold weather or when food sources are scarce, bees use their stored honey as their source of energy. By contriving the bee swarm to make its home in a hive, mankind has been able to semi-domesticate the insects. In the hive there are three types of bee: the single queen bee, a seasonally variable number of drone bees to fertilize new queens and some 20,000 to 40,000 worker bees. The worker bees raise larvae and collect the nectar that will become honey in the hive. They go out, collect the sugar-rich flower nectar and return to the hive. As they leave the flower, bees release nasonov pheromones. These enable other bees to find their way to the site by smell. Honeybees also release nasonov pheromones at the entrance to the hive, which enables returning bees to return to the proper hive. In the hive the bees use their honey stomachs to ingest and regurgitate the nectar a number of times until it is partially digested. It is then stored in the honeycomb. Nectar is high in both water content and natural yeasts which, unchecked, would cause the sugars in the nectar to ferment. After the final regurgitation, the honeycomb is left unsealed - bees inside the hive "fan" their wings creating a strong draught across the honeycomb. This enhances evaporation of much of the water from the nectar. The reduction in water content, which raises the sugar concentration, prevents fermentation. Ripe honey, as removed from the hive by the beekeeper, has a long shelf life and will not ferment.

The beekeeper encourages overproduction of honey within the hive so that the excess can be taken without endangering the bees. When sources of foods for the bees are short the beekeeper may have to feed the bees other forms of sugar so they can survive.

Medical uses for honey

For around 2000 years, Honey has been used to treat a variety of ailments through topical application, though it was not until modern times that the cause of infection was understood. Now, modern research into the use of honey as an antimicrobial agent has revealed potential treating a variety of ailments. Antibacterial properties of honey are the result of the Osmotic effect, Hydrogen Peroxide effect [2], and high acidity [3].

Osmotic effect

Honey is primarily a saturated sugar mixture of approximately 84% fructose and glucose. At this high concentration, very few extra water molecules remain available to microorganisms and so presents a very undesirable environment for their growth.

Hydrogen peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide in honey is activated by dilution. However, unlike medical hydrogen peroxide, commonly 3% by volume, it is present in a concentration of only 1 mmol/l in honey. Iron in honey oxidize the oxygen free radicals released by the hydrogen peroxide.

glucose + H2O+ O2 → gluconic acid + H2O2

When used topically as, for example a wound dressing, hydrogen peroxide is produced by dilution with body fluids. As a result, hydrogen peroxide is released slowly and acts as an antiseptic. Unlike 3% medical hydrogen peroxide, this slow release does not cause damage to surrounding tissue.


The pH of honey is commonly between 3.2 and 4.5 [4]. This relatively acidic pH level prevents the growth of many bacteria responsible for infection.

Medical applications

The most common use of honey as a microbial agent is as a dressing for wounds, burns and skin ulcers. This application has a long history in traditional medicine. Additionally, the use of honey reduces odors, reduces swelling, and reduces scarring; it also prevents the dressing from sticking to the healing wound. [5]

Honey that is local to where one lives can also help with seasonal pollen allergies because it contains the same pollen that is producing the allergy--consumed in this way it can act as an immune booster.[ citation needed] It's most effective to eat about a teaspoonful a day for a few months leading up to allergy season.

Research has shown that the folk remedy of using honey to treat wounds is founded in science; it acts as an antiseptic/antibacterial agent.

Honey as a product

Honey processing

  • Comb honey A popular honey product. The honey is sold still in the wax comb. Comb honey was once packaged by installing wooden framework in special supers, but this labor intensive method is dying, and being replaced by plastic rings or cartridges. After removal from the hive, a clear cover is usually fitted onto the cartridge so customers can see the product.
  • Raw honey Honey as it exists in the beehive or as obtained by extraction, settling or straining without adding heat. Raw honey contains some pollen and may contain small particles of wax. Local raw honey is sought after by allergy sufferers as the pollen impurities lessen the sensitivity to hay fever.
  • Chunk honey Honey packed in widemouth containers consisting of one or more pieces of comb honey surrounded by extracted liquid honey. This type is preferred in the US South.
  • Strained Honey or filtered honey Honey which has been passed through a mesh material to remove particulate material (pieces of wax, propolis, other defects) without removing pollen. Preferred by the health food trade - it has a cloudy appearance due to the included pollen, but it also tends to crystallize more quickly than ultrafiltered honey.
  • Ultrafiltered honey Honey processed by very fine filtration under high pressure to remove all extraneous solids and pollen grains. Ultrafiltered honey is very clear and has a longer shelf life, because it crystallizes more slowly. Preferred by the supermarket trade.

Other descriptions

  • Blended honey A homogeneous mixture of two or more honeys differing in floral source, colour, flavor, density or geographic origin.
  • Churned honey or cremed honey See whipped honey.
  • Crystallized honey Honey in which some of the glucose content has spontaneously crystallized from solution as the monohydrate. Also called "granulated honey."
  • Honey fondant See whipped honey.
  • Spun honey See whipped honey.

In addition, organic honey is honey produced, processed, and packaged in accordance with national regulations, and certified as such by some government body or an independent organic farming certification organization.

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