A little dollop of honey in your tea feels like a warm hug. But a lot goes into making that sweet and gooey flavor hug—and most of the work isn’t done by humans. Let’s find out how honey is made and why we should be giving much more respect to our friend the bee.
How is honey made?
About 90% of the honey making process can be attributed to bees, and that’s because honey is actually bee food. Here we are just stealing it like a population of Winnie the Poohs! Shame on us!
Bees survive on the pollen and nectar from flowers. During times when these flowers are not in season, bees have to eat the massive stores of food that they have collected and kept in their honeycombs, the hexagonal containers inside a hive. So, the majority of their summertime is spent collecting nectar, transforming it into honey, and preserving it for the lean winter months.
Bees suck up nectar from a flower with their proboscis and store it in a special organ in their bodies called a honey stomach. When they bring it back to the hive, they start a daisy chain of proboscis-to-proboscis nectar transference, ultimately breaking down the sugars in the nectar and reducing its water content. Something to keep in mind the next time you eat honey: It’s been inside hundreds of bees already.
The nectar is eventually deposited into one of the honeycomb cells. Then the bees use their wings to fan the nectar to remove even more water from the nectar. Once the water content is below 20%, it’s considered to be honey. The bees then create a wax seal over the hexagonal cell and that honey is preserved pretty much indefinitely.
That is, of course, until some giant comes by and squeezes it all out into a jar! All that work, destroyed! And, when you consider the fact that for a hive to create just one pound of honey, it requires two million trips to a flower, the loss for the colony is even more profound. So, the next time you drizzle honey into your tea, give it up for the industrious little bees that brought it to you.
What kinds of honey are there?
There are a wide range of honey flavors that come straight out of the honeycomb. That’s because the flavor and color of honey is determined by the flower types on which the bees that made it foraged. For example, clover honey is lighter in color with a floral flavor, while honey from a blackberry flower is dark with hints of fruit. Honey can range from transparent to a dark amber (or even blue or green if the bees have been eating candy).
In the wild, bees take what they can get, so there may often be a whole melange of honey types in a single hive. Beekeepers and honey makers can control the types of honey they produce by keeping their hives near concentrated gardens of a certain flower.
How is manuka honey made?
Manuka honey is honey made from the flowers of the manuka tree. The manuka tree is indigenous to New Zealand, and authentic manuka honey goes through a rigorous testing process. The exclusivity of its nectar source and geographical location makes manuka honey pretty expensive.
The honey’s flavor is far more potent than other honeys we may be familiar with in the United States. It is also far more viscous than American honey.
How is creamed honey made?
There is no bee that produces creamed honey. Creamed honey is created in the commercial packaging stage. It’s still honey, it just combines two different kinds: the regular liquid honey straight from the comb and something called “seed honey,” which is honey that has already crystallized. You know that container of honey that’s been in your pantry for years? It’s probably crystallized at this point, meaning it’s now a good seed honey.
How is mad honey made?
If you want to go on a little odyssey of the mind when drinking your morning tea, you should try mad honey. Primarily produced in Turkey and Nepal, mad honey is what happens when bees collect the nectar from certain rhododendron flowers. This results in a honey that is reddish in color, slightly bitter, and chock full of grayanotoxins.
Grayanotoxins are technically poisonous to humans and, similar to magic mushrooms, can cause a wide range of physiological effects including hallucinations. Consuming too much of the stuff is not a good idea, but there is enough in the honey to get a good buzz on (get it?).