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Let me tell you about the flowers and the bees…

29 March 2010
Published in Society
by Christina Kolyva

It’s one of my fondest childhood memories. Summertime. The smell of thyme diffuse in the air, sickness the sound of the honeybees and the cicadas almost deafening through the olive trees branches. I cut a slice of hand-kneaded bread, still warm from the wood oven and let honey drip from above, straight from a freshly cut piece of honeycomb. This has remained since then my favourite way of eating honey.

It sounds simple. Honeybees make honey from nectar they collect from flowers. We take it from them and eat it. There is nothing simple about honey production, though. The bees put a staggering amount of labour, patience and teamwork in this task. It is of course their main food source, but really, what a hard way to earn a living! So, lets talk about the whole ‘production chain’ behind a jar of honey…

The chain starts with forager worker bees making endless trips to bring nectar back to the beehive. With their particularly acute sense of smell they are able to target suitable flowers from meters away. They will visit 50-100 flowers during each trip and store the nectar into their ‘honey sacs’ for as long as they are airborne. Once they are back to the beehive, they hand the nectar over to standing-by crews of young worker bees and they hit the road again, so to speak.

It is then the turn of the beehive bees to join forces in order to transform the nectar into raw honey, through chemical processes taking place in the course of repeated ingestion, digestion and regurgitation. At the same time, other teams of young bees are responsible for building hexagonal cells from beeswax. Once the raw honey is of satisfactory quality, it is spread over empty honeycomb cells and is left to dry. To speed up water evaporation, the bees beat their wings to create a draught in the beehive. Cells with ‘ripe’ honey are then sealed with wax caps and this honey is expected to last for a very long time, since the low water content prevents any further fermentation.

This cycle is meticulously repeated by the little busy creatures during the bloom season and it is extremely painstaking, with the average worker bee producing just half a teaspoon of honey during her lifetime. In fact, for the production of one kilogram of honey, the bees of a beehive need to collectively fly the equivalent of several times around the world to gather enough nectar! And of course, not to forget that the pace of this work is quite fast; think of the tempo of Rimsky-Korsakov’s the Flight of the Bumblebee!

As the bloom season comes to its end, it is the beekeeper’s turn to ‘rob’ the bees and collect the honey. Modern beehives consist of a rectangular box, inside which several removable frames are hung in parallel. The bees fill these rectangular panels with honeycomb cells, resulting in flat honeycombs that can be easily removed-encased as they are-for inspection without destroying the beehive. The hive boxes usually consist of two ‘floors’ with the lower level mostly accommodating the pollen storage and breeding and housing needs of the hive, and the top level housing the honey storage. This architecture makes it easy for the beekeeper to remove the honey with little disturbance to the bee colony.

When it is time for honey collection, the hive is fumigated and the smoke makes the bees remarkably non-aggressive, so that they can be simply brushed off from the honeycomb panels. The beekeeper leaves enough frames in the beehive box to ensure that the bees will have enough food, and after checking that there is only honey in the frames that have been removed, he uncaps the honeycomb cells with a knife and spins the frames in a special device to separate the honey from the honeycomb with little damage to the latter. Some filtering is usually needed to remove pollen and other floating particles and then this pure delicious raw honey is ready to be poured into jars and consumed.

I realise that my family belongs to those lucky people who have their honey supply coming directly from a beekeeper and therefore can ask all sorts of questions regarding the origin of the honey and sample it before buying. Even better, we know where the beekeeper lives, his car plate number and his whole extended family, so he knows better than to try and cheat us!! The other day though, as I ran out of honey for my slice of bread, I had to get some from the supermarket and I was confronted with an overwhelming variety of honey jars to pick from and very little to go with, other than the information on the jar and the appearance of the honey inside. I bought jam in the end…! But I did ask around afterwards for ways to recognise good quality honey.

Best quality honey has low water content (under 20% and as low as 14%), which prevents fermentation and makes it last longer. Honey retains the aroma and taste of the flowers the bees have collected the nectar from, and as a result honey produced from a single floral source is considered premium honey and the most valuable. To produce this sort of honey the beekeeper will have to move the beehives to areas where bees will have access to mostly one type of flower, and be willing to harvest half-full frames at the end of the specific blooming season.  Bits and pieces of wax, sugar crystals, yeast and other impurities commonly occurring in raw honey, although not appealing to the eye, do not diminish honey quality and might in fact enhance its nutritional benefits and medical properties. On the other hand, certain kinds of processing that involve heating, while they do improve the shelf life of honey and give it a more clear and clean look, they generally lead to a degradation of flavour and quality. Honey adulteration is also a common problem and unfortunately it is not easy to recognise adulterated honey visually.

Apart from their key role in honey production, bees are a very important part of our ecosystem, because of their contribution to the pollination of flowering plants, a process without which a rather large percentage of our food supply would be jeopardised. An alarmingly steep decline in the honeybee population around the world has been noted during the past few years, occurring in the form of the mysterious disappearance of all the worker bees of a beehive. Although the reasons are not fully understood and it is possible that man is not to blame in this case, it might be educating for all of us to pause and think for a moment how much more than just honey we stand to lose if honeybees disappear from the face of earth…

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