Honey

Nature’s most skilled and experienced syrup makers are the bees. They’ve been making syrup out of plant nectar for millions of years. The process they use is the same one we employ for making syrup out of tree sap or cane juice: reduction. They start with a thin 80-20 water-to-sugar solution that they extract from flowers, then slowly reduce it until it has a moisture content right around 18%. At that point they deposit the syrup in a cell in the honey comb, cap it off with wax and await the winter (or the beekeeper).

The process by which bees convert nectar to honey is fascinating, and it begins at the moment a honey bee extracts the nectar from a flower. The nectar, which can be made of sucrose, glucose, fructose or any combination, flows into an organ called a honey stomach. There enzymes go to work on it, breaking any sucrose molecules (and other more complex sugars) down into simple glucose and fructose. When the forager bees arrive back at the hive they pass the nectar to other workers who first suck the honey into their own honey stomachs then begin a process of repeated regurgitation. They hold a small droplet of nectar just under their tiny mouth parts which exposes it to the air, causing some of the moisture to evaporate. They re-ingest the droplet and do it again. All the while enzymes continue to work on the honey, continuing the sugar breakdown and converting some of the glucose to gluconic acid (the reason for which I’ll explain in a moment).

After about 20 minutes of this, the worker deposits the nectar — which by this time is down to about 50% water — on the surfaces and the edges of the open honeycomb. There it’s left to evaporate further, a process that’s facilitated by other workers who beat their wings to create air flow through the hive.

Having been a beekeeper (Mrs. Pastry and I used to keep a few hives on a building in Chicago) I can say I’ve witnessed this behavior and it’s stunning. The humming sound that issued from our hives at night rivaled that of the HVAC units on nearby rooftops. Holding your hand out in front of the hive entrance you could feel the warm humid air flowing out, like the breath of some large animal. It gives you chills.

Once the honey has been reduced down to less than 20% moisture, it’s deposited in the comb and capped. The whole process, start to finish, takes about three weeks. The big question is: why do bees do this? Why do they expend so much time and energy creating the 5-1 syrup that the rest of the world knows as honey? The reason is: to prevent their nectar harvest from being plundered by microbes. For indeed syrups much over 20% water will eventually ferment in a warm environment. The concentration of sugar — combined with the gluconic acid I mentioned a few paragraphs ago — is enough to keep honey from spoiling indefinitely.

And when I say indefinitely I mean it. It’s been reported that an Egyptologist by the name of Theodore Davies found an urn that contained crystallized but still usable honey that was over 3,000 years old. Maybe that’s true maybe it isn’t, but suffice to say bees can successfully keep their harvest out of the hands of greedy microbes for a long, long time. Now if those poor bees could only do the same with greedy beekeepers…

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18 Responses to Honey

  1. Eva says:

    Hi Joe!

    Thanks for the simply spellbinding synopsis on sugars and syrups! Super sweet or subtly sweet… one thing I noticed is that all the syrups contain water in some percentage. So if I were to substitute syrup for sugar, do I need to then compensate for that extra moisture in my recipe? Say I want to swap out maple syrup for table sugar. Maple syrup you said is about can be from 25%-35% water. Do I then need to decrease my liquids by some amount? Is there a general rule that one might follow? Thanks!

    Eva

    • joepastry says:

      Hey Eva!

      Interesting idea. I’d say as a general rule syrups are about 20% water. If you can figure out how much sugar and water are going into your preparation by weight, you can make the conversion. Let me know how it goes!

      - Joe

  2. Rachel says:

    I usually account for the different moisture contents of my sugars, depending on how I swap out, with percentage conversions as well. I also consider different caramelisation temperatures. I’ve found that honey in particular will burn (and brown your baked goods) a great deal faster than traditional table sugar thanks to the high fructose content.
    Honey’s sugar ratios change quite a bit between different varieties; I know that when I’m using it as an adjunct in brewing, I have to recheck the gravity with every honey I use. Sometimes they’re sweeter or sometimes they have more complex carbohydrates – it’s loads of fun to experiment with different kinds to see how they affect your final product though!

    • joepastry says:

      Honey is neat stuff, partly because it’s so variable. I used to love all the little devices you could get from beekeeping supply houses to check moisture content and such. And of course the critters themselves are endlessly fascinating. I miss my hives. Each one seemed to have its own personality. Maybe someday I’ll do it again.

      Thanks again, Rachel!

      - Joe

  3. Dani says:

    Thanks, Joe for the succinct yet great treatise on a fascinating subject. It’s always worthwhile stopping by.

  4. Yeah, this series is a classic – I’ve already pointed others to it.

    A big thing to bear in mind about honey historically is that it was all the sugar the West had for a very long time. The Franks’ Salic law has a long section addressing the theft of hives (some of which were apparently transportable). These were, after all, the equivalent of sugar refineries, especially since honey was used on vegetables and meats as well as for what we would now call sweets. Hives could be of wood, bark and wicker. Proof of apiculture has been documented in Germany as far back as 400 BCE. And of course the Germanic groups loved their mead (fermented honey and water).

    • joepastry says:

      Fascinating as always, Jim, thanks! Bee husbandry is interesting stuff. History nerd that I am, I always thought it would be fun to try to keep bees in a traditional wicker skep, but those things are illegal in the States now. And speaking of mead, I continue to be amazed at how many people still like to make it. I see it at lots of holiday parties. Then again I may just have too many nerds, hippies and academics in my social circle.

      And thanks for the high compliment, Jim! I appreciate it!

      - Jim

  5. Jen says:

    Hi Joe, if you haven’t tried it before, see if you can get your hands on some chestnut honey. It’s quite dark as honey goes and has a very pronounced, unusual taste. I don’t particularly like it for spreading on toast, etc., but it’s quite special in baking.

    • joepastry says:

      Hey Jen!

      There are a lot of seriously odd honeys out there…some of which are downright nasty. But I’ll look for some of this and try it!

      Thanks,

      - Joe

  6. Rick says:

    Hey Joe,

    What about glucose syrup? And why do I put it in caramel for my croquembuche?

  7. Henry says:

    Absolutely incredible – makes an agnostic like myself feel that there must be an invisible hand behind all this :)

    • joepastry says:

      Amen, Henry!

      Working with bees you realize how amazingly sophisticated they are. Over time, as you get to know more and more about them, you become increasing skeptical that such a creature could simply “evolve.” Indeed my experience as a beekeeper led me to the conclusion that evolution as a theory needs to be revised. ;)

      Something else I found incredible: as the size of the colony grows, the behavior of the hive changes, as if more cells are being added on to the collective “brain.” The individual hives develop their own personalities. Find a good book on them. There’s a reason that most beekeepers, sooner or later, become mystics.

      Thanks for the great comment!

      - Joe

      • Henry says:

        I’m with you, Joe! Doesn’t Richard Dawkins talk about this sort of thing quite a lot?

        • joepastry says:

          Hey Henry!

          I’m not sure about Dawkins, honestly. I don’t read him much since I find his harsh atheism a bit grating. However there’s no question he’s a smart guy and probably has some interesting things to say on the subject. Cheers,

          - Joe

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