We all know honey tastes good – but did you know that honey is easier to digest than table sugar? or that honey has strong anti-bacterial properties and i has been used to heal burns or reduce an infection? To understand why – we need to look behind the scenes at the science of how nectar becomes honey.
The “sound bite” I typically use to describe how bees make honey is the following –
“Honey is basically “dehydrated” nectar – a good analogy would be evaporating the water in sap and making maple syrup”.
Technically, this is correct since honey has only 15-18% water content and nectar is typically in the 80% range. However, my sound bite is missing the very important fact that honeybees also add enzymes to the nectar. The chemical reaction caused by these enzymes give honey its unique properties and taste.
Let’s back up a bit & remember some basic chemistry (I promise this won’t hurt too much!)
- Enzymes are organic compounds (complex proteins) that cause chemical reactions.
- Different enzymes create different reactions. For example, some convert starch to other carbohydrates; others breakdown chemical bonds causing a substance to morph into its simpler components.
- There are many types of sugars. The important ones for our discussion are:
- Sucrose (aka table sugar) – is considered a “complex” sugar because it is made up of 2 “simple” sugars that are chemically bonded.
- Fructose & glucose – are the “simple” sugars that make up sucrose. Both share the exact same chemical formula – but each has a different arrangement of the atoms giving the two different properties – especially taste – (fructose tastes sweeter than glucose)
- Honey is made up of water (15-18%), fructose (40+%) & glucose (30+%).
- Notice there are only simple sugars in honey. This is why honey is easier to digest than table sugar (and also the reason why many diabetics can use honey and not have a problem)
- Also, the higher fructose content explains why honey is very sweet
- Just for comparison – Maple syrup is 33% water and 66% sucrose
Ok.. now let’s go back to how nectar becomes honey
- Nectar contains 3 sugars – sucrose, fructose & glucose. The floral source, region & weather will determine exactly how much of each is in the nectar – but a good rule of thumb is 55% Sucrose, 24% glucose & 21% fructose.
- notice that fructose is the smallest percentage in nectar (21%), but the highest percentage in honey (40+%) – This is why honey is sweeter than table sugar.
- A honeybee collects nectar from the flower and stores it in its “honey stomach” (Yes – bees have a special stomach just for storing nectar!)
- After their honey stomach is full, they head back to the hive, but on the way they add some new enzymes into the nectar to start “ripening ” process.
- Some of the enzymes begin breaking down the sucrose in the nectar into fructose & glucose.
- Other enzymes convert the nectar’s glucose into substances that yield hydrogen peroxide giving honey its anti-bacterial properties.
- When the bee gets back to the hive, it transfers the nectar to a “house bee” who adds additional enzymes and then stores the nectar in one of the honeycomb cells. While in the cell, the enzymes continue to work breaking down the sucrose, etc.
- The house bee’s job is not done once they store the nectar – they still have to get the water content down to 15-18% or the honey will ferment. They do this “dehydrating” by “fanning” (aka flapping their wings) next to the cell helping to evaporate the moisture. (If you walk by bee hives during a nectar flow, it smells sweet which is the vapor from the evaporation)
- Once the nectar has become honey, the bees put a wax capping on it – to prevent it from absorbing moisture and keep it from fermenting.
Some of the honey’s enzymes become dormant once the honey has “ripened”, but will become active again in the right environment. For example, honey is very acidic (ph = ~4.0) causing the enzyme that create peroxide to go dormant, but when honey is applied to a wound, the ph often rises. This activates the enzyme and more glucose is converted into hydrogen peroxide.
Unfortunately, the honey you buy in the grocery store won’t have these beneficial enzymes because it has been been through a heating and filtering process. Heating honey above 110F will kill the enzymes. This is why it is important to be careful with the heat when you are reliquifying crystallized honey. “Raw” (or sometimes “local”) honey is the term typically used to indicate it is unprocessed.
- “The Chemistry of Honey”, Bee Culture Magazine, August 2015 (pp 53-4)
- “The Enzymes of Honey”, National Honey Board, http://www.honey.com/images/uploads/general/enzymesofhoney_-_final_from_David_Ropa_061010_with_edits_accepted.pdf
- “Sugars and Other Sweetners”, Palo Alto Medical Foundation, http://www.pamf.org/teen/health/nutrition/sugar.html