The Origin Of Honey

The Bees That Produce Honey and How They Do So

Certain social insects produce and store honey as a non-perishable food for use in dearth periods. The insects include all honey bees (Apis spp.) and stingless bees (Melipona and Trigona spp.) and also certain species of social wasps in South America (Nectarina) and honey ants, e.g., Melophorus inflatus in Australia. Honey-producing species whose colonies die out at the end of the active season, which are most social wasps and bumble bees (Bombus spp.), store comparatively little honey, and it is not economically important.

Production of honey by the honey bee, A. mellifera, has been studied most. Foraging workers collect nectar from plants and, when they return to their colony, "house bees" (young workers) take it from them and deposit it in cells of the comb. Bees evaporate water from it by manipulations that increase its surface area, while other bees fan to maintain a current of warm air through the hive. During this process (and even during its transport to the hive), secretions from the bees' hypopharyngeal glands are added to it. These contain the enzyme invertase, which inverts sucrose into fructose and glucose. At hive temperatures the solubility of glucose in a solution of fructose is unusually high, and the final honey has a very high sugar content, around or even above 80%. The relative amounts of the two sugars depend on the nectar sources. Fructose is more soluble in water than glucose, and high-fructose honeys (e.g., from Robiniapseudoacacia) rarely if ever granulate (crystallize), whereas high-glucose honeys (e.g., from dandelion, Taraxacum officinale) do so very quickly. Gentle warming of granulated honey redissolves the crystals.

Plant Sources of Honey

Most nectar is produced by flowers, although a few plants have extrafloral nectaries, including cotton (Gossypium barbadense and G. hirsutum) and rubber (Hevea brasiliensis). A number of world nectar plants have been classified according to the weight of honey that may be produced from a hectare of the plant in bloom, and the following are among those reported to be in the highest class (over 500 kg honey/ha or pounds/acre): Epilobium angustifolium (fireweed, rosebay willowherb), Melilotus alba (white melilot), Phacelia tanacetifolia (phacelia), R. pseudoacacia (false acacia, black locust), Thymus vulgaris (common thyme), and Trifoliumpratense (red clover).

Where honeydew is available, bees collect it as well as nectar; it is sap from the host plants of certain plant-sucking insects in the order Hemiptera (Stenorhynchota) that excrete part of the sap they ingest. Honeydew honey, which contains certain sugars not in floral honey, lacks any floral fragrance. It is much favored in some regions where it is produced— such as the Black Forest in Germany—but elsewhere the more delicate flavor of honey from nectar is much preferred.

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