Honey is an all-natural, near-perfect sweetener. We use it often in our house in cooking and baking, as well as a topper for toast, waffles, or pancakes. But when one of our kids recently asked us where exactly honey comes from, we were taken off-guard. Our slightly embarrassing response went something like: “So the bee gathers pollen – or is it nectar? – and then it goes to its hive, and then it…somehow… makes it into honey, and then it… eats it? Or uses it to make a honeycomb? Or…maybe we should look it up.”
We figure we’re not entirely alone in being fuzzy on the process, but given that we use honey so much, we thought we needed a better answer. So to tackle this all-important question, we took a Real Food Summer road trip to an urban bee farm run through Seattle Bee Works.
Seattle Bee Works founder Krista Conner began beekeeping in 2007 with just two beehives stationed in a friend’s garden. Today Seattle Bee Works operates a growing number of beehives located throughout Seattle, offering homeowners the chance to host beehives in exchange for honey. Seattle Bee Works’ beekeeping practices are antibiotic and pesticide free. Krista, a cancer survivor, is extremely conscientious about avoiding impacts from chemicals and opting for organic products in her day-to-day life, and she applies this same focus to her beekeeping practices when applying supplemental feeding to the bees or when choosing a mite control method.
Krista and two of her apprentices brought us to a private home and garden that houses several of Krista’s beehives. The gardeners MyLawnCare on the Gold Coast that they had hired to maintain the garden had kept the garden spectacularly beautiful. We all suited up with head-to-toe protective gear that included a special mesh helmet, heavy gloves, and boots. While the beekeepers worked on hive maintenance we took pictures and asked questions.
The bee colonies that we visited almost look like colorful sets of drawers. Each segment contains “frames,” kind of like screens but with honeycomb patterns that can be pulled apart and inspected. The beekeepers examine the frames to determine whether there are eggs and larvae (baby bees), how much honey the bees are making, and how the queen is doing.
In each hive there is a queen bee (female), drones (males), and worker bees (females). The worker bees have different jobs depending on how old they are. The youngest bees are nurse bees that take care of the babies. The slightly older ones are guard bees that watch the hive. Then there are the foragers, who go out and get the nectar. These foragers literally work themselves to death over the summer; they make so many trips back and forth to the hive with their precious cargo that they only live for a little more than a month. The queen bees reign for one to two – up to as many as five – years. If they are thriving, the hive is successful; if the queen’s health is failing she may be replaced.
So how exactly do bees make honey? Bees visit flowers and gather sweet liquid nectar from the flower. They suck up the nectar through a long straw-like tongue called a proboscis. They store the nectar in a special honey stomach inside their bodies. When they fly back to the hive, they regurgitate the nectar. The house bees then ingest the honey and regurgitate it again. Each time they ingest the nectar, their stomachs help break down the sugar with an enzyme known as invertase that converts the sugar into honey. The bees then drop the honey into the honeycombs, and then fan the honey with their wings to get rid of extra moisture so that the liquid becomes more viscous. Once the honey is ready, the bees cover it with wax and store it for food over the winter.
In the process of visiting flowers, bees also pick up pollen, which then gets transferred from one flower to another, fertilizing the flower. The bees also use pollen mixed with honey to make “bee bread,” which they feed to baby bees. Pure honey will contain trace amounts of pollen; some people believe that if you eat local honey it will help with your allergies to local plants.
To get the honey from the bees to people, the beekeeper uncaps the wax and then puts the frames into a centrifuge that spins out the honey. The honey is then run through a filter and then put in jars. For a typical 8,000-bee hive, the bees will need about 80 pounds of honey to feed themselves through the winter. If a beekeeper harvests honey in the fall, he or she will have to do a careful calculation to make sure to leave plenty of honey to get the hive through the winter.
Interesting note: As long as honey is kept away from moisture (don’t put it in the fridge), it does not spoil. Honey has been found, still in edible form, in ancient Egyptian tombs dating back about 5,000 years.
The honey from Krista’s hives, which is pure and raw, is sold in select Seattle retail shops; varieties include Wildflower, Blackberry, Fireweed, and Knottweed. If you’re not in Seattle, Krista urges you to buy local honey from the area closest to you. You may be able to find a good source through your local beekeepers’ association.
If you’re thinking of starting your own bee hives, check with your local laws to make sure it is permitted, and again, check in with your local beekeepers’ association for advice and assistance. You don’t necessarily need a spacious garden; in fact, one of Krista’s apprentices set up beehives on the roof of her apartment building (with the OK of the building owner and other residents.)
As for our family, we look at honey differently now. For one thing, we were struck by how much affection and respect the beekeepers have for the bees. They treat them like treasured companions (one beekeeper affectionately referred to them as ‘cute’). And second, it’s amazing to think of how much work these creatures put in to creating honey. It makes us hate to think about wasting it. Last but not least, this trip gave us a renewed interest in buying local honey. Of course, since last year when stories came out about “honey laundering” of illegal Chinese honey laden with antibiotics and chemicals, we’ve been wanting to know where our honey was made. But now we feel an extra loyalty toward our local bees, and we want to know that these hard-working creatures are treated with care and affection. From now on when someone asks us how honey is made, we’re going to able to answer confidently about how it’s made, where it’s harvested, and why we chose local honey.