What do bees give us? – Honey

Hey there, today I am going to introduce primary products you will obtain from your beekeeping venture. In this post I will be focusing on honey which is the main product of beekeeping in quantitative terms and in economic value.

Products obtained from a hive may fall into two broad categories; those products that bees collect, transform and deposit into the hive e.g. honey, propolis, and pollen, and products secreted by glands located in the body of the bee e.g. beeswax, royal jelly, and bee venom.

Also, considered under the primary products are the bees themselves in their different castes and stages of development e.g. queens, swarms and larvae.

In this post, I will briefly highlight a few aspects of honey: pollen beeswax, propolis, royal jelly and bee venom will be posted at a later date.

So without any further ado, lets jump right in.


Honey is among the most popular products of beekeeping. It is actually the most important bee product in terms of quantity and economic value. The current global market for honey runs into billions of dollars, an indication of its value to the global public

Bees on a comb

Worker bees feeding & capping ripe honey

The history of the use of honey is parallel to the history of man and in virtually every culture evidence can be found of its use as a food source and as a symbol employed in religious, magic and therapeutic ceremonies (Cartland, 1970; Crane, 1980; Zwaeneprel, 1984).

What is honey?

According to Codex Alimentarius (1989) “Honey is the natural sweet substance produced by honeybees from the nectar of blossoms or from the secretion of living parts of plants or excretions of plant-sucking insects on the living parts of plants, which honeybees collect, transform and combine with specific substances of their own, store and leave in the honeycomb to ripen and mature.

This definition clearly brings out two types of honey in terms of origin:

1. Blossom honey – this is honey from the nectar of blossoms (flowers) of different varieties of bee plants. Blossom honey can further be divided into two categories:

Monofloral honey – honey from a single dominant floral source e.g. Eucalyptus honey, Manuka honey etc. This type of honey can be realized in large monoculture establishments or in a situation where the flowering pattern of a given bee plant is out of sync with other major bee plants in the region. Note that even though different bee species and races have different foraging range according to their environment and ease of access to floral resources, the average foraging range for purposes of bee management is two to three kilometers.

Polyfloral honey – honey from different floral sources, this is obtained when bees forage on many different types of bee plants flowering at relatively the same period. Kindly note that bee colonies show a high level of fidelity to bee plants in their foraging behavior i.e. they will exhaust a given floral source before moving on to the next but they cannot forage on different bee plants at the same time.

2. Honeydew honey – this is honey that originates from secretions from plant parts other than flowers (e.g. the young tender buds) or excretions from plant-sucking insects on these plant parts. An example here may include pine honey, pine is a non-flowering plant but produces honey of superior organoleptic qualities.


How do the bees make honey?

Many love and use honey, but it is also important that they understand exactly how bees make honey from a layman perspective.

So how do bee make honey? It’s simple, worker bees under the category of field bees fly out to look for nectar from flowers. They suck in this nectar into their honey stomach (not the true stomach).

The honey stomach is a storage and transportation bodily compartment provided for the worker (field) bee for purposes of transporting nectar. A field bee can carry up to approximately 60% of her own weight of nectar from field back into the hive, and they do this from dawn to dusk and hence the proverb, “as busy as a bee”.

Once they are back to the hive, the nectar is transferred to several younger worker bees in the hive through a process referred to as “mutual communication” or “trophylaxis”.

These younger worker bees transport this nectar within the hive depositing it in an organized manner into comb cells within the honey storage area of the hive.

What is important to note here is that when this nectar is in the honey stomachs of the bees, several substances are added into it including enzymes (like invertase enzyme) which break down the sugars in nectar (mainly sucrose) into simple sugars (glucose and fructose), and other volatile substances, some of which have never been fully identified with the existing scientific knowledge. These give honey its unique characteristics and render it impossible to produce in the laboratory.

The nectar deposited in the cells has high moisture content (sometimes up to 90%). Bees, therefore, fan their wings in unison, creating an air current that blows away the excess moisture reducing it gradually while the enzymatic action continues.

When the moisture content reduces to about 17.8% (or thereabout) depending on the type of flower, the sucrose content will also have reduced to less than five percent, while the percentage of invert sugars will have increased to more than 65%. Bees then cap these cells and the honey is now ready for harvesting (extracting) and is referred to as ripe honey.

So basically this is how bees make honey as can be explained at the most basic level.

The rule of the thumb when harvesting honey: only harvest combs that are more than 75% capped. If this is not the case, then you are likely to end up with honey with high moisture content (prone to fermentation during storage).

Liquid honey

Honey extraction


Characteristics of honey

Honey has unique attributes that make it stand out as a natural product. These attributes may provide valuable insight into the quality and value of honey, and may also act to boost consumer awareness. Processing, value addition, utilization and quality assurance bear significance on the unique qualities of honey. Some of these characteristics are:


Honey is naturally a viscous liquid, especially honey that is freshly harvested and still in the liquid state. Viscosity is the property of a liquid to resist the flow. Viscosity is therefore important during honey processing as it reduces flow during extraction, pumping, filtration, mixing and bottling.

Honey viscosity tends to reduce with the rise in honey temperature. This has been widely used during honey processing. The honey is warmed indirectly in a water bath (using double jacketed stainless steel warmers) to a temperature of about 42 – 45 degrees Celcius. This reduces its viscosity significantly enabling easier filtration.

Some types of honey show properties in terms of viscosity e.g. Heather and Manuka honey are described as thixotrophic, i.e. they are so viscous that they appear gel-like. These honey, however, become more liquid when agitated.

Honey viscosity varies with its composition and water content


Honey is generally denser than water, but density of particular honey depends on its moisture content. This is why it is possible to observe the distinct stratification of honey in large settling tanks. This is because the denser lower moisture content honey settles at the bottom while lighter honey with higher moisture content settles on top of it. This can be solved by thorough mixing (bending) of honey from different sources.


Honey is a hygroscopic substance, this means that it has the ability to draw in moisture from the atmosphere at given levels of humidity. This property becomes important when it comes to honey processing and storage. Exposure to the atmosphere may result in increased moisture content which can reduce honey quality and cause fermentation. This quality is however desirable in end products containing honey e.g. bread and pastry.

Heat conductivity

Honey is a poor conductor of heat. It is therefore very susceptible to overheating form point source heat. This is important to consider when processing as direct heating can lead to rapid overheating at the bottom of the container or point of contact that is heated. This is why honey is warmed indirectly in a water bath. It is also important to consider heat properties of honey, like heat conductivity and heat absorption capacity when designing honey processing equipment.

Comb honey

Comb honey

What Honey is made of? – the composition of honey


Sugars constitute the highest solute concentration of honey making up 95 – 99% dry matter content of honey. Predominant are the simple sugars of glucose and fructose that represent 85-95% of sugars. These sugars are therefore responsible for the nutritional and even physical attributes of honey.

Other sugars present in honey include disaccharides (such as sucrose, maltose, and isomaltose), trisaccharides and oligosaccharides. These sugars may not be very important quantitatively, but they are valuable in determining freshness, adulteration and floral origin of honey.


Water is the second most abundant component in honey, it keeps liquid honey in a supersaturated solution. Limited amount of water, 20% or below can be contained in honey without the risk of fermentation. Honey moisture content may depend on a number of factors such as hive internal humidity, condition of harvested honey, exposure during harvesting and processing and even use of wet containers in honey handling.

Organic acids

These occur in minor quantities, gluconic acid which results from the enzymatic breakdown of glucose is the most abundant. Together with other organic acids, they give honey the acidic properties and are responsible for its taste.


Different mineral elements exist in honey in trace quantities depending on the floral source and the region. Among these trace elements, potassium seems to be the most abundant.

Other trace elements include nitrogenous substances including enzymes originating from salivary secretions of the honey bee. The main enzymes in honey include the inertase, diastase, and glucose oxidase. The presence of these trace elements is an indicator of honey freshness. They are unique and fragile and can only be found in fresh honey

HMF – hydroxymethylfurfural

HMF is a product of fructose decomposition. It is virtually absent in freshly harvested honey but forms with time during honey storage at temperatures above 25 degrees Celcius. It also results from overheating honey during processing. Care should, therefore, be taken during honey processing to maintain appropriate temperatures.

Honey also contains aromatic substances, the majority of which have not been known, that are responsible for the color and flavor of honey (Organoleptic qualities) and are dependent on the botanical origin of honey.

Honey also contains pharmacologically active substances that vary according to the botanical origin. A few of them may have been identified such as those that cause toxicity in certain kinds of honey. Scientific investigation is however still required to identify the majority of them.

Benefits of honey

So what can honey be used for and why?

Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of honey documented by different cultures over centuries.

Nutritional benefits

  • It is a source of instant energy
  • Relieves fatigue and promotes mental efficiency
  • Improves calcium fixation in bones and alleviates anemia and anorexia

    Bee natural honey

    Bee natural honey

Benefits to the digestive system

  • Improves assimilation of nutrients
  • Alleviates chronic and infective intestinal problems such as constipation, duodenal ulcers, and liver disturbances

Benefits to the skin and wound healing

  • Pure unprocessed honey prevents infection, promotes tissue regeneration and prevents scurring
  • Reduces blistering of burns when applied immediately

Benefits to the respiratory system

Honey is a remedy for respiratory tract irritation, it alleviates colds and coughs because of the antibacterial effect and the relaxing nature of honey on the mucosa.

Medicinal benefits of honey

Diabetes – The claim that honey is good for diabetics should be approached with a lot of caution and Doctor’s approval must be sought before the use of honey by a diabetic patient. This is primarily because of the high sugar content for honey.

It has however been proved that honey produces lower blood sugar levels than sucrose in normal healthy individuals

Honey is also believed to normalize kidney function, reduce fever and help with insomnia

It also helps recovery from alcohol intoxication and protects the liver

This provides a brief overview of honey

I welcome you to post comments on the article and contact me if there is anything I can explain further or if there is any way I can help you.

Thank You

David Palla