My parents did what they could to get me to dislike honey, but no dice. Well, to be fair to them, they were just giving me a folk remedy for the common cold – a clove of garlic chopped directly into a spoonful of honey – and it is not their fault that that is an absolutely disgusting combination. Regardless of my appreciation for the food, for a long time, I did not know much about it. Sure, it came from bees and plants, but how?
Even though there are a myriad of different species and genera of bees, almost all of the honey people consume comes from honeybees, all of whom are found in the genus Apis. Don’t read this if you have a sensitive stomach, especially if it gets worried that you’ll get jealous of creatures with several stomach: bees have two stomachs. One of them does regular digestion and the other stores nectar that the bees harvest on their trips to flowers. Bees harvest nectar by sucking it up and a bee has to visit more than a hundred flowers to fill up their nectar stomach. Imagine having to visit 100 grocery stores to fill your fridge. Well, at least bees don’t have to worry about traffic and inconsiderate drivers who never use turn signals.
Anyway, once this nectar has been gathered and the honeybee has at least one stomach full to bursting, she flies on back to the hive. There, she passes the nectar from her stomach to the mouth and stomach of another bee. That bee spends her day regurgitating the nectar over and over again until the enzymes in her stomach break down the complex sugars in nectar into simple sugars. The take home message from this paragraph? Delicious, delicious honey is just delicious, delicious bee vomit. But oh, it gets better.
So at this point, the proto-honey still has a lot of water in it. One of the reasons honey has such an amazingly long shelf life is this lack of moisture (the other reasons include high acidity and high sugar content), so how do we get from proto-honey to the good stuff? Time and bee wings. Fortunately, I do not mean that honey is full of crumbled up bee wings. Fortunately, I mean that bees will flap their wings over and over again to fan the proto-honey and dry it out.
That’s basically it. The honey gets sealed up in honeycombs or removed by the beekeeper and sold. Honey, provided it is stored well, will last for a long time and will not ferment. You can get it to ferment, just add yeast and water and get some mead.
But here is one more fun fact before I go: honey tastes and looks different depending on the flowers used to make that honey. Most of the honey on the market comes from multiple flowers, but single flower honeys, like clover or thistle, are definitely available. However, there are some flowers that can create some messed up honey. Azaleas and rhododendrons, for example, can create some honey that is totally fine for bees but that humans just cannot handle. Consuming toxic honey can lead to vomiting, nausea, dizziness, and rarely death. Some toxic honey can have psychoactive properties, but that’s not a trip I encourage anyone to take. But don’t worry: toxic honey is not something you’ll run into at your neighborhood Kroger’s.