We know that bees are hard workers, but those long hours involve some help from sweet science. Along with “environmentalist” and “flower enthusiast”, “chemist” is another title on bees’ long list of apiary accolades. While a bee hive may not look like a science lab, every step from flower to comb changes honey’s unique properties all the way down to the chemical level.
This complex chemical process begins with nectar. Worker bees pick out the most attractive, sweetest-smelling flowers and extract the nectar with their straw-like tongue. Nectar is a very thin, watery solution made of 80% water and a little bit of sucrose, a complex sugar you can also find in your kitchen. The sugary solution then travels down into the bee’s second stomach, or “crop,” where chemistry begins to work its magic.
Like people, some sugars are complex and some are simple. Sucrose is a complex sugar molecule made up of two simple sugars, fructose and glucose, joined together. Complex sugars can be split or broken down into simple ones, but only with the help of heat, acids or enzymes. Luckily, chemistry comes naturally to bees. In their crop, a special enzyme called invertase breaks down the sucrose-saturated nectar into fructose and glucose, the building blocks of honey.
When their honey stomachs are full of nectar, worker bees make their way back to the hive as invertase continues to divide sucrose into simpler fructose and glucose. Once they arrive, they hand off the nectar to house bees who continue the chemistry. While we love to imagine bees buzzing around in tiny, white lab coats, they leave the science to their stomachs.
The house bees then re-drink the nectar, adding more enzyme power to break the sugars down even further, which continues for about 20 minutes until the nectar is only 20% water. To reduce the water content even more, the almost-honey is transferred to the honeycomb, where house bees fan their wings to dehydrate it down to a perfect gooiness. This evaporation technique stops when the water concentration has dwindled down to about 17%. Alas, raw honey is born, and the bees move their crafted creation to a specialized cell within the hive for storage.
The reduction of water, paired with honey’s natural acidity and hydrogen peroxide content, keeps bacteria at bay, allowing the sweet stuff to last a lifetime – and sometimes even longer. In addition to these antibacterial properties, pure honey contains other beneficial enzymes, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that can be damaged when processed or overheated. That’s why we source our local honey from beekeepers across the USA, and always leave it raw & unfiltered so the bees’ hard work never goes to waste.