About Honey Bees & Honey

The Chemistry of Bees

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The chemistry and chemicals used by the European honeybee, Apis mellifera. Other species of bee use the same sorts of chemicals, but aren’t generally as complicated as the honeybee in terms of society and behavior.

Honeybees are social insects, living in colonies of up to about 60,000 individuals. The colony is highly complex, and each bee works for the good of the entire hive. The colony centers around its queen, a fertilized female capable of laying around a thousand eggs every day. In addition, there are up to 60,000 worker bees (non-reproductive females), and up to 1,000 male bees, or drones. Female honeybees are equipped with a venomous sting.

Unsurprisingly, the main source of carbohydrates for bees is honey. Pollen collected from the anthers of flowers provides the essential proteins necessary for the rearing of young bees. In the act of collecting nectar and pollen, bees pollinate the flowers they visit. Honeybees also collect propolis, a resinous material from buds of trees, for sealing cracks in the hive or for covering foreign objects in the hive that they cannot remove. They collect water to cool the hive and to dilute the honey before they consume it. A well-populated honeybee colony in a good location may collect as much as 450 kilograms of nectar, water, and pollen per year.

In summer, when sources of nectar and pollen are abundant, more honey is produced than is needed, and is stored in the combs. This abundance of food stimulates the queen's egg-laying, and large numbers of eggs are laid in the broodnest. When large numbers of young bees hatch, the hive becomes crowded, and swarming occurs as the surplus bees search for a new home.

Honeybees regulate the temperature of the hive using water as a coolant, and by beating their wings to circulate air. The temperature of the hive is maintained between 35 and 36°C regardless of outside temperature. If water is available, a colony can survive daily maximum temperatures of 49°C. When the temperature falls below about 14°C the bees cease flying, cluster together in the hive to conserve heat, and await the return of warm weather. They can survive in temperatures as low as -46°C for several weeks.

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The nectar is ripened into honey by inversion of the major portion of its sucrose sugar into fructose and glucose and by the removal of excess moisture. Flavor and color are determined by the flowers from which the nectar is gathered. Think ‘Ulmo’ Blossom!

Bees also collect honeydew (nectar which has been partially converted by other insects) to make honey. To help them to locate nectar better, bees have evolved to be able to see the ultraviolet wavelengths of light. In addition, bees use polarised light, which the unaided human eye is also unable to detect, for direction finding on partly cloudy days.

Nectar itself is a sweet, viscous secretion from the nectaries in plant blossoms, stems, and leaves. Mainly a watery solution of the sugars fructose, glucose, and sucrose, it also contains traces of proteins, salts, acids, and essential oils. The sugar content varies from 3 to 80%, depending upon such factors as flower species and soil and air conditions. Honeybees gather nectar mainly from the blossoms, and rarely gather nectars having less than 15% sugar content.

Honeybees also gather pollen (which they do not eat themselves but feed to their larvae) in special ‘pollen baskets’ on their rear legs. In collecting pollen, they aid fertilization of the flower species that they collect from. The economic importance of bees is based at least as much on their role as pollinators as on honey production.

Honey is water soluble, may granulate between 10° and 18°C, and is slightly acidic (pH 3.4-6.1). The sugars make honey hygroscopic (moisture absorbing) and viscous.

Honey was almost the only source of sugar available to people in ancient times, and was valued for its medicinal benefits. It was used to make mead, a fermented beverage, and was mixed with wine and other alcoholic drinks. In Egypt it was also employed as an embalming material.

Honey is a powerful antiseptic and antimicrobial agent. This is due to the high sugar concentration plus other factors including low pH, and the presence of hydrogen peroxide, flavonoids, phenolics and terpenes.

Honey has been used medicinally since ancient times (it is mentioned in Egyptian documents, the Talmud, and the Koran), and was still used as recently as World War One. Medicinal uses include aiding in the healing of wounds and burns. By keeping a wound clean, moist, and free from bacteria and the damaging effects of oxygen, the wound can heal much more quickly.

The healing properties of honey were demonstrated in a study comparing honey treatment to that of silver sulfadiazine, the standard treatment, for burn victims. The results show that honey treatments result in a much greater sterility of the wounds, a faster rate of healing, and a faster onset of healing. These experiments not only showed that honey is superior to standard treatments, but also better than artificial honey made from the sugars, but omitting the glucose oxidase, hydrogen peroxide, flavonoids, and other minor components of honey.

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What is Honey Made of?

Carbohydrates
Unsurprisingly, these comprise the major portion of honey - about 82%. The carbohydrates present are the monosaccharides fructose (38.2%) and glucose (31%); and disaccharides (~9%) sucrose, maltose, isomaltose, maltulose, turanose and kojibiose. There are also some oligosaccharides present (4.2%), including erlose, theanderose and panose, formed from incomplete breakdown of the higher saccharides present in nectar and honeydew.

Proteins and Amino Acids
Honey contains a number of enzymes, including invertase, which converts sucrose to glucose and fructose; amylase, which breaks starch down into smaller units; glucose oxidase, which converts glucose to gluconolactone, which in turn yields gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide; catalase, which breaks down the peroxide formed by glucose oxidase to water and oxygen; and acid phosphorylase, which removes inorganic phosphate from organic phosphates.

Honey also contains eighteen free amino acids, of which the most abundant is proline.

Vitamins, Minerals and Antioxidants
Honey contains trace amounts of the B vitamins riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, pantothenic acid and vitamin B6. It also contains ascorbic acid (vitamin C), and the minerals calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, selenium, chromium and manganese.

The main group of antioxidants in honey are the flavonoids, of which one, pinocembrin, is unique to honey and bee propolis. Ascorbic acid, catalase and selenium are also antioxidants. Generally speaking, the darker the honey, the greater its antioxidising properties.

Other compounds
Honey also contains organic acids such as acetic, butanoic, formic, citric, succinic, lactic, malic, pyroglutamic and gluconic acids, and a number of aromatic acids. The main acid present is gluconic acid, formed in the breakdown of glucose by glucose oxidase. Honey also contains hydroxymethylfurfural, a natural product of the breakdown of simple sugars below pH 5.

*Information on this page is supplied from the University of Bristol, UK (School of Chemistry). You can view this information (and more) on their website: All About Bees

 

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