Sacred references to honey and bees abound in early religious text. Many references are found in the Bible, probably the most graphic the depiction of Israel as “the land of milk and honey.” Recent archaeological excavations in Israel found evidence of the early beekeeping and honey production. Sacred written works in India and Egypt mention honey. The value of honey in early Egypt is evident in the discovery of golden honeybees in the tomb of a pharaoh.
Although bees have been used by man for quite some time, bees have been making honey without man’s intervention for an even longer time. It is thought that honeybees first originated in Africa. From there, they spread eventually to Europe and Asia. There is some evidence that they were found quite early in Central America.
In the United States, it appears that honeybees were introduced at Jamestown as cargo in 1622. Indians referred to them as “the white man’s fly.” They provided the colonists with candle wax and honey. In later years as people began to farm extensively, they realized that if you used honeybees for pollination, fruit and vegetable production increased. Farm households kept bees to make honey to supplement their diets. In lean times, stored honey was a great food source since it took few resources and stored well. Many years passed before honeybees made it all the way across the United States to the West Coast. Early settlers who tried to take them westward found they could not easily survive the hardships and cold experienced on the way. It was not until the 1800s that honeybees were found on the West Coast in any numbers.
Today we find that the number of honeybees has decreased as a result of disease and the destruction of wild honeybee habitat as development encroaches on their territory. In some countries, exotic honey flavors bring such a high price that natives take the honey from the wild, leaving no honey for the bees to survive and quickly reducing the honeybee colonies. In Virginia, much has been done to encourage healthy bee colonies and good bee management practices. According to the state, during the past twenty years, the number of bee hives and beekeepers has decreased over 50% while the need for honeybees to pollinate crops is expected to increase. In response to this, the state is trying to foster an interest in beekeeping and helping to preserve and increase bee colonies. Beekeepers are careful to only remove excess honey and always leave enough for the bees to survive over the winter. Individuals can help by not spraying insecticides on flowering plants during the day when bees are feeding and increasing the flowering trees and plants they grow in their yard.
When you eat honey, it is almost as if you are tasting the essence of the flowers themselves. Honeybees visit millions of flowers removing nectar to make one pound of honey. In a way, tasting honey is like wine tasting. As wine is dependent on the type of grape for its flavor and color, honey will also vary in flavor and color according to the type of flower the bee visited. If you normally buy your honey at the supermarket, try buying some from a local beekeeper. The taste of this honey will surprise you. It can be mild or spicy with some even bearing the fragrance of their source flower. Some examples of the hundreds of different honey flavors are sweet clover, white clover, sourwood, tulip poplar, sumac, raspberry, blackberry, black locust, and maple.
Honey can even become wine. Although, we tend to think of grapes when we talk about wine, honey has been made into wine since ancient times. The ancient beverage mead is a fermented honey wine mentioned frequently in man’s earliest written works.
The mystique of honey’s magical and restorative powers remains today. Some people believe that it has special healing properties. Indeed, medical research has shown that honey and propolis have antibacterial properties. Propolis is the sticky substance that bees collect from the buds of certain trees. They use this propolis to seal or cement parts of their hives. Propolis has long been used as an early medicine.
Whether it has medicinal benefits or not, honey is a taste treat. Mainly composed of the sugars levulose and dextrose, its exact composition depends largely on its flower source. It has hundreds of different compounds and includes vitamins, enzymes, pollen grains, amino acids, antioxidants, and minerals. It is easily digested and gives a quick energy boost. Although there are exceptions, light colored honey usually tastes milder than dark colored honey. To be safe, honey should not be given to infants under one year of age. Honey can carry spores that are harmless to adults, but dangerous for infants whose immune systems are not fully developed.
Since its first discovery by man, honey has been a highly desirable food. Before man had refrigeration, honey provided a food source that didn’t spoil. As long as it is kept in a cool location away from direct sunlight and in a well sealed container, honey will last indefinitely. Honey is sweet and delicious served on a nice warm buttered biscuit. In fact, honey is delicious served on any of a number of foods. It can be used to make bread, glazes for meat and poultry, dressings for salad, and desserts of all kinds. In many recipes, it can be used to replace table sugar, but adjustments will need to be made since honey is twice as sweet as table sugar and has more liquid.
If you store your honey and it turns cloudy, this is called crystallization. This does not mean you have to throw it away. In fact, some beekeepers intentionally produce crystallized honey for sale. If you want your liquid honey back, put the jar (must be a jar that can withstand heat) in a pan of hot water. Slowly warm it and stir it until it reaches its liquid state. Be careful not to overheat it or you will cause the sugars to caramelize.
When purchasing honey, you will find that the most common honey is liquid honey which has been filtered to remove the comb. You can also purchase granulated honey which consists of solidified honey crystals. Comb honey includes the wax comb and the liquid honey. Liquid honey is the easiest to use in recipes.
So many types of honey and so little time! As you add a spoonful of honey to your hot tea, or drizzle it over your hot biscuit, savor the taste. You are enjoying a product that was used by pharaohs and has changed very little since those ancient times.