2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Food and agriculture

A jar of honey, shown with a wooden honey server and scones.
A jar of honey, shown with a wooden honey server and scones.
A capped frame of honeycomb
A capped frame of honeycomb
A honeybee on calyx of goldenrod
A honeybee on calyx of goldenrod

Honey is a sweet and viscous fluid produced by honeybees from the nectar of flowers. "The definition of honey stipulates a pure product that does not allow for the addition of any other substance. This includes, but is not limited to, water or other sweeteners," according to the United States National Honey Board 2003 and other nations' food regulations. This article refers exclusively to the honey produced by honeybees (the genus Apis); honey produced by other bees or other insects has very different properties.

Honey is significantly sweeter than table sugar and has attractive chemical properties for baking. Honey has a distinctive flavor which leads some people to prefer it over sugar and other sweeteners.

Liquid honey does not spoil. Because of its high sugar concentration, it kills most bacteria by crenation. Natural airborne yeasts cannot become active in it because the moisture content is too low. Natural, raw honey varies from 14% to 18% moisture content. As long as the moisture content remains under 18%, virtually no organism can successfully multiply to significant amounts in honey, though, importantly, enough bacteria survive to make honey dangerous for infants (especially Clostridium botulinum).

The study of pollens and spores in raw honey ( melissopalynology) can determine floral sources of honey. Because bees carry an electrostatic charge, and can attract other particles, the same techniques of melissopalynology can be used in area environmental studies of radioactive particles, dust, or particulate pollution.

A main effect of bees collecting nectar to make honey is pollination, which is crucial for flowering plants.

Honey formation

Honey is laid down by bees as a food source. In cold weather or when food sources are scarce, bees use their stored honey as their source of energy. By contriving for the bee swarm to make its home in a hive, people have been able to semi-domesticate the insects. In the hive there are three types of bee: the single queen bee, a seasonally variable number of drone bees to fertilize new queens and some 20,000 to 40,000 worker bees. The worker bees raise larvae and collect the nectar that will become honey in the hive. They go out, collect the sugar-rich flower nectar and return to the hive. As they leave the flower, bees release nasonov pheromones. These enable other bees to find their way to the site by smell. Honeybees also release nasonov pheromones at the entrance to the hive, which enables returning bees to return to the proper hive. In the hive the bees use their honey stomachs to ingest and regurgitate the nectar a number of times until it is partially digested. It is then stored in the honeycomb. Nectar is high in both water content and natural yeasts which, unchecked, would cause the sugars in the nectar to ferment. After the final regurgitation, the honeycomb is left unsealed. Bees inside the hive fan their wings, creating a strong draft across the honeycomb. This enhances evaporation of much of the water from the nectar. The reduction in water content, which raises the sugar concentration, prevents fermentation. Ripe honey, as removed from the hive by the beekeeper, has a long shelf life and will not ferment.

The beekeeper encourages overproduction of honey within the hive so that the excess can be taken without endangering the bees. When sources of foods for the bees are short the beekeeper may have to feed the bees other forms of sugar so they can survive.

Composition of honey

Honey is a mixture of sugars and other compounds. The specific composition of any batch of honey will depend largely on the mix of flowers consumed by the bees that produced the honey. Honey has a density of about 1500 kg/ m3 (50% denser than water), which means about 12.5 pounds per US gallon.

Typical honey analysis
  • Fructose: 38%
  • Glucose: 31%
  • Sucrose: 1%
  • Water: 17%
  • Other sugars: 9% ( maltose, melezitose)
  • Ash: 0.17%
Source: Sugar Alliance

The analysis of the sugar content of honey is used for detecting adulteration.

Types of honey


Most commercially available honey is blended, meaning that it is a combination of honeys from different sources. China is the world's largest producer of honey (256,000 tonnes in 2001), followed by the United States (100,000 tonnes), Argentina (90,000 tonnes), Turkey (71,000 tonnes), Mexico, Ukraine and India


Polyfloral honey is derived from the nectar of many types of flowers.


Different monofloral honeys have a distinctive flavor and colour due to differences between their principal nectar sources. Beekeepers keep monofloral beehives in an area where the bees have access to only one type of flower, because of that flower's properties. In practice, because of the difficulties in containing bees, a small proportion of any honey will be from additional nectar from other flower types. Some of the main types of monofloral honey (and their main countries of production) include: apple blossom (United Kingdom), acacia (Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania), cherry blossom (United Kingdom), clover (Canada, New Zealand), eucalyptus (Australia), heather (United Kingdom), lavender (France, Spain), lime blossom (China, Poland), orange blossom (France, Spain), tupelo (United States), wild thyme (France, Greece, New Zealand) sunflower (France, Spain) and Manuka, Rata and Pohutakawa from New Zealand.


Honeydew producer (barklice) on a Silver Fir
Honeydew producer ( barklice) on a Silver Fir

Instead of taking nectar, bees can take honeydew, which appears similar to honey and consists of the sweet secretions of aphids or other plant sap-sucking insects. Most important of these is the aphid Marchalina hellenica which feeds on the sap of the Turkish Pine. Honeydew from pine forests has a piney taste and is prized for medicinal use in Europe and Turkey. Bees collecting this resource have to be fed protein supplements, as honeydew lacks the protein-rich pollen accompaniment gathered from flowers.

In New Zealand honeydew nectar is produced from a small, scaled insect (Ultracoelostoma assimile) living in the bark of two of New Zealand's beech forests, mostly black beech (black from the sooty mold growing on the surplus nectar covering the trunks and branches) and, to a lesser extent, red beech. In the early morning sunlight, the droplets of nectar glisten like the morning dew, giving the name honeydew.

Germany's Black Forest is a well known source of honeydew-produced honeys.

Honeydew honey has a full aroma, is heady, almost pungent, and malty with a thick red amber colour.

Honeydew has strong markets in some areas, but in many areas beekeepers are disappointed with a honeydew crop, as they are unable to market the stronger flavored product. Honeydew has a much larger proportion of indigestibles than light honeys, which can cause dysentery, resulting in the death of colonies in areas with cold winters. Good beekeeping management requires the removal of honeydew prior to winter in colder areas.

Use of honey

The main uses of honey are in cooking, baking, spreading on bread or toast, and as an addition to various beverages such as tea. Because honey is hygroscopic (drawing moisture from the air), a small quantity of honey added to a pastry recipe will retard staling. Raw honey also contains enzymes that help in its digestion, several vitamins and antioxidants.

Honey is the main ingredient in the alcoholic beverage mead, which is also known as "honey wine" or "honey beer" (although it is not wine or beer), and metheglin. It is also used as an adjunct in beer. Beer brewed with greater than about 30% honey as a source of sugar by weight, or mead brewed with malt (with or without hops), is known as braggot.

Honey is used in traditional folk medicine and apitherapy, and is an excellent natural preservative. Its glycemic index is 55.

Most vegans consider honey to be an animal product and avoid using it, instead choosing sweetening alternatives such as agave nectar, rice syrup or stevia.

Without commercial beekeeping, large-scale fruit and vegetable farming and some of the seed industry would be incapable of sustaining themselves, since many crops are pollinated by migratory beekeepers who contract their bees for that purpose.

In ancient history, the Ancient Egyptian and Middle-Eastern peoples also used honey for embalming the dead. However, only rich and powerful people had the luxury of this type of funeral. Scythians, and later the other Central Asian nomadic people, for many months drove a wagon with a deceased ruler around the country in their last rites mourning procession, carrying the body in a casket filled with honey.

Honey in culture and folklore

In many cultures, honey has associations that go far beyond its use as a food. In language and literature, religion and folk belief, honey is frequently a symbol or talisman for sweetness of every kind.

Honey comb
Honey comb

The Old Testament contains many references to honey as a symbol for all that is pleasant and desirable. For example, the book of Exodus famously describes the Promised Land as a 'land flowing with milk and honey' (33:3). There, however, the Hebrew devash probably refers to the sweet syrup produced from the juice of the grape or the date. In contrast, bees' honey is referred to explicitly in The Book of Judges when Samson found a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of a lion (14:8). The word "honey" appears 61 times in the King James Version of the Bible.

In Jewish tradition, honey is also a symbol for the new year – Rosh Hashana. At the traditional meal for that holiday, apple slices are dipped into honey and eaten to bring a sweet new year. New Year's greetings for Rosh Hashana very often show honey and an apple, symbolizing the feast.

In Muslim tradition, the Qur'an mentions rivers of honey in Paradise (Qur'an 47:15). It is also mentioned specifically that the Prophet Muhammad liked honey (Sahih Bukhari vol. 7, book 69, number 504 and 518), thus honey is interpreted by Muslims to hold a significant value.

Honey plays an important role in the festival of Modhu Purnima, celebrated by Buddhists in India and Bangladesh. The day commemorates Buddha's making peace among his disciples by retreating into the wilderness. The story goes that while he was there, a monkey brought him honey to eat. On Modhu Purnima, Buddhists remember this act by giving honey to monks. The monkey's gift is frequently depicted in Buddhist art.

During the Roman Empire, honey was used instead of gold to pay taxes. Even earlier, in the accounts of the Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I, one hundred pots of honey were equivalent in value to an ass or an ox .

In some parts of Greece, it was formerly the custom for a bride to dip her fingers in honey and make the sign of the cross before entering her new home. This was meant to ensure sweetness in her married life, especially in her relationship with her mother-in-law.

In popular culture, bears are frequently depicted as eating honey, even though most bears actually eat a wide variety of foods, and bears seen at beehives are usually more interested in bee larvae than honey. Honey is sometimes sold in a bear-shaped jar. Teddy bears are almost invariably associated with honey, possibly because of the influence of Winnie-the-Pooh.

Many people believe that honey is more wholesome or healthier than refined sugar, although most nutritionists say that all sweeteners are pretty much alike. Honey-based sweets are often sold as health food.

'Honey', along with variations like 'honey bun' and 'honeypot' and the contraction 'hon,' has become a term of endearment in most of the English-speaking world. In some places it is used for loved ones; in others, such as the American South, it is used when addressing casual acquaintances or even strangers.

Medical uses for honey

For around 2000 years, honey has been used to treat a variety of ailments through topical application, though it was not until modern times that the cause of infection was understood. Now, it is understood that the folk remedy of using honey to treat wounds has a scientific explanation: it acts as an antiseptic/antibacterial agent. As an antimicrobial agent honey has potential for treating a variety of ailments. Antibacterial properties of honey are the result of the low water activity causing osmosis, hydrogen peroxide effect , and high acidity .

Osmotic effect

Honey is primarily a saturated mixture of two monosaccharides. This mixture has a low water activity; most of the water molecules are associated with the sugars and few remain available for microorganisms, so it is a poor environment for their growth.

Hydrogen peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide in honey is activated by dilution. However, unlike medical hydrogen peroxide, commonly 3% by volume, it is present in a concentration of only 1 mmol/l in honey. Iron in honey oxidizes the oxygen free radicals released by the hydrogen peroxide.

glucose + H2O + O2 → gluconic acid + H2O2

When used topically (as, for example, a wound dressing), hydrogen peroxide is produced by dilution with body fluids. As a result, hydrogen peroxide is released slowly and acts as an antiseptic. Unlike 3% medical hydrogen peroxide, this slow release does not cause damage to surrounding tissue.


The pH of honey is commonly between 3.2 and 4.5 . This relatively acidic pH level prevents the growth of many bacteria responsible for infection.

Other medical applications

The most common use of honey is as an anti-microbial agent used for dressing wounds, burns and skin ulcers. This application has a long history in traditional medicine. Additionally, the use of honey reduces odours, reduces swelling, and reduces scarring; it also prevents the dressing from sticking to the healing wound .

Some claim that one drop of honey directly on the eye can treat mild forms of conjunctivitis.

Due to its antiseptic properties, honey (especially when combined with lemon) can be taken orally by Pharyngitis and Laryngitis sufferers, in order to soothe them.

Though widely believed to alleviate allergies, local honey has been shown to be no more effective than placebos in controlled studies . This may be due to the fact that most seasonal allergies are caused by tree and grass pollens, which honeybees do not collect.

Honey and infants

Giving honey to infants can be hazardous because some infants can develop the disease known as infant botulism. This occurs because there is a natural bacterium ( Clostridium botulinum) in the honey which cannot be filtered out. The bacteria then produces a toxin, known as botulin, in the infant's intestines. After the child is more than a year old, the intestine has matured and the bacteria cannot grow. Even the honey in some processed foods can cause botulism. After an infant ingests this bacterium, the disease can occur within a few hours or even up to a week.

Honey as a product

Honey processing

  • Comb honey A popular honey product. The honey is sold still in the wax comb. Comb honey was once packaged by installing wooden framework in special supers, but this labor intensive method is dying, and being replaced by plastic rings or cartridges. After removal from the hive, a clear cover is usually fitted onto the cartridge so customers can see the product.
  • Raw honey Honey as it exists in the beehive or as obtained by extraction, settling or straining without adding heat. Raw honey contains some pollen and may contain small particles of wax. Local raw honey is sought after by allergy sufferers as the pollen impurities are thought to lessen the sensitivity to hay fever (see 'Medical Applications' above).
  • Chunk honey Honey packed in widemouth containers consisting of one or more pieces of comb honey surrounded by extracted liquid honey. This type is preferred in the US South.
  • Strained honey or filtered honey Honey which has been passed through a mesh material to remove particulate material (pieces of wax, propolis, other defects) without removing pollen. Preferred by the health food trade - it has a cloudy appearance due to the included pollen, but it also tends to crystallize more quickly than ultrafiltered honey.
  • Ultrafiltered honey Honey processed by very fine filtration under high pressure to remove all extraneous solids and pollen grains. Ultrafiltered honey is very clear and has a longer shelf life, because it crystallizes more slowly. Preferred by the supermarket trade.


Honey is not always edible. Because it is gathered from flowers in the wild, there are situations in which it may be toxic.

There are several types of honey that are known to be toxic to humans. The most common of these in the northern hemisphere, popularly known as Mad Honey, is produced from the flowers of rhododendrons, mountain laurels and azaleas. The nectar of these plants may contain grayanotoxin, a compound which is both psychoactive and poisonous to humans but harmless to bees. The effects of Mad Honey have been reported in Western literature as early as 401 BC (see Xenophon's description of the effects of toxic honey in the Anabasis). The shape of the azalea flower, however, makes access to nectar difficult for honeybees. Furthermore, during the time when azaleas bloom, there are usually other flowers available that are more appealing to the honeybee. Thus, lethal honey is rarely encountered. Mad Honey is also sometimes called Green Honey, Crazy Honey or Meli Chloron (ancient greek).

Toxic honey may also result when bees are in close proximity to tutu bushes (Coriaria arborea) and the vine hopper insect (Scolypopa australis). Both are found throughout New Zealand. Bees gather honeydew produced by the vine hopper insects feeding on the tutu plant. This introduces the poison tutin into honey. Only a few areas in New Zealand (Coromandel Peninsula, Eastern Bay of Plenty and the Marlborough Sounds) frequently produce toxic honey. Symptoms of tutin poisoning include vomiting, delirium, giddiness, increased excitability, stupor, coma and violent convulsions. It is generally agreed that as little as one teaspoon of toxic honey may produce severe effects in humans. In order to reduce the risk of tutin poisoning, humans should not eat honey taken from feral hives in the risk areas of New Zealand. Since December 2001, New Zealand beekeepers have been required to reduce the risk of producing toxic honey by closely monitoring tutu, vine hopper, and foraging conditions within 3 km of their apiary.

Honey, corn syrup and other natural sweeteners are a potential and acute threat to infants. Harmless to adults because of a mature person's stomach acidity, botulinum spores are widely present in the environment and are among the few bacteria that can survive in honey. Since an infant's digestive juices are non-acidic, ingestion of honey creates an ideal medium for botulinum spores to grow and produce sufficient levels of toxins to cause infant botulism. For this reason, it is advised that neither honey, nor any other sweetener, be given to children under the age of 18 months. Once a child is eating solid food, the digestive juices are acidic enough to prevent the growth of the spores.

Other descriptions

  • Blended honey A homogeneous mixture of two or more honeys differing in floral source, colour, flavor, density or geographic origin.
  • Churned honey or creamed honey See whipped honey.
  • Crystallized honey Honey in which some of the glucose content has spontaneously crystallized from solution as the monohydrate. Also called "granulated honey."
  • Honey fondant See whipped honey.
  • Organic honey is honey produced, processed, and packaged in accordance with national regulations, and certified as such by some government body or an independent organic farming certification organization. For example, in the United Kingdom, the standard covers not only the origin of bees, but also the siting of the apiaries. These must be on land that is certified as organic, and within a radius of 4 miles from the apiary site, nectar and pollen sources must consist essentially of organic crops or uncultivated areas .
  • Set honey All honey will eventually set or granulate and this process can be reversed by gently warming the honey to remelt it. Some honeys set naturally with large granules and taste a little like granulated sugar in honey. Others set like royal icing - very hard and unspreadable. To overcome this problem beekeepers will mix in a small amount of fine-grained honey before it sets and then gently stir the honey to fix the setting prematurely, before it becomes hard, thereby producing a "soft set" honey.
  • Spun honey See whipped honey.

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