Ancient cultures such as Celts, Saxons, Vikings, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used honey as a sweetener, and to make a beverage called mead. Mead is a sweet alcoholic drink made from honey and water, with yeast added to facilitate fermentation. It was most likely the first alcoholic drink, because of the lack of other sweeteners and fruits available in the ancient world.
One theory is that humankind's first experiences with alcoholic beverages (and the resulting intoxication) may have sprung from a bee hive in a tree trunk. The honey contained in the hive could've been diluted by rain water, and fermented by yeasts found naturally in the air. Mead was very important in Scandinavian culture, particularly in wedding ceremonies. It was believed that if the newlyweds drank mead for one moon-cycle following the ceremony, their first-born child would be male, which was important to those in warrior clans. This is why, to this day, the extended celebration following a wedding is called a honeymoon.
Imported sugar was rare and expensive throughout the Middle Ages, and as late as the middle 1700s, honey was the only sweetener accessible to European commoners. It was the English who introduced honey to North America, as honey bees are not native to this continent. Since their introduction, honeybees have become completely naturalized and are found throughout North America.
Wherever you find honeybees, their relationships with flowers remain the same. Flowers have brightly colored blossoms and sweet fragrances that attract bees.
The pollen of a flower is a good source of protein for them. The worker bee is perfectly suited for the task of gathering pollen because spiky pollen grains stick to the thick, soft hairs that cover the bee's body. Some pollen grains fall off the bee and are left behind on other flowers, which helps pollination. The rest the bee carries to the hive in hairy scooplike depressions on its hind legs.
Flower nectar is a sweet, watery fluid that contains complex disaccharides, such as sucrose (the stuff we call table sugar). It provides bees with a rich source of carbohydrates. The highest grades of honey are produced from the nectar of the blossoms of orange, clover, and alfalfa. The bee collects the nectar from deep within the blossom with its proboscis, a tubular mouth-part encasing a long tongue. The bee can use the spoonlike end of its tongue to scoop the nectar out of a flower.
The nectar is stored in the bee's honey stomach until it returns to the hive. Inside the honey stomach, some of the complex disaccharide sugar (sucrose) in the nectar is broken down into simpler monosaccharide sugars (fructose and glucose), by enzymes produced by the bee. Other enzymes prevent crystallization of the honey. (Intense heat destroys these enzymes. If packaged honey crystallizes or hardens, this is due to the heating process used to ensure that no wax is present in the honey.) At the hive, the worker bees pass the enzyme-treated nectar back and forth, allowing moisture to evaporate before placing it in the honeycomb. After honeybees deposit nectar into wax honeycomb "cells" in the hive, they fan and stir the liquid, add more enzymes, and allow more of the water to evaporate. The liquid becomes thick and darkens in color in the honeycomb as it ripens into honey.
Honey is, of course, stored bee food. Bees can live on it the same way they can live on nectar. When beekeepers harvest honey from hives, they remove only what the hive produces in excess of what they need. Bees in urban environments have had to adapt to human influences, and will seek out any sugary or sweet substance left behind by humans. Notice how they buzz around a can of soda at a picnic. This behavior helps bees make their honey without the need to visit as many flowers.
When baking with honey, the resulting product will initially be as dry as those made with sugar. But unlike sugar products, baked goods incorporating honey become soft and moist, as the fructose and levulose sugars in honey absorb water from the air. While honey is an all-natural and beloved sweet, it is important to remember that it should not be in the diet of any child under the age of one.
Jeff Jordan is education coordinator of Carnegie Science Center’s science theaters.
Visit the Kitchen Theater at Carnegie Science Center to learn about
the science of cooking. Showing daily in the Kitchen Theater is Honey Bumbles,
a food-science program for early learners. For a schedule of daily cooking
shows, check the schedule board in the Science Center lobby on the day
of your visit, or call 412-237-3400. The Kitchen Theater at Carnegie Science
Center is sponsored by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.
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