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Honey, Bees and Beekeeping

Updated on May 28, 2009

About one-third of the honey produced in the United States is used by the baking industry. It is a valued ingredient in baked goods not only because of its sweetness but also because of its ability to absorb and retain moisture from the air. Baked goods that contain honey remain moist and fresh. Other commercial uses of honey include the manufacture of ice creams, candies, and ready-to-eat cereals. The drug industry also uses honey as a base for certain medicines.

Honey is the thick sweet liquid made by honeybees from the nectar they collect from flowers. Honey is stored by bees in their hives and is their major source of food, particularly during the winter.

It is estimated that the average honeybee colony consumes 400 to 500 pounds (180 - 230 kg) of honey a year. Only the surplus honey is harvested.

Honey was probably the first natural sweetener known to man. As far back as 4,000 years, honeybees were domesticated, and their honey was used to make cakes and candies and to preserve fruit.

Most honey is sold in liquid form, but pieces of the honeycomb itself, called comb honey, may also be purchased. Granulated honey is liquid honey that has been allowed to crystallize.

Honey varies in color and flavor, depending on the flowers from which the nectar was obtained. For example, honey made from buckwheat nectar has a deep amber-brown color and a slightly tart taste. Many commercial brands of honey are blends of different honeys made from the nectars of various flowers. The most popular honey is made from clover and alfalfa nectars.

Most honey contains about 75 percent sugar and 20 percent water. The remaining portion consists of gums, ash, and minute traces of plant pigments, vitamins, enzymes, and other substances. Honey contains about as many calories as ordinary table sugar. Unlike table sugar, however, honey does not require digestion, and it is rapidly and easily absorbed into the blood-stream. For this reason, honey is an excellent source of quick energy, and it is sometimes eaten by athletes when they must engage in strenuous physical activity.

Beekeeping

Honeybees are usually raised no more than 1 or 2 miles from an abundant supply of nectar-yielding flowers. The hives, called apiaries, may be placed in backyards and fields, on roofs, or any other place that has sunlight and fresh air.

The hives contain removable frames that are inset with comb foundations, which are man-made thin sheets of beeswax pressed into a waffle-like pattern of small six-sided cells. Comb foundations shorten the time it takes for the bees to build the comb. They also ensure uniform combs by serving as a guide for the bees.

When handling bees, a beekeeper usually wears gloves and a veil. He quiets the bees by sending puffs of smoke from a small hand furnace into the hive or by placing a cloth soaked in carbolic acid over the hive.

About once a week, beehives should be visited and the excess honey removed. If the bees are not able to produce excess honey because of a poor flowering season or because of their comb building, the beekeeper may place a container of a sugar and water solution near the hive. If the bees have produced only enough honey for themselves or if they will need the excess to survive the winter, when no nectar is available, the honey should not be removed.

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