Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Honey

When I was a kid, my grandma kept bees on her farm in New Jersey. I remember jars and jars of honey lined up on the shelves of their farm stand, reflecting golden light like little lanterns. My favorite thing to eat was honey right from the comb - the sweet honey and the gum-like honeycomb was the stuff of dreams for a kid. Honey has a long history as food, as medicine and in art and culture. But who would ever believe that a substance so delicious, so beautiful and so delightfully sweet is, in essence, bee puke? And yet, honey - that golden syrup we drizzle on toast and stir into tea - is created by busy little bees regurgitating their flower nectar-containing stomach contents. Read on to learn more about how honey is produced, along with the history and use of the sweet stuff.

A Brief History

An ancestor of our modern honeybee is thought to have appeared about 130 million years ago. Modern honeybees likely originated in India or Southeast Asia, where they spread to Europe and Africa. Humans have been using and enjoying honey probably since our earliest hunter-gatherer days. With our genetic predilection for sweet, honey must have been a remarkable and important food, especially prior to the advent of sugar processing. Wild honey gathering has been documented as far back as the Neolithic era in the form of a rock painting from a cave in Spain of a person (whether man or women is up for debate) collecting wild honey. (The image itself is really remarkable; scholars date it at between 8,000 and 15,000 years old, depending on the source.) The Oxford Companion to Food says that the earliest written documentation of the use of honey comes from Egypt, at around 5,500 BCE., although the book notes that there is also documentation of honey use on ancient Sumerian clay tablets, which may pre-date the Egyptian references. Either way, honey has been part of the human experience, used both medicinally and as food, for millennia.

References to honey bees and honey abound in literature and art, further underscoring honey's importance in human history. Bees are commonly associated with industriousness. In The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore, Hilda Ransome quotes a 2,500 year old snippet of poetry from the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes about bees: "Active, eager, airy thing/Ever hovering on the wing." Beehives are also symbols of hard work and commerce since at least ancient Roman times; ancient Romans even used "piggy banks" in the shape of beehives!

Early European colonists brought honeybees to the US in the 17th century. As this New York Times article describes, modern Western apiculture (beekeeping) began in the 19th century with the inventions like the smoker (to pacify the bees) and the moveable frame hive. Honeybee types are also bred for certain climates and to be resistant to various bee diseases. In North America today, there are several honeybee "races" including:

- the Italian bee (a favorite in the US)
- the Carniolan bee ("extremely docile") and
- the Buckfast bee ("good housecleaning and grooming behavior")
- the German bee (the first honeybee introduced in North America)
- the Africanized honeybee (more aggressive and with a greater tendency to swarm)
- the Caucasian bee (less common)

Bees can also be hybridized and interbred. (More via North Carolina State University.)

Honey has also been used for millennia to create alcoholic beverages - most importantly, mead (also known as "honey wine"), made from fermenting honey with water. Mead or equivalent drinks were made all over the world and were probably some of the first alcoholic beverages created by humans.

Factual Nibbles

  • Honey can contain spores of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. It should never be given to infants under the age of one, due to risk of botulism. (The spores pose no risk to older infants and healthy adults.)
  • Beehives are used as symbols in groups as diverse as Freemasonry, Mormonism and the modern Freelancers' Union.
  • Bears really do love honey - although they may love the bees themselves and their larva even more. Here's a wildlife biologist explaining.
  • Having a "bee in your bonnet" is a charming phrase that means to be preoccupied with an idea. My favorite reference to the phrase is from the They Might Be Giants' song "Birdhouse in Your Soul," which goes (in part): "Not to put too fine a point on it/Say I'm the only bee in your bonnet/Make a little birdhouse in your soul." 
  • The ancient Persians embalmed their dead in honey.
  • Here's an interesting article on the origin of the word "honey" - scholars believe that the original Proto-Indo-European word was "melit," which gave rise to the Sanskrit madhu and French miel (and the English mead). 
  • Although he recently retired, the NYPD had a "beekeeping Detective" for many years. He helped with the removal of bee swarms, a surprisingly common phenomenon in New York City.
  • Check out Bee Sweet Lemonade, a lemonade company that uses local honey as a sweetener and is dedicated to saving honeybees. The CEO's name is Mikaila and she founded the company when she was four years old!

Honey Production

The basics of honey production are this: bees move from flower to flower, sucking up nectar with their long tongues. The nectar is stored in the bee's "honey stomach," a specialized nectar receptacle (they have a "regular" stomach, too). Now here's where things get a little gross. When the bee returns to the hive, it regurgitates the nectar into another bee's mouth. This process continues until the partially digested nectar finally gets regurgitated into a honeycomb cell. The bees then fan the nectar in order to evaporate it, part of the process of turning it into honey. The bee seals the comb with another bodily secretion, where it can be stored indefinitely as food for developing bees. In the US, North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota, Florida and California were the top honey producing states in the US in 2013. North Dakota produced over 33 million pounds of honey alone!

Seasonality

In North America, honey is generally harvested starting in late July through mid-September. By the cooler months, the bees start using the honey they've made (and good beekeepers leave enough honey to sustain the hive). The bulk of honey production is, of course, when there are lots and lots of flowers - starting in the early spring through late summer.

Environmental Impact

Bees are vitally important as pollinators for many fruits and vegetables - here is a long list of food crops that are pollinated by bees - and so any pervasive problems with bees may directly affect our food supply. There are a number of environmental issues surrounding bees and honey production. First is colony collapse disorder (CCD), a devastating bee disease we've written about before. Tom Philpot explains the role of pesticides, especially a class of insecticides called neonics, in CCD in this article. (And check out the documentary Vanishing of the Bees for more information on CCD.)

Additionally, there are large-scale commercial bee operations (a commercial beekeeper is one with more than 300 hives, according to the National Honey Board) that frequently truck their hives from farm to farm to help with pollination. Large-scale honey producers use antibiotics like tetracycline to control disease, and unfortunately, antibiotic resistance has been discovered in bees (similar to the arguably more serious antibiotic resistance as a result of antibiotic overuse on factory animal farms). Further, in large-scale honey production, little honey is left for the bees to consume in the winter; instead, they are fed sugar or high fructose corn syrup, practices that may also contribute to the decline in honeybee colonies. There are still many local, sustainable beekeepers out there - check your local farm stand or farmers' market for small-scale produced honey, and talk to the beekeeper about his or her practices to learn more.

Finally, global warming may have a significant affect on bees and other pollinators, essentially "uncoupling" the complex and little understood relationship between bees and the flowers that they have evolved to pollinate. Here's more information on this issue from NASA.

Characteristics and What to Look for

Another reason to seek out local, sustainable honey is the fact that store-bought honey may not be "honey" at all. As this article explains, ultra-filtered honey (i.e., honey that has been filtered to remove pollen) is not considered "honey" by the USDA, because pollen is the only fool-proof way to identify the origin of honey. The inability to trace honey's origins is problematic because it allows "laundered" uninspected honey tainted with contaminants (like illegal antibiotics and heavy metals) to enter the market. Choose organic honey if purchasing from a large commercial grocery store, or buy directly from local beekeepers at your farmers' market.

You might come across several different honey preparations - here's a quick guide to the most common:

  • Pasteurized liquid honey: this is the most common honey available. Generally it has been filtered to remove impurities like bee wings and dust (but not pollen).
  • Raw honey: generally unfiltered and unpasteurized; it looks cloudy and is often a light-yellow color. This is a type of liquid honey.
  • Comb honey: is honey left in the honeycomb. You chew the comb to release the honey, then spit out the wax.
  • Creamed honey: is granulated honey mixed with liquid honey. It is more spreadable in texture than liquid honey.

Honey flavor varies dramatically depending on the type of flowers the bees collected their nectar from. Clover and wildflower honeys tend to be the most mild and the most versatile. Other honeys retain some of the flavor of the flower, like orange flower honey, which is distinctly floral in taste. And still other honeys are rich and almost molasses-like, such as buckwheat honey. Here is a great guide to some of the more common types of honey available in the US - there are more than 300 different kinds!

Nutrition and effects on the body

Like most sweet things, honey is high in calories and carbohydrates - not really a big deal if you only use a teaspoon here or there. Honey is composed of mostly fructose and glucose, with a bit of sucrose and other carbohydrates. It also contains a number of amino acids, vitamins (like the B vitamins and Vitamin C) and antioxidants. Honey has been used for millennia in Indian ayurvedic medicine, used as treatment for digestive issues and for heart ailments, anemia, lung health and skin treatments.

Honey has incredible antimicrobial properties, owing in part to hydrogen peroxide, which is naturally present in honey. In fact, honey's antimicrobial action may even help in the battle against antibiotic resistance. There is an old wives' tale that consuming local honey (with its pollen intact) can help battle seasonal allergies; unfortunately, there seems to be little scientific evidence to back this up.

What to Do with It and Cooking

Of course, honey is used a great deal in sweets and as a sweetener, but it certainly has a place on the savory side of food, too. Check out these eggplant "fries" with honey we posted about a while back, or this honey vinaigrette or classic honey mustard for dipping. Honey is traditionally used as a glaze for all sorts of meats - honey-glazed ham is a southern favorite, but a honey glaze is also a classic for chicken and even veggies (it's especially good with carrots and sweet potatoes). Honey also pairs deliciously with strong cheese - try drizzling it over Brie, sharp cheddar or gorgonzola for a sweet-salty kick. I frequently use honey in place of sugar or other sweeteners in smoothies, popsicles (our latest favorite are these avocado-chocolate popsicles sweetened with only honey) and on top of yogurt. Here's a nice recipe roundup of sweet and savory honey recipes from Martha.

Storage

Store honey in a cool, dark place. It will keep almost indefinitely, although it may crystallize. (If it crystallizes, just heat it briefly in a glass container in a pan of warm water.)

Recipe

Honey "Hot Fudge" Sundaes with Blackberries

Since it is almost the end of summer, I thought sundaes might be in order. The ice cream sauce (honey "hot fudge") is adapted from a 1948 cookbook, called The Puerto Rican Cookbook, part of my antique cookbook collection. I find it interesting because the book has an entire chapter devoted to honey recipes, this despite the fact that sugar production was still a major industry in Puerto Rico at the time. I imagine that the local Puerto Rican honey is rich and delicious, with the abundance of tropical flowers year-round.

I love the combination of blackberries and honey, but feel free to substitute other summer fruits, like peaches or plums.

Ingredients:
Blackberries:
12 pint organic blackberries
Zest of 12 lemon (I use a microplain grater)
1 teaspoon lemon juice or dark rum
1 tablespoon sugar or vanilla sugar

Honey sauce:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons organic cornstarch
12 cup organic honey, any mild variety (like clover or wildflower)
Pinch kosher salt

1 pint good-quality vanilla ice cream (or make your own!)

Method:
For the blackberries:
Gently combine all ingredients and let sit to macerate (release the fruit's juices) for at least 15 minutes, and up to 12 hour.

For the sauce:

  1. In a small saucepan, heat the butter on medium-low heat until just melted. Add the cornstarch and whisk, being careful not to brown the mixture.
  2. Add the honey, continuing to whisk until the mixture forms a soft ball when dropped into cold water (the "soft ball" stage in candy making). (If you have a candy thermometer, the temperature of the mixture should be 235F - 240F.) Keep warm.

To make the sundaes:
Divide the ice cream into individual servings in small bowls. Top with a drizzle of honey sauce and a spoonful of the blackberry mixture. Eat immediately.

(Makes about 4 servings.)

This post was originally published in September 2014.