The bee has lived on the earth for 50 million years, and honey has existed for just as long.
Since humans first started to walk (3 million years ago), they have been collecting honey from the hollows of tree trunks or rocks.
Evidence of honey has been found in the oldest civilizations and has always been marked, in the same way as the bee, with a rich symbolism: honey was the food of the gods, and the bee their messenger.
Very early on, man learnt how to domesticate bees. The Egyptians invented pottery to keep bees, which they then broke to collect the honey. They also had wicker hives covered with clay. Even at that time, honey was already being used as a medicine.
Later on, Hippocrates recommended it in the treatment of various diseases. The Romans made wicker hives. The Gauls made hives out of bark and, in fact, the French word for beehive, ruche comes from the Medieval Latin word for bark, rusca.
In the Middle Ages, there were beehives in all the monasteries and honey was, until the appearance of cane sugar in Europe, the only sweetener available.
Since ancient times, honey has been very present in cooking and eating habits. It is found in many of the recipes in the Apicius, and in all sweet and sour dishes of Arab-Persian, Andalusian and medieval cuisine. It was not until the 17th century that it started to be used more for desserts and confectionery.
Meanwhile, the life of bees has always attracted serious study and beekeeping has been increasingly modernized over the years.
The honey bee was introduced to America by European settlers in the 17th century, but Native Americans had long since been raising stingless bees and harvesting their honey. These same bees also live in Central Africa and South Asia.
Now, in the 21st century, bees are in decline all over the world, having fallen victim to certain pesticides, including the dreaded Cruiser, which beekeepers have been calling to be banned, in vain.
In Europe, honey must be marked with a BBD (best before date), which is set by the producer according to:
- moisture content: 17.1–20% maximum to prevent the proliferation of naturally present yeast, which would ferment in the presence of more moisture. 18% honey is best, and is the rate required for AOC status.
- HMF (Hydroxymethylfurfural) content: a natural product of the dehydration of sugars during aging and/or heating of the honey. This is what gives honey its caramel flavor. The guideline is 40 mg per kg. The 10–15 mg level usually found in European honey is a sign of quality.
Honey is composed of three carbohydrates (sugars): firstly sucrose (in very small quantities), then glucose and fructose, which are produced when the sucrose breaks down. The higher the glucose content, the more rapidly the honey crystallizes. However, this crystallization does not affect its quality: the liquid (its natural state) honey becomes creamy.
The darker the honey, the stronger the flavor. For example, chestnut honey is very dark, full-bodied and a little bitter. Cream-colored lavender honey is very delicate, while rapeseed honey is very light and smells slightly of cabbage. Sunflower honey is golden, as is bramble (blackberry) honey, which is very rare and particularly fragrant.
Honey is sold in jars and in cardboard or plastic pots.
It is also used to make candy. It can be used as a basis for various vinegars and alcoholic beverages, such as hydromel in France, hyppocras in Italy, mjod in Denmark and midus in Lithuania.
In addition, flower pollen (stored in the cells of the hive) and royal jelly (food of the queen bee) are also sold.
Honey can be stored in its jar or pot, which must be kept sealed, at room temperature, and preferably in the dark.
Honey contains on average 80% carbohydrates, trace amounts of vitamins, very little protein and few minerals.
It has more sweetening power than sugar.
Empirical tests have shown honey to have great antibacterial powers, which is why it is often used to treat throat, bronchi, and gastrointestinal infections.
However, it may contain minute quantities of botulinum spores (transported by the bees). These spores are safe for adults but it is not recommended to give honey to children under 1.
Bees go from flower to flower, collecting nectar, the sweetish substance found on their petioles, which they store in their honey stomachs, which are capable of holding up to 40 mg of nectar.
They return to the hive but already, during their journey, honey starts to develop because the bees have an enzyme capable of converting the sucrose of the honeydew into glucose and fructose.
When they get to the hive, they regurgitate their crop into the honey stomachs of other bees, the packer bees, who will then deposit it in the cells of the hive, where yet another set of bees, the fanning bees, partly dry it.
The beekeeper removes the honeycombs and honey is then extracted by heating it.
It is then centrifuged, filtered, and purified. Sometimes it is pasteurized. It is then put into jars or pots.
The taste, flavor, color, and consistency of honey depend on the varieties of flowers visited by the bees. Producers often keep bees in a controlled area containing certain crops (as for wines) in order to create certain types of honey and to ensure consistent quality.
Hundreds of varieties of honey exist throughout the world, depending on the different types of flowers available in a particular place.
The main types in France are:
- Multi-flower honey: the standard and most widely used honey. The bees foraged for nectar wherever they wanted, according to their whim, from flowers and plants.
- Mountain honey or plain honey: the producer's hives are located in a mountain or on a plain.
- Lavender honey, acacia honey, sainfoin honey, etc. : the name of the flower means that the hives are located in an area filled with these flowers, which were therefore the main source of nectar for the bees.
- Honey of Alsace, Provence, etc. : when the product is regional, the flowers that produced the nectar are not named.
Honey from Corsica (miel de Corse) and honey made from pine trees in the Vosges (sapin de Vosges) are protected by the AOC (controlled designation of origin) label. Those from Alsace and Provence have PGI (protected geographical indication) status.
In the rest of Europe, it is the same. In Spain, the honeys from Granada, Galicia, and La Alcarria (PDO - Protected Designation of Origin) are popular, as is the della Lunigiana in Italy. In Portugal, nine honeys are protected by a PDO. The Greek Menalou Vanilia pine honey is also protected.
Hungary produces a lot of acacia honey, as does Romania, which also produces lime blossom, mint, and sunflower honey; Canada makes white clover and blueberry honey, while the Reunion Island produces lychee honey and Australia makes honey from eucalyptus nectar.
In the United States, honey is classified according to its color (seven categories): water white, extra white, white, extra light amber, light amber, amber, and dark amber. The flower that produced the nectar is not necessarily specified. The most common varieties mainly come from alfalfa and clover, but nectar is also taken from sage, the orange tree, eucalyptus, and cranberry.
Honey is available all year round throughout the world.