Honey: how it happens
We Brits get through 25,000 tonnes of sweet sticky honey each year, but how does it get from the bee to the shopping basket?
Aaaah, the relaxing buzz of bees bustling from flower to flower. It's the perfect soundtrack to a dozy summer's afternoon. But funnily enough, the story of honey really starts with winter. It's these cold months, when bees huddle together for warmth in the safety of their hives, that hold the key to this golden ingredient.
Building winter stores
You'd be forgiven for thinking that bees hibernate – sleep off the long winter and wake in spring – but in fact they are awake and in need of nutrition at a time when there's very little pollen or nectar to be found. The answer? Honey! With up to 25,000 worker bees to feed through winter, each colony spends the spring and summer laying down stores for the lean months ahead. This is where the magic *really* happen as the foraging bees collect and transfer pollen between flowering plants. Nectar is their payment for this crucial 'pollination', which allows plants to bear fruit, and us to benefit from their bounty!
Filling the combs
Beekeeping is all about careful management, gently increasing the space in which bees can build and fill wax honeycombs with nectar. Queen bees might have other ideas, using any empty space to lay more eggs and increase her 'brood' of baby bees. So, the clever beekeeper uses a 'queen excluder' to make sure the extra space is reserved for honey. Bees are the only insect to make more food than they need, so their hives stack up with excess compartments of sweet honey (each neatly sealed with wax by the efficient workers) as spring and summer passes.
Using smoke to preoccupy the busy bees or a board to keep them in their upper boxes, the beekeeper carefully removes the frames that hold the wax-capped cells of honey. The frames, each weighing up to five pounds, the wax comb is gently unsealed with a capping fork and loaded into an extractor. Think of it like a salad spinner: the liquid honey is drawn out of the comb and pours from a tap at the bottom of the extractor. A golden moment!
Sieves filter out wax particles, but some beekeepers also choose to heat the honey to reduce the crystallisation process and make extraction from the combs a little more efficient. Some argue that heating honey damages the natural nutrients which bees impart, so 'cold extraction' or 'cold-filtered' honeys may claim greater health benefits over the crystal clear 'runny honey' which is more easily achieved with the help of high temperatures. Whichever you prefer, remember you’re taking home the result of a unique collaboration between humans, flowers and thousands of tiny, industrious foragers.