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Honey, Honey…

By JR, September 8, 2013

…doo doo doo doo doo doo. Ah sugar, sugar.

Honey is a wonderful thing, truly. All the way down to it’s molecular level it is blooming marvellous. So much so that I think it is worth a whole mini-post, dedicated to it’s honour.

I was reading yesterday about how sealed jars of honey had been found in ancient Egyptian tombs (along with a bunch of other cool shit), and it was still unspoiled and edible. I got a little awe-struck and it sent me down the rabbit hole (Into the bee-hive? Too much?). I’ll start with the basics – and try not to bore you. Honey is a sugar, and that means it is hygroscopic – this means it contains very, very little water. This is part of the reason why it has such a long shelf life, much like other sugars, such as molasses or golden syrup or treacle. But more on that in a little while.

Now, while it’s obvious that it is made by bees it might not be obvious exactly how it’s made? Bees fly around all cute, flop around some flowers for a while, collect a bunch of nectar. They then enjoy the fruits of their labour, it is then regurgitated and ingested again, digesting it partially with invertase, an enzyme synthesised in insects’ stomachs. It’s yacked up and swallowed again and again until the quality is to the bees liking and stored in the honeycomb cells, what a connoisseur eh? Hey, it might not be glamorous or elegant, but it works.

honey bees

There is, however, a certain, special quality given to honey that makes it truly incredible though, something that other sugars don’t have. It’s kind of obvious by process of elimination what it is. I’ll give you a clue, it’s yellow and black and rhymes with ‘tease’. When it’s created, it is partially evaporated by the bees, which prevents any kind of fermentation. Because of the extremely low levels of moisture, bacteria are essentially suffocated by the lack of ‘food’, making it incredibly difficult for them to survive long enough for the honey to spoil. Another important factor in it’s longevity is the pH level of honey, it is surprisingly low, ranging from around 3-4.5. It’s really quite acidic, which also helps to kill off unsuspecting bacterium that are ready to get all up in the molecules’ grill and spoil the party.

See now, here’s the thing, molasses is hygroscopic, it’s a sugar too, it contains very little water, and is around the same pH, so why does it differ from honey exactly? Again, we go to our busy friends for the answer. It lies in the little dudes’ (well, dudettes’) stomachs. There is something called glucose oxidase that is contained within a bee’s stomach. The reason it’s so important in the honey-making process is because, when the substance that will be honey is regurgitated, this enzyme mixes with the nectar and breaks it down into two key things: gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide (it’s not just for hair dye and tooth whitening!). Don’t worry, there won’t be a test – I don’t expect you to remember every name and detail, it’s just good to be thorough.¬†Hydrogen peroxide is yet another bacteria murderer and steriliser, it helps to stop the spread and thus, again, extending the life of honey. I’m beginning to feel a bit sorry for these little dudes, never stood a chance against this heavyweight.

honeycomb cells

Anyway, because of all these amazing properties it has been used for millennia in medicines and all sorts. It has been traced back to Sumerian clay tablets, stating that honey was used in 30% of all prescriptions – particularly in the treatment of wounds and burns. It’s simple, it’s very difficult for bacteria to grow in honey’s molecular conditions, and it’s really viscous, so if you slather a bunch of it on a fat cut, it will help to suffocate the bacteria that’s lingering on the surface of the wound, and it will stick there pretty well. Not only this, but when it isn’t under air-tight conditions, it will actively draw in moisture from it’s surroundings, so if there is any moisture in a burn, it will slowly ‘eat’ it and thus, pass on it’s bacteria-suffocating properties to the injury, helping to disinfect it. Nature’s bandage.

It might be old, but don’t think that these properties have gone unnoticed in modern science, it’s still widely used across the world, and there is actually a medical company that sells bandages covered in honey (MEDIHONEY – if you wanted to look it up). Don’t get me wrong, it is used in conjunction with other medications to ensure complete bactericide, but it is still used a lot, and is incredibly useful if you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere.

So there you have it, you can make like the ancient Egyptians, seal it up as air tight as you can and you can have something that will keep for your entire lifetime (and 3000 years after…apparently).

What do you think?

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