There are countless complicated honey-based desserts, ranging from bienenstich (a yeasty German cake filled with custard or cream) to kanafeh (a Levantine concoction of soft white cheese and dough) to medovik (an eight-layer Russian torte.) But there isn’t a pastry chef anywhere who labors over his or her creations with the tenacity and tirelessness of a honeybee.
According to the International Bee Research Association, a bee has to make 10 million foraging trips to produce a single pound of honey. But honey production is far from a solo endeavor: Between 20,000 and 40,000 worker bees collect nectar, and then spew the holdings of their “honey stomachs” upon return to their shared hive.
The bees alternately digest and regurgitate the nectar until it achieves honey status. The sweet stuff is stored in honeycomb cells, which the bees fan dry by flapping their wings.
Bees eat honey, and people long ago started doing the same. Here, seven honey facts worth knowing if you plan to follow suit:
1. Worker bees only live for a few months at most, so they don’t have to worry too much about the shelf life of honey. But honey has a remarkable propensity to never go bad: If you came across a honey urn stashed during the reign of Charlemagne, you could probably spread its contents on your toast. According to Smithsonian Magazine, honey doesn’t spoil because it’s low in moisture, high in acid and infiltrated with hydrogen peroxide, a natural byproduct of the honey-making process. Still, even honey can’t stand up to moisture, so if you want honey to last — especially in a humid climate — keep it in a tightly sealed jar.
2. Honey is frequently promoted as a natural cure for allergies, but there’s no scientific evidence suggesting it’s an effective treatment. That’s because the pollen transformed by honeybees generally doesn’t overlap with the windborne pollens responsible for most allergy symptoms. Additionally, stomach acids would break down any immunizing allergens found in honey, allergist Corrina Bowser told WebMD. But a 2007 study showed honey consumption can help suppress nighttime coughs.
3. The National Honey Board promotes honey as “Nature’s Energy Food,” pointing to the 17 grams of carbohydrates in every teaspoon. Its website suggests athletes should eat honey before exercising, drink honeyed water during exercise and eat a post-workout peanut butter-and-honey sandwich. But nutritionists warn that honey shouldn’t be considered a “safe sugar,” especially by eaters coping with diabetes: Honey is more caloric than white or brown sugar.
4. Honeybees can suck nectar from a vast range of blossoms, but clover honey is the most common honey in the U.S. Sweet clover has become the flower of choice because the plant can withstand cold and drought, it reseeds itself and boasts a flavor that drives bees wild. Additionally, as reported by Slate earlier this year, American consumers have become accustomed to the light, mild honey it produces. “(It’s) relatively pedestrian in contrast to the darker, more robust honeys such as gallberry, Chinese tallow or spotted knapweed.”
5. Religious texts are rife with honey references: The Prophet Muhammad endorsed honey as a curative, and Buddha considered honey one of five essential medicines. (Immediately after his enlightenment, Buddha ate barley gruel and honey balls.) While the best-known Biblical mention of honey is the “land flowing with milk and honey” cited in Exodus, the latter part of the phrase is better translated as date extract.
6. Prior to the invention of movable frames, beekeepers couldn’t harvest honey without killing off the colony that created it. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, a Congregational minister who became an amateur apiarist in hopes of warding off further bouts of crippling depression, came up with the contraption in the early 1850s. Although Langstroth didn’t make any money off his hives, they revolutionized an industry responsible for the nation’s dominant sweetener.
7. “No question causes more hate, heartache and pain as ‘Is honey vegan?,’ ” a post on the website veganmeat.com laments. The writer advocates a “relaxed” interpretation of the ban on animal products, concluding that bees are only “inconvenienced” by producing honey for human consumption. But strict veganism holds that beekeeping is exploitative and harmful to animals.