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Honey History

Honey is as old as history is itself. One of the earliest evidence of honey harvesting is on a rock painting dating back 8000 years, this one found in Valencia, Spain shows a honey seeker robbing a wild bee colony. The bees were subdued with smoke and the tree or rocks opened resulting in destruction of the colony.

It is difficult to appreciate in today's world of convenience, high tech wizardry, junk food and sugar substitutes, the value of honey. Humans have eaten it, bathed in it, fixed their wounds with it and traded with it since history was recorded. Archaeologists discovered honey comb in Egypt that had been buried with the pharaohs in their tombs, the honey was preserved and was still eatable.

In the old testament, the land of Israel was often referred to as the "land flowing of milk and honey". God nourished Jacob with honey from the rock, and gave Israel fine flour, olive oil and honey. John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey. Honey is mention in the scrolls of the Orient, the Talmud and Koran.

The Romans used honey to heal their wounds after battles. Hannibal, a great warrior gave his army honey and vinegar as they crossed the alps on elephants to battle Rome. During the 10 century, the Kings and Queens of England had fermented honey wine (Mead), the Edmeades family produced some of these.

Honey has been used for many thousands of years, in fact most mans history has references to it. Not surprising though, it is an organic natural sugar, has no additives, easy on the stomach, if stored correctly will have an almost indefinite shelf life and easily adapted to cooking processes.

Early Honey History

Honey is as old as history is itself. One of the earliest evidence of honey harvesting is on a rock painting dating back 8000 years, this one found in Valencia, Spain shows a honey seeker robbing a wild bee colony. The bees were subdued with smoke and the tree or rocks opened resulting in destruction of the colony.

It is difficult to appreciate in today's world of convenience, high tech wizardry, junk food and sugar substitutes, the value of honey. Humans have eaten it, bathed in it, fixed their wounds with it and traded with it since history was recorded. Archaeologists discovered honey comb in Egypt that had been buried with the pharaohs in their tombs, the honey was preserved and was still eatable.

In the old testament, the land of Israel was often referred to as the "land flowing of milk and honey". God nourished Jacob with honey from the rock, and gave Israel fine flour, olive oil and honey. John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey. Honey is mention in the scrolls of the Orient, the Talmud and Koran.

The Romans used honey to heal their wounds after battles. Hannibal, a great warrior gave his army honey and vinegar as they crossed the alps on elephants to battle Rome. During the 10 century, the Kings and Queens of England had fermented honey wine (Mead), the Edmeades family produced some of these.

Honey has been used for many thousands of years, in fact most mans history has references to it. Not surprising though, it is an organic natural sugar, has no additives, easy on the stomach, if stored correctly will have an almost indefinite shelf life and easily adapted to cooking processes.


 Background to Bees

Mans love affair with sweet substances goes back to the time when he was a hunter gatherer. His need for carbohydrate and fat were crucial to survival and were difficult to find. Our old need for calories meant we have a tongue that has many sugar receptors enabling us to recognise even weak sources of sugar. Honey to early man was a miracle, a substance that was intensely sweet, immune from spoilage and the level of sugar prevents micro organisms from existing. The evolution of man to present day meant our love affair with honey has continued and we have 'domesticated' the bee to suit our needs.

It is not entirely clear but about 4000 BC, the Egyptians started keeping bees in a cylinder of unbaked hardened mud pots, stacking them in rows to form a bank. Some beekeepers in Egypt moved their hives on rafts down the Nile, following the blossoms. The Greeks modified the Egyptian design baking the mud into a sturdier terra cotta. (1450BC). They called the honey "nectar from the gods".
Another design using hollow logs hung from trees and is still used in Africa today. Others include woven cylinders, skeps and rectangular boxes made from wood. The theme is all the same, a long low cavity with a small entrance hole at one end and a door at the other. It was in Europe where apiculture made its greatest advances in development and bee biology. In 1851, Rev. Langstroth from Philadelphia designed the Langstroth movable bee frame.

The ability of the honey bee to survive has been remarkable, it has been able to adapt to the harsh environments of the world living in regions where man lives, from the equator to beyond the arctic circle. Most of the domestic honey bees have descended from a small number of queens from their original countries - that is Europe and Africa and in these regions the honey bee has survived through natural selection processes.
If honey bees were to disappear from planet Earth, man would have just 4 years until serious food shortages would result. The pollination services that bees provide are numerous, think about the fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables and legumes we eat. Most of these are pollinated by the bee.

Race and species of Bee

The term 'race' in bees defines the geographical location (unlike animals) of their originating homeland and defines their traits. Apis Mellifera is the dominant species in most western countries including Australia and the popular races used in apiculture are Italian, Caucasian and Carniolan. Other bee species include Apis Dorsata, Apis Cerana, Apis Florea.

  • Italian Bee - Apis Mellifera var. Ligustica Spinola
    Originally from the Apennine Peninsula in Italy, the true Italian breed is the Ligustica. There are 3 yellow bands on the abdomen of the Ligustica and 4 or 5 bands on the Italian. These bees are usually gentle to manage, over winter well and build up quickly in spring. Their proficient breeding ability during periods of little or no honey flow often results in depletion of their honey stores and as a result they have a tendency toward swarming. Italians have the bad habit of robbing, selecting weak colonies or honey sheds but are a popular breed amongst beekeepers.

  • Caucasian Bee - Apis Mellifera var. Caucasica Gorbatschev
    Originating from Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas of Russia, these larger grey coloured bees are gentle to handle and very hard working. They are tolerant to a harsh winter environment, building up slowly during the spring and having a low inclination toward swarming. Caucasian bees are susceptible to diseases such as Nosema and produce more propolis than any other race.

  • Carniolan Bee - Apis Mellifera var. Carnica Pollmann
    The Carniolan bees originate from the Austrian Alps, northern Yugoslavia and Danube valley. They are grey or dark in colour, very gentle to handle, over winter well conserving their winter stores and breeding prolifically during spring. The Carniolan has a slightly smaller body than the other races of bees. It has a high tendency toward swarming.
  • German Black Bee - Apis Mellifera var. Mellifera L.
    This was the original bee bought by settlers to most western countries. They are large and dark coloured and over winter well. German bees are nervous on the comb and aggressive to interference. They are slow to build up numbers during the spring and less prolific than other races.

Bee Development

The time it takes honey bees to be born

It takes 21 days from the time when the queen lays the egg until a worker bee is born. Three days from laying the the egg hatches into a larvae and is feed royal jelly produced from the glands in the adult bees head. Two days later the bees stop feeding royal jelly to the young worker or drone larvae and change the diet to brood food. This consists of diluted honey or nectar and pollen. Young chosen queen larvae will continue with their diet of royal jelly until they born.
As the larva moves to the pupa stage, a brown wax cap is placed on the cell and metamorphous takes place, the same process that transforms a caterpillar into a butterfly. The larva will spin a cocoon around itself and has properties similar to silk. Listen to the audio. At the end of the period, the bee emerges by chewing through the brown wax cap unaided.

The Worker Honey Bee (Apis Mellifera)

The hard working honey bee collects food from flowers

A worker bee on a flower

This photo shows a worker honey bee (Apis Mellifera) collecting nectar from a lavender flower. Photo taken by Simon Davies.

The honey bee is a social insect, meaning she lives together in a colony amongst others that are the same. Her main job is to keep the beehive running by the many jobs she will perform in the six weeks of her busy life. They start life as a nurse bee nurturing brood (unborn bees, drones and queens). Other tasks include guarding the entrance of the colony, building honeycomb, ripening nectar to honey, packing pollen, cleaning the hive and carrying out the dead. The last one is the most dangerous - to forage for nectar, pollen, water and propolis. During this time she could be eaten by a bird, spider or killed in their line of duty. Their driving emphasis is to sustain the colony. She also controls the many actions of the colony, for example swarming.


The Queen Bee

The queen has a long tapered abdomen and is developed this way so she can serve her purpose through out her 2 or 3 year life span. Her job is to lay eggs and will lay up to 600,000 eggs during this time. She is the only female in the colony that is able to produce female or male bees.

From the beginning of her life as a larvae she was feed large amounts of royal jelly for an extended period of time. She develops in her special cell that hangs downwards and is larger than the other types.

A week or two after emerging from her cell and on a sunny warm day she will leave the hive and mate with 12 to 15 drones. She will store all of the collected semen in her abdomen for the duration of her life as mating only occurs once. If she runs out of semen she will lay unfertilised eggs which will hatch to become drones (male).

The name originated from Elizabeth I of England as the Virgin Queen, but she as no control over her hive, her sole job is to maintain the population of the colony by laying eggs. A good queen can lay up to 2000 eggs a day laying her body weight every few hours. Surrounded by young worker bee attendants who provide her every need, giving food and removing waste, they lick her body to obtain pheromones that prevents them from raising another one. As she ages her pheromone level reduces, this causes the worker bee to replace her.

The social structure is so complex and fixed, the colony could be thought of as a single organism. The pheromone that the queen releases controls the reproduction of the organism and this takes place through swarming. Swarming occurs in spring and early summer.

The Drone Bee

The Drone is a sting less male bee, shorter than the queen but larger than the worker bee. Drones are easily recognisable with their fat stumpy bodies and big eyes, one is shown in the middle of the photo.

Drones are unable to collect food and the bees feed them as their mouth pieces are undeveloped. They are sexually mature when they are 12-14 days old, their sole job is to mate with a queen thereby keeping the species going. They mate in drone congregation areas and die immediately after.

The Drone Bee is fat and stubby

During autumn the worker bees drive the drones out to die as they are a burden during the winter months to feed when food is in short supply. Their wings and legs maybe torn off or sometimes they are stung by the workers.

The colony will again start rearing drones in the spring to coincide with swarming when a virgin queen will need to mate. Although the drone is highly specialised to one function, if they are removed from the colony during brood raising periods, these colonies will not do as well as those with a nature proportion of drones. There can be a few thousand drones per hive and their life duration is about 3 months.

The life cycle of the honey bee colony

The bees keep themselves warm during winter by shivering - Part 1 of 3


During the coldest parts of winter, thousands of bees form a tight cluster around the queen and their winter store. The queen is kept warm by the bees as they consume up to 25kg of honey during this period. By shivering their wing muscles they generate heat that maintains the centre of the cluster at 25°C. On warmer winter days, bees positioned on the outside of the cluster push their way toward the centre, the central bees are moved outward thereby rotating its members. If the cold days last too long, the outside layer of bees die giving a slow attrition that will continue until spring.

As the days get longer, the bees begin feeding the queen royal jelly stimulating her to lay eggs, slowly at first but gathering speed in spring. The queen lays in cells central to the cluster and the bees increase the temperature to 36°C, which is optimum for raising brood. The first bees reared are workers but as spring gathers pace, the colony starts raising drones. As the honey comb structure (cells) are build by workers, they control the number of drone cells and where they are built.

Throughout Spring the bees prepare to divide by swarming - Part 2 of 3

During spring the number of occupants in the colony has doubled with a population around 40,000 to 50,000. The colony can be so over crowded the bees prepare to swarm. The workers start constructing queen cells by feeding selected larvae large quantities of royal jelly. A few days before the new queens hatch, the bees stop feeding the old queen royal jelly, this causes her to loose weight giving her the the ability to fly again. The last time she flew might have been on her mating flights. See swarming.

Half of the bees (usually the older flying bees) and the original queen leave the hive in a rush and settle onto a nearby tree. Scouts bees spend time locating a new cavity and when consensus is reach the bees take flight and move into their new home. Back in the old hive, the first queen to hatch kills the unborn queens unless the bees prevent her from doing so. If prevented, another (secondary) swarm will leave the colony. These are smaller than the primary swarm and contain an unmated virgin queen.
When the new queen is mated she resume as head of the colony, her first job is to repopulate the colony with workers and a few drones. With the end of the swarming season, the bees settle down and forage to restock their honeycomb with honey and pollen.


Preparation is made by the colony so it can survive the winter - Part 3 of 3

Toward the end of honey collecting period the population of colony is at a maximum. As the supply of nectar diminishes, the queen slows down her frantic pace of laying, the net effect is a reduced population. The bees maintain the population of drones as other colonies virgin queens may need them to mate. (Their queen may have run out of sperm or become too old). In late autumn the bees start killing the drones as they are a burden the food resources of the colony in the winter months. The activity of the colony dwindles and the royal jelly food source that was feed continuously to the queen during spring and summer is changed to a honey diet.

The change in diet causes her to stop laying and brood rearing finishes for another year. The number of occupants in the colony reduces to a minimal level giving the highest chances of surviving the cold winter months. Less bees mean that their precious stored food supply will last longer. If the colony is too weak though, they struggle to generate the heat needed to keep themselves warm often freezing to death over winter. It is very important that the bees accurately judge the right population for the winter period.

So the colony life cycle starts again. Further information on the honey bee development cycle.

Collecting Food

Through out the year, honey bees will leave the beehive in search of food. Two types of food are needed, pollen (provides protein) and nectar (carbohydrate - energy). A newly discovered food source by a scout bee communicates the location by perform a dance in front of other workers in order to recruit them to forge the same nectar source. The dance is known as the round or waggle tail dance. Learning the location, foragers arrive at the floral source, suck up the nectar from the flower and store it inside their stomach or honey sac which is the size of the head of a needle. Foragers also collect pollen that rub off on the hairs of their body and use their front legs to place it on a flat part the hind legs, their leg hairs hold it in place. While the nectar is inside the honey sac the bee adds enzymes from its salivary glands, this helps in the conversion from nectar to honey.

With a full load the bee returns home and is checked by the guard bees at the entrance. The worker regurgitates the nectar and gives it to the waiting bees and returns to the nectar source to gather another load, only to repeat the process again and again. The waiting bees that received the nectar add further enzymes and places it in a cell. Bees fan to circulate air in the hive and the draft created causes the excess moisture from the nectar to be evaporated off. When the water content has been reduced to 20% or less, the bees cap off the contents in the cell with a wax cap. It is at this point the terminology changes from nectar to honey.

Flowes contain nectar useful to the honey bee

Bees fanning at their entrance

Capped and uncapped honeycomb

The Bee Dance

There are 2 types of dances, the 'round' and more commonly known 'waggle tail' dance.

The round dance is performed by the scouts when the food source is within a couple of hundred metres of the hive. The bee runs one way in the circle, stops and then runs the other way. During the dance the scout passes a sample of the nectar to the other workers so they know the taste and smell of the source.

The waggle dance is for food sources greater than a couple of hundred metres. The scout waggles her body from side to side running in a semicircle restarting her dance where she began from. The angle on the honey comb relates to the direction from the hive and sun that the bees should fly.

Beeswax

Honey bees live together in a colony, their structure is made entirely of beeswax. It is secreted by young bees between 12 and 18 days old and produced from the glands on their abdomen. A large amount of honey is consumed by the bees to produce beeswax, around 6kg to make 1kg. They remove the flakes of wax from their abdomen, chewing it until it is soft and then moulding it into a six sided hexagonal cells or honeycomb.

Beeswax is recovered from harvested honey by firstly removing the excess honey from it (cappings spinner) and then melting it down (Solar wax melter) but further refining is needed to produce a clean product. Melting at 65°C, it solidifies at 63°C, floats on water and is brittle at cold temperatures. Man has used it for many purposes, these are for the cosmetic industry - creams, lotions, lip balms. Candles, furniture polish, waterproofing and adhesives are other examples. The beekeeping industry is the 3rd largest user of beeswax, that is to make comb foundation.

Honeycomb build from beeswax

Beeswax cappings

Swarming

Swarming is nature’s way of increasing the number of honey bee colonies not the individual bee. Bees swarm when there is an abundance of food coming in, the hive is full of brood and honey bees. The result is two colonies, each with about half the original number of bees relieving the congestion within the original colony. The new colony is headed by the old queen who leaves with the swarm, but the old hive is not without a queen, she will hatch from her cell, mate and resuming responsibility as head of the old colony. If the remaining bees think that there is still congestion after the primary swarm has left, a second or third swarm may be issued, this time a virgin queen will go out with the bees. These swarms are known as after swarms and are smaller than the primary swarm. The swarming period is during the spring and early summer.

As the swarm leaves the hive, they fly in large seemingly unorganised circles until they settle onto one spot. Scout bees fly out to look for a new suitable nesting place. The settled swarm can move location until this happens, a few metres to 500 and might occur every half hour or several days, especially on hot days. They nest in peoples house, trees,  rock crevasse or any other place that might make a good home.

Swarms are frightening to people but generally the bees are not aggressive as they have no home to protect. Beekeepers are alerted to swarms and ask to remove them and the bees generally accept their new home they are desperately looking for. Good beekeeping reduces the effect of unwanted swarming amongst the beehives as they are a nuisance and affect the original colonies honey gathering capacity for the season. An old English ditty says:
A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay; A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon; A swarm of bees in July isn't worth a fly.

Mating

The purpose of a queen to maintain the viability of the colony. She will lay up to 2000 eggs per day, out of these are a mixture of fertilised and unfertilised eggs. The fertilised eggs become honey bees, unfertilised eggs become drones. The longer term success of the colony depends on many factors, but the important one was the success of her mating.

A virgin queen emerges from her cell 15 days after the egg was laid. During her second week of life she will mate with up 15 drones while in flight. The drone dies immediately after mating occurs. The queen will store the semen from the drones and will not mate again for the rest of her life even if she runs out of sperm. If she runs out, she will lay drones.

If the queen is unable to mate over a period of time because of bad weather or it is too cold, she will lay drones for the rest of the colonies life. For without honey bees the colony is unable to maintain itself, the bee population declines and eventually the colony dies out.

Mating

This image shows a drone mating with a queen.
Copyright WGBH Educational Foundation

Honey bees play such an important role in the world around us. It is said that 1 in every 3 mouthfuls of food we eat are the result of free pollination service these insects provide.

Heathmont Honey is a family beekeeping business located in Victoria, Australia. We specialise in regional bush varieties of honey, bee products including skin care and beeswax candles and beekeeping information.

We aim to bring to you honey that is completely natural just as nature intended. Our bees are maintained in good order resulting in honey that is chemical free and wholesome. With minimal and hygienic processing, we harvest straight from our beehives, 'spinning' the honey out from recyclable frames, filtering and packing it. Heathmont Honey prides itself on pure honey as nature intended.

Tantalise your taste buds and try our gourmet products.








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