Honey is probably the most obvious product of beekeeping. The bees make it by collecting nectar from flowering plants, which they treat with enzymes to change the sugar content, and then fan with their wings to evapororate the water in the nectar until it is at around 15-18% water content. At this low level of water content, the honey will keep for a very long period of time, as any yeasts that come into contact with it will not be able to cause fermentation, and any bacteria that comes into contact with it will die. Once the honey is at the right water content, the bees seal it into beeswax cells so that it cannot absorb any water.
The types of plant that the bees collect nectar from have an effect on the flavour. In Derbyshire we do not have any large enough areas of single crops to produce single-plant honey from farmed plants. What we do have is large areas of heather moorland, so typically in Derbyshire you’ll be able to buy local honey that comes from a mix of flowering plants, or our speciality heather honey which has a unique taste and texture.
As well as the processed nectar, honey also contains several other things in trace amounts. These include tiny flakes of beeswax, pollen from the plants where the bees collected the nectar, and enzymes that the bees use to help with the conversion of sugars and preservation of the honey. Many people think that the pollen in locally produced honey can help you build up a resistance to local pollens, and hence help hayfever sufferers. The enzymes in the honey are believed to help with digestion, and their antibacterial properties are now being exploited in experiments to use honey as a wound dressing. Any flakes of beeswax in raw honey are quite edible, in fact some people like to buy their honey still in the wax honeycomb, and spead the wax and honey together on their toast.
Honey from small scale local beekeepers is processed quite gently, often just being cold filtered before bottling. Occaisionally, especially with honey from oilseed rape which granulates very quickly, honey will be warmed slightly in order to enable it to pass through the filter. As beekeepers we know that warming the honey too much can damage some of it’s good properties, so we try to do this as little as we can and with the minimum heat required.
All honey granulates eventually, as crystals of sugar begin to form and grow in the honey over time. Different nectars from different flowers produce honey that is either slower or faster to granulate. Slow granulating honey is sold as a liquid, and fast granulating honey is sold as set honey – that is the difference between the types of honey you’ll see in the shops. If you have bought some liquid honey that has granulated, you can return it to a liquid form by standing the jar in hand-hot warm water for a few hours.
Beeswax is the substance from which the bees build their nest. Worker bees exude the wax from glands along their abdomen, then collect it and use it to form comb – sheets of hexagonal shaped cells in which they rear brood, and store honey and pollen.
To keeps the colony healthy, beekeepers regularly remove older wax from the nest and encourage the bees to build new wax comb, so the wax that has been removed can be processed for sale. When honey is extracted, the cappings that the bees put on the honey cells are cut off, and these can also be processed for sale.
Wax that has been used for rearing brood is typically quite dirty and contaminated, so it is usually thrown away. Wax that has been used for storing honey is generally quite clean though, so this is melted down, filtered and is then ready for sale.
Beeswax can be used for several types of polishes, for making cosmetics and for making candles. It has a honey-like aroma, and is non-toxic.
Bees collect pollen from the flowers that they visit to use as a source of protein for rearing their brood. The pollen sticks to the bee’s body as they forage for nectar, and they periodically stop to clean the pollen from their body onto a single hair on their rear legs. You may sometimes see bees flying with large loads of pollen attached to their legs on the way back to the hive. Because different types of flowers have different colours of pollen, it is often possible to tell what kind of flowers a bee has been visiting by the colour of pollen she is carrying.
Pollen can be collected from bees by use of a pollen trap, a device with small combs that is fitted to the entrance of the hive. As the bees crawl over the trap, some of the pollen that they have collected is knocked off into a collector.
Pollen is a good source of protein, and is often eaten as a health supplement, for example as an addition to breakfast cereals.
Propolis, sometimes called bee glue is a sticky resinous substance that the bees collect from tree buds. The bees use it to seal up gaps in the hive in order to improve the strength and stability of the hive and to make sure that there are no alternative entrances that interlopers like wasps and other bees can use to sneak in and rob honey.
Propolis is collected by laying a mesh mat over the top of the hive, which the bees will then cover in propolis. The mat is then removed and frozen for a short period of time. When the propolis on the mat becomes cold, it is brittle enough to break and fall off the mat when it is flexed.
Propolis has antibiotic and antifungal properies, and for this reason is often sold as a traditional medicine. Tincture of propolis is thought to help with skin burns, sore throats, and other wounds.