Honey has an origin story that predates written history. In fact, it’s estimated that honey bees predate human existence by millions of years. So how did people come to enjoy the golden deliciousness that is honey? No one knows. What we do know is that humans have been enjoying honey for thousands of years and for good reason. It is not only one of the best natural sweeteners, but it also offers many health benefits. There is a lot of information to cover, so let’s start with an overview throughout history, then we’ll go over how its made, the health benefits, and finally, I’ll give you one of my favorite honey-glazed carrot recipes.
Honey Throughout History
As I mentioned, this nectar predates human history, so there is no way to say exactly how the human race first learned about honey, but it is safe to say that it was a lesson that had a huge impact.
The earliest known record of people collecting honey can be seen in 10,000-year-old stone drawings found in Spain and India. The crude drawings portray people going to some extreme lengths to retrieve it from hives on cliff sides and in tall trees. Now, honey is delicious, but most of us wouldn’t risk facing down a swarm of angry bees with little to no protection, so why did they do it? Well, the reasoning goes a bit beyond having a sweet tooth, it most likely came from a deep-seated belief that it contained healing properties.
It is mentioned in every ancient religious text throughout many cultures across the globe. These mentions range from poetic references to straightforward statements about eating honey because it’s good for you. Some ancient cultures held bees in such high regard that they included them in their creation stories. Since so many ancient cultures viewed bees as sacred creatures and honey as a magical substance, it is no surprise that they would go to such lengths to obtain it.
Modern Bee Business
Historical records indicate that people have been keeping bees for thousands of years, but modern beekeeping has a relatively short history. Ancient “beekeepers” weren’t beekeepers as much as beehive collectors or foragers. They would find and collect wild beehives to obtain the honey. Approximately 2,000 years ago, people began using artificial hives, or skeps, to bring the beehives closer to home. Do you know those cone-shaped hives with the little hole at the bottom that you see in beehive illustrations? That is a skep. They were made from clay or woven grass. Although these created the perfect environment for hive building, they were not so great for harvesting. In order to get honey from a skep usually entails destroying the entire hive, bees included, which is why they are no longer in common use.
The unnecessary destruction of the bees led to the development of modern beehives. Although the idea of building a box hive started in the early 18th century, it wasn’t until the 1850s that the modern hive was designed. Pennsylvania minister and bee enthusiast, Lorenzo Langstroth, wanted to create a bee-friendly hive, so he invented the Langstroth Hive. The Langstroth Hive is the box-shaped hive you’re probably familiar with. The box is filled with removable frames on which the bees can build their hives. Best of all, it offers the beekeeper the ability to remove the hives and promotes collection without harming the bees. This design works so well that it hasn’t been significantly altered in over 160 years. There has been an ongoing debate over the years as veganism has increased in popularity.
So, Is Honey Vegan?
Beekeeping processes are often brought up when discussing whether or not honey is vegan. Many vegans argue that honey is not vegan-friendly because the process of beekeeping is exploitative and harmful to the bees. Unfortunately, some unethical practices do come into play when it comes to large-scale producers. To extract as much as possible, they will remove all of the honey from the hive and replace it with corn syrup for the bees to eat in the winter. This is very harmful to the bees. Corn syrup does not contain any of the nutrients or enzymes that keep the bees healthy. There is also some genetic manipulation that takes place as well as other unethical practices.
The decision to eat honey is ultimately up to you, but if you are vegan and still want to take advantage of the health benefits of honey, consider purchasing from a reputable local beekeeper ( I like The Valley Hive here in LA). Ethical beekeepers keep bees healthy and collect honey without harming them in any way. Many are helping to protect the bee population by building safe hives in areas free of pesticides and other harmful substances. These healthy hives often produce way more nectar than they need, making it safe to remove the liquid gold without depleting the bees’ food supplies.
How Honey is Made
Okay, time to move on to our little science lesson. Bees are some of the most industrious creatures in the world. Not only do they build these elaborate hives and make copious quantities of nectar every day, but they are also a vital part of our global ecosystem.
Pollination is a pretty simple process in which pollen is moved from the outer part of a flower, called the stamen, to the inner part of a flower, which is called the pistil. Pollen is that powdery yellow stuff on flowers that makes you sneeze, but it exists to do more than just irritate those of us with allergies. Pollen is what flowers require to make seeds. Without pollen, there are no new seeds, meaning no new plants. Pollen can’t move itself, so that is where our busy little pollinators come in. When a bee lands on a flower, its fuzzy legs collect the pollen off the stamen. When the bee crawls into the flower to collect the nectar, some of the pollen is deposited into the pistil which then begins the process of making seeds.
Bees are responsible for approximately 80% of all pollination. This makes sense considering it takes the nectar of approximately 2 million flowers to make just one pound of honey. Bees naturally visit billions of flowers every year just to collect what they need to make their main food source, honey. They are simply doing what they must to survive. The fact that they are also helping to propagate billions of flowers and other plants in the process is just a happy byproduct of their hard work.
From Flower to Nectar of The Gods
So, how does the nectar turn into honey? You’ll find that many sellers gloss over the process by saying something like, “The bees bring the nectar back to the hive where it is turned into honey.” and leave it at that, but it is essentially bee vomit. Some people argue that it isn’t technically bee vomit because bees have two stomachs, one for honey making and one for digestion. You can decide for yourself if that really makes it better, but brace yourself, there’s more.
When a bee consumes flower nectar, that nectar goes into the bee’s honey-making stomach where it encounters protein enzymes that change the nectar’s sucrose into fructose and glucose. Once the bee returns to the hive, the nectar is regurgitated by the original bee and consumed by other worker bees. This process helps to further break down the sucrose and remove excess water. Once the nectar is deemed ready, the bees ‘deposit’ it into one of the tiny cells in the hive to await further dehydration. The airflow and heat generated by the bees fluttering their wings helps to evaporate the remaining excess water. Flower nectar is about 80-95% water, so this part of the process can take a little time. Once the water content is decreased to about 16-18%, the honey is ready
The magic of bees is not only in the making of honey but also in the way they store it. Honeycomb is an incredible structure, with thousands of hexagonal cylinders. The hexagon is one of nature’s coolest mysteries. I’m not going to bore you with the mathematics behind it, but it is the perfect structural shape. It is incredibly strong, space-efficient, and just downright cool looking.
Honeycomb is made out of beeswax which is a completely natural substance secreted by the bees as they work. This wax forms tiny flakes that are collected by worker bees that chew them up to soften the wax. Once the wax is pliable, it is added to the structure of the hive where it re-hardens to create the walls of the honey cells. Each full cell is also sealed off with beeswax to protect the honey.
The entire honeycomb is edible, a very convenient fact for bears who would have a hard time picking the honey out of those tiny cells. The only concern with eating beeswax is that if you eat too much, it can cause stomach obstructions, so consume in moderation. Since honey is high in calories and glucose, you should practice moderation anyway.
The Power of Raw
Remember those ancient texts I mentioned earlier? Throughout those records there are mentions of honey doing everything from healing wounds to creating love and even going so far as to revive the recently deceased. If these texts are to be believed, honey can cure anything and everything. If you’re looking for a more scientific approach, there are a few things you should know.
There have been many studies done on its medical uses. Most of those studies were inconclusive, but there have been a few interesting finds. It does contain trace nutrients and long-chain fatty acids and alcohols that could have heart-healthy benefits. One study showed that eating honey every day could lower bad cholesterol and improve good cholesterol.
Other benefits may include:
- Antibacterial properties.
- Antiviral properties
- Antifungal properties.
- Anti-inflammatory properties.
- Aids digestion.
- Heals scars and acne when applied topically.
- Cough suppressant qualities.
Although many of these claims do not have substantial scientific backing, many people swear bye it and its healthy properties. Some enthusiasts recommend taking a tablespoon in the morning and at night to truly reap all the benefits.
There are many different opinions about exactly how healthy honey is, but there is one thing that all studies agree on and that is that you will only benefit from eating raw honey.
Filtered or Un-Filtered?
Removing honey from the honeycomb is a sticky business. The process involves removing the beeswax seals over the cells and draining the honey. This causes bits of beeswax to end up in the honey which is why beekeepers often filter their honey. Minimal filtering removes the bigger pieces of beeswax but leaves behind the pollen, enzymes, and other nutrients naturally found. Heat-pasteurizing kills all those beneficial enzymes and extreme filtering removes all the pollen and nutrients, leaving behind clear honey that is nice to look at but no longer has any health benefits.
If you want the proposed health benefits, make sure you purchase honey from a local beekeeper, the closer the better. These beekeepers can usually be found at farmers’ markets. One way to spot raw honey is to simply look at it, real raw honey will be cloudy and unfiltered and should contain small beeswax particles. If it is perfectly translucent, it has been filtered and probably pasteurized.
Cooking With Honey
It should be noted that raising the temperature of honey to more than 104℉ is what kills the enzymes, which is why heat-pasteurization is bad. This should be kept in mind when using honey to sweeten your tea or coffee; although it is tasty, the heat destroys the health benefits. Don’t use your good raw honey for situations that involve heat, just use the more readily available pasteurized honey.
Honey can be used to replace sugar in most recipes, but it can change the texture and density of certain things, especially when baking, so you may have to experiment a bit. The benefit of using honey in exchange for sugar is that honey is a more natural substance and is far easier for your body to process than white sugar or artificial sweeteners.
The best thing about honey is that it goes well with just about anything, whether sweet or savory. Who doesn’t love good honey mustard, honey glazed ham, or honey glazed salmon? What about honey in oatmeal or with yogurt? Honey adds the perfect touch of sweetness, especially in recipes like this one.
- 5-6 Large Carrots
- 2 Tbs Honey
- 1 Tbs Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- ½ tsp Salt
- ½ tsp Black Pepper
- Parsley, for garnish.
- Preheat your oven to 400℉ and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Wash and peel your carrots, then chop them into chunks. The shape is up to you, round slices or long sticks, just be sure to slice them into approximately equal-sized pieces. Place the carrot chunks in a large bowl.
- Combine all other ingredients, except the parsley, in a small bowl and stir vigorously.
- Coat your carrot chunks with the oil and honey mixture. You can use a large spoon for this process, but I find that using my hands is much easier.
- Place your coated carrots on the baking sheet and bake for 30 to 40 minutes until tender. You may want to give them a little stir about halfway through. After 30 minutes of baking, simply stick a fork in of the bigger pieces to see if they are done enough for you. If they are still hard, bake a little longer.
- Once they are done baking, sprinkle a little parsley over the top, and enjoy!
The Heritage of Honey
Whether you enjoy honey for its delicious sweetness, its health benefits, or, both, you are not alone. Humans have been going to great lengths to collect this delicious substance for thousands of years and will probably continue doing so for thousands more. Honey may not have all the magical properties that our ancestors thought it did, but raw honey does still offer many health benefits when enjoyed in moderation. You can use honey in your sweet and savory recipes, or simply put it in your tea. Either way, you’re enjoying a sweetness that has had poetry and songs written about it for thousands of years. This is a substance that was believed to come straight from the gods. Who knows, perhaps there is a little magic in it.
Interested in the History of Maize? we’ve written about the journey its taken over thousands of years into a global super crop.