Honey is created by bees as a food source. In cold weather or when food sources are scarce, bees use their stored honey as their source of energy. By contriving for bee swarms to nest in artificial hives, people have been able to semi-domesticate the insects, and harvest excess honey. In the hive there are three types of bee: a single female queen bee, a seasonally variable number of male drone bees to fertilize new queens, and some 20,000 to 40,000 female worker bees.
The worker bees raise larvae and collect the nectar that will become honey in the hive. Leaving the hive, they collect sugar-rich flower nectar and return. In the process, they release pheromones. These pheromones lead other bees to rich nectar sites by “smell”. Honeybees also release pheromones at the entrance to the hive, which enables returning bees to return to the proper hive.
In the hive the bees use their “honey stomachs” to ingest and regurgitate the nectar a number of times until it is partially digested. The bees work together as a group with the regurgitation and digestion until the product reaches a desired quality. It is then stored in honeycomb cells. After the final regurgitation, the honeycomb is left unsealed. However, the nectar is still high in both water content and natural yeasts which, unchecked, would cause the sugars in the nectar to ferment.
The process continues as bees inside the hive fan their wings, creating a strong draft across the honeycomb which enhances evaporation of much of the water from the nectar. This reduction in water content raises the sugar concentration and prevents fermentation. Ripe honey, as removed from the hive by a beekeeper, has a long shelf life and will not ferment if properly sealed.
Honey use and production has a long and varied history. In many cultures, honey has associations that go beyond its use as a food. Honey is frequently a talisman and symbol of sweetness. Eva Crane’s The Archaeology of Beekeeping states that humans began hunting for honey at least 10,000 years ago. She evidences this with a cave painting in Valencia, Spain. The painting is a Mesolithic rock painting, showing two female honey-hunters collecting honey and honeycomb from a wild bee hive. The two women are depicted in the nude, carrying baskets, and using a long wobbly ladder in order to reach the wild nest.
In Ancient Egypt, honey was used to sweeten cakes and biscuits, and was used in many other dishes. Ancient Egyptian peoples also used honey for embalming the dead. In the Roman Empire, honey was possibly used instead of gold to pay taxes. Pliny the Elder devotes considerable space in his book Naturalis Historia to the bee and honey, and its many uses. The fertility god of Egypt, Min, was offered honey. In some parts of post-classical Greece, like Rhodes, it was formerly the custom for a bride to dip her fingers in honey and make the sign of the cross before entering her new home.
In Jewish tradition, honey is a symbol for the new year, Rosh Hashana. At the traditional meal for that holiday, apple slices are dipped in honey and eaten to bring a sweet new year. Some Rosh Hashana greetings show honey and an apple, symbolizing the feast. In some congregations, small straws of honey are given out to usher in the new year.
In Buddhism, honey plays an important role in the festival of Madhu Purnima, celebrated by Buddhists in India and Bangladesh. The day commemorates Buddha’s making peace among his disciples by retreating into the wilderness. The legend has it that while he was there, a monkey brought him honey to eat. On Madhu Purnima, Buddhists remember this act by giving honey to monks. The monkey’s gift is frequently depicted in Buddhist art.
The word “honey”, along with variations like “honey bun” and the abbreviation “hon”, has become a term of endearment in most of the English-speaking world. In some places it is used for loved ones. in others, such as the American South, it is used when addressing casual acquaintances or even strangers.
In many children’s books bears are depicted as eating honey, even though most bears actually eat a wide variety of foods, and bears seen at beehives are usually more interested in bee larvae than honey. In some European languages the word for bear is coined from the noun which means honey and the verb which means to eat (Croatian ‘medvjed’). Honey is sometimes sold in bear-shaped jars or squeeze bottles.