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All About Honey

Aug 17, 2007
The consumption of honey by humans is an anomaly; honey is the only food produced by insects which humans eat, and is one of the only two substances produced organically whose sole purpose is for food - the other is mammalian breast milk. As a result, bees are the insect most commonly domesticated by humans the world over.


As a food substance, honey goes almost as far back as recorded history itself. The Old Testament portion of the Bible has references to honey, often represented as a symbol for everything pleasant and desirable. The earliest mention is the book of Exodus, describing the promised land as a 'land flowing with milk and honey'. The book of Judges also mentions when Samson found honey a bees' hive made in the carcass of a lion. The word "honey" makes an appearance a total of sixty-one times in the Bible.

The Qur'an also has honey represented in much the same way. It refers to honey as being a substance which the Lord taught the bees to make, and calls it 'a drink of varying colors which is healing for mankind'. Honey is even referred to in the Qur'an as 'a remedy for every illness', and is also mentioned as a favorite food of the Prophet Muhammad.

Asian religions don't leave honey out of the story for very long, either. Buddhists in India and Bangladesh celebrate the festival of Modhu Purnima, which commemorates Buddha's retreat into the wilderness in order to make peace among his disciples. While on this retreat, a monkey brought him a jar of honey for nourishment, and so this leads to a traditional gift of honey to monks during the festival.

Finally, in ancient Rome and Egypt, honey was considered so valuable that it was even used for currency. The Pharaoh Seti the first set the price of a donkey or ox at "one hundred pots" of honey. But we can't put this in context without knowing what the size of those pots were.

Honey perhaps takes it's most familiar place in Western culture as being associated with bears. We have A.A. Milne's "Winnie-the-Pooh" stories, where the cartoon bear is often motivated by a quest for honey, and honey containers in the United States are frequently sold in the shape of a bear. The joke to all this is, bears don't actually eat honey; when a bear goes after a bee hive, it's interested in the bee larvae within the nest!

Folk medicine...

Honey has been used in many cultures as an external ointment, applied to the skin to cure rashes, cuts, scabs, and infections. The logic behind this has turned out to be that honey, though a liquid, has a very low water content, and so is resistant to having microorganisms grow in it. As a result, it makes a good anti-bacterial agent. It also has useful applications as an activator for hydrogen peroxide, and producing high acidity through it's PH balance, which also prohibits the growth of many bacteria.

The actual medical benefits of honey are slowly being investigated. It has been established that as a nutritional source, honey contains elements which can act as antioxidants, and can have long-term benefits to the digestive system and also be a safe source of carbohydrates. Further research has been conducted to study various other benefits.


It is cautioned that children under the age of twelve months not be given honey, corn syrup, or other natural sweeteners. Infants do not have the acidic digestive system of a more mature human, and so ingesting honey, when mixed with moisture in the infant's stomach, can lead to a stomach infection. Once a child is eating solid food, the stomach is producing enough gastric acid to protect the infant from this kind of infection.

And now, for something you didn't expect: There is a toxic form of honey! It is called "mad honey", and it's produced when the bees have access to the flowers of rhododendrons, mountain laurels and azaleas. The nectar of these plants may contain grayanotoxin, a compound which is both psychoactive and poisonous to humans but completely harmless to the bees. Ingesting it produces a range of symptoms, from vomiting and reduced heartbeat to psychological symptoms similar to intoxication by psychedelic drugs.

Amongst many accounts, the ancient Greek historian Xenophon noted in his book "the Anabasis" in 401 B.C. that an entire army returning from conquest in Persia raided some wild bee hives in the mountains and became seriously ill for days, reduced to a state of being "like intoxicated madmen". It was centuries before the cause of this phenomenon became apparent. Rest assured, "mad honey" is rare, as bees usually prefer other kinds of flowers.


Honey connoisseurs get to dive into a range of honey varieties as diverse as the wine field. Just as different kinds of grapes impart different characteristics to wine, different botanical species make for honey with a wide range of attributes. Each can have its own characteristics of color, flavor, and texture. Some of the most common varieties include:

Clover honey is very pale and aromatic, and it is quick to granulate once the jar is opened. It is found mainly in Great Britain.

Acacia honey is pale and runny, with a mild flavor. It has a high fructose content, which helps it stay liquid for an extended time. It is produced primarily in Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania.

Heather honey is dark, rich in flavor, and thick. It comes mostly from the United kingdom.

Eucalyptus honey is very strong with a tasty flavor and a slight medicinal aftertaste. As you might expect, it is produced in Australia.

Orange blossom honey is very pale amber and has the distinctive aroma of the flower. It is produced in the United States, mostly in Florida, California, Texas and Arizona.

There are actually hundreds of varieties, since bees aren't too picky about what kind of plant they get their pollen from. When a honey is produced from bees who were kept to a specific variety of flower in order to control its flavor, that honey is said to be "monofloral". True monofloral honey is actually quite rare, since which flowers the bees visit is hard to control under certain conditions.
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