Monday, December 1, 2014

The Science Behind the Shelf Life


Honey has been used throughout history for eating, cooking, medicine, and more. Honey is a healthy, versatile food, and many people have prized this sweet treat. Ancient Egyptians were one group of people who enjoyed using honey in everyday life. While excavating Ancient Egyptian tombs recently, archaeologists have found honey in pots left by those from older times. The honey was thousands of years old, yet, the food remained unspoiled and preserved. What is it that makes honey such a special food?

Honey is the only food that never spoils. Many factors contribute to this including its lack of water, its acidity, and the presence of hydrogen peroxide in honey. Without any of these factors, honey could not remain preserved for eternity. All three of those factors work in perfect and complete harmony to make the sweet golden liquid have a never ending shelf life. 

The first factor, its lack of water, comes from honey’s chemical makeup. Honey is a natural sugar. Sugars are hygroscopic, which means that sugars contain very little water in their natural state but could readily suck up lots of moisture if left unsealed. Because honey is a sugar, it has a hygroscopic nature. How does this help honey stay preserved? Bacteria need a moist environment to grow and honey doesn’t have a moist enough environment for bacteria to grow. Bacteria that enter foods and make them spoil can’t grow in honey. There has to be something in the honey jars to make them spoil and with such a inhospitable environment for bacteria, organisms can’t live long enough to spoil our precious sweet treat!

Not only is honey hygroscopic, but it’s also acidic. Naturally, honey has a pH range of roughly 3 - 4.5. This is why you always hear that when cooking with honey, it’s always good to add baking soda to your recipe. It's because of honey’s acidic pH! This pH is so acidic that most bacteria or organisms cannot survive. Honey is just not a good home to bacteria or organisms, but it’s great in our pantry. 

There are other hygroscopic foods out there with relatively low pHs. Why does honey remain unspoiled and not other foods such as molasses? This brings us to our last important factor, the presence of hydrogen peroxide. Here’s where our lovely little girls come in, the honeybees! Nectar, which is collected from the bees to make honey, is naturally high in water content. The bees remove much of that water, once inside the hive, by flapping their wings to literally dehydrate it. On top of the dehydrating, the bees also add something special to the product. Honeybees add an enzyme that adds to honey’s resilience. This enzyme is called glucose oxidase. When the bees deposit the nectar from their mouths into the beeswax combs to make honey, the enzyme mixes with the nectar. Once mixed with the nectar, the enzyme breaks down into two by-products: gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. Then, hydrogen peroxide also goes to work against possible spoiling agents in the honey.  For this reason, honey has been used for medical remedies and has been a cherished, long-lasting food. The hydrogen peroxide, combined with honey’s thickness, allows for the rejection of any kind of bacteria growth, and it creates the perfect barrier against the infection of wounds. 

Although honey is a super food, there is one extra factor you want to keep in mind--the seal of your honey. If you leave honey out with no seal in a humid environment, the moisture can’t be controlled and honey will spoil. This is why even inside the beehive, honeybees cap over their honey-filled cells with beeswax to preserve it! If no water is added to the honey and you keep the lid tightly on the jar, you’ve got a shelf life that will last way beyond a lifetime!







Saturday, November 1, 2014

Bee Beards

What would you think if you saw a beard made out of live bees? Maybe you have seen a beekeeper do a bee beard at a festival, fair, or other event or you might have seen photos or videos of one. Have you ever wondered how a bee beard works?

Ready to wear some bees!
Bee beards are an amazing sight and a wonderful demonstration of how gentle our honeybees truly are. Bee beards also show us just how important the queen’s pheromones are to the hive, since it is her smell which causes the bees to cluster on the beekeepers face to form the bee beard.
First, a box of bees is prepared as an artificial swarm with the queen contained in a small screened cage. The person who will be wearing the beard is prepared by ensuring any jewelry or hair that would get in the way is contained and that he/she is not wearing any scents which would bother the bees.

Next, the queen cage is tied underneath the chin so that the bees will be able to smell her pheromones through the screen. A box full of worker bees is then shaken out onto a tray or barber cape worn by the person wearing the beard.  

Because the worker bees can smell the queen in the cage, they all climb up and cluster around her and form the beard of bees.
The bees beginning to cluster
Forming a fuller beard 

To remove the bee beard, the queen cage is taken off and then the rest of the bees are removed when the person wearing the beard jumps up and shakes the bees back into their box.


Wearing a bee beard feels electric! It feels funny because of all of the legs clinging to your face and the bees produce a lot of heat. It’s very neat to see how quickly the bees react to the queen pheromone and how gentle they remain throughout the whole process. Wearing a bee beard is an amazing experience and a lot of fun! 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Beeswax and the Arts

Beeswax is used in many things like cosmetics and candles, and it is also used in the arts! Beeswax is used to make beautiful encaustic paintings, detailed sculptures and sweet-smelling candles.  

Beeswax is a natural wax that is produced by honeybees. Worker honeybees have four pairs of wax glands (eight total glands) on their abdomens that produce the wax. The wax flakes off their abdomen, and the honeybees form it into cells. Honeybees use wax to build their homes or hives making honeycomb with the hexagonal shaped cells out of the wax. They store everything in these cells like larvae or baby bees,
nectar, pollen, and honey. Beekeepers melt old wax or old comb into wax blocks.

Encaustic painting is better known as a hot wax painting. The paintings are very beautiful and really show the versatility of beeswax. Normally, encaustic painters melt beeswax to use in creating and molding their beautiful paintings. Equipment like metal tools and special brushes are used to sculpt the wax. Once it's cooled, encaustic painters begin creating their art. Encaustic paintings aren’t just sculpted, they can be painted as well. The natural wax makes bright, vivid colors when mixed with other color waxes. Did you know that some of the first encaustic paintings were seen around 100-300AD in the Fayum mummy portraits from Egypt? 

Not only is beeswax used in encaustic paintings, it can be used to create some amazing sculptures! Beeswax is really easy to use when hand molding a sculpture or pouring the wax into molds to create models and figures. Since the Middle Ages and ancient Rome, sculptors have used beeswax because it cuts easily, melts at a low temperature (so you don’t need a special oven or kiln to melt it), and it can be colored. Once molded into a gorgeous sculpture, beeswax will hold up well against age. In ancient Rome, they used beeswax to make death masks to be buried with the elite or royal. Who knew beeswax had so much history?

The wick and wax that you'll need
to make your candle!
Starting to roll your candle. 
















A really fun and easy DIY project with beeswax is to roll your own candle! You can buy pre-melted beeswax sheets and wicks at any large beekeeping supplier (Dadant, Glorybee, etc). They sell a rainbow of colors that can brighten up your room or even make a neat, thoughtful gift for Christmas or Mother’s Day. Once you have the sheet of wax, cut the wax with a pizza cutter or scissors into four long sheets in order to make four candles (you can cut the wax smaller or larger if needed). Next, take the wick and measure it against the width of the wax edge and cut the wick, with scissors, so a little extra wick can stick out of the wax. The extra wick sticking out will how you light your candle! After this, press the wick into the far edge of the wax and roll a little bit of the wax over the top so the wick is completely covered except the part of the wick that will burn. Now comes the easy part! Continue rolling up the candle while keeping the edges straight. Maintain pressure to make sure your candle stays tight. The tighter you roll your candle, the longer it will burn. Even candle-making can be an art! The number one thing to remember is that anyone can try using beeswax in their arts and crafts. The main goal of artwork is to “bee” creative. 
The finished rolled candle. You can make them many shapes and sizes. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Honey in History


Many people think of  honey simply as a delicious food or sweetener. Throughout history, however, honey proves to be much more than a simple food. It is true that honey is one of the oldest sweeteners known to man and still widely popular today, but it is also an important cultural, religious, and mythological symbol.
Many different types of honey
The great diversity of honey flavors and textures available makes honey an extremely valuable staple in the kitchen. Honey has found its way onto our plates in many different forms and can be found in every type of food we consume, from appetizers to desserts, and everything in between. Honey is used in a wide range of recipes where it is prized as an all-natural sweetener as well as for its unique flavor contribution. There are more than 300 different varieties of honey produced in the United States and approximately 3,000 varieties worldwide.

An ancient cave painting
showing honey harvesting
Honey plays an important role as both a cultural and religious symbol;  it is often used to represent prosperity and wellbeing. References to honey are found in the Bible, the Koran, the Torah and other religious books. Some Greek mythology states that honey was the substance into which Cupid dipped his arrows, and mead (alcohol made from honey) has been called “the nectar of the gods.”
In ancient science and medicine, honey was appreciated for its unique healing properties. Some of the earliest known medical writings, including the Ebers Papyrus, include honey as an important ingredient in many remedies.
Burn cream made with honey
Today, honey is used to heal burns and wounds, treat allergies, fight infection and soothe sore throats. The antibacterial properties of Manuka honey have been studied at Universities in New Zealand for over 20 years, and its effectiveness in treating MRSA is still being studied. Honey is also a key ingredient in many cosmetic and beauty products.
Honey has a special place throughout history, and it continues to play an important role in many different cultures and religions. Honey has been a part of earliest history, and it remains at the forefront of new research and developments. Honey is a product with both a rich past and a bright future.




Friday, August 1, 2014

The Language of the Honey Bee


Honeybee dancing is an intriguing topic. The dances of the honeybee are performed when a worker bee returns to the honeycomb inside the hive with pollen or nectar. These dances make up a language that tells other worker bees in the hive where the food is located outside the hive. By signaling both distance and direction with specific movements of the bee, the worker bee uses this language of dance to direct other workers on where to forage for pollen and nectar. 
Distance and direction of the floral source are told in two parts of the dance. 

To convey distance, the worker bees do a few different signals. When the food source is close to the hive, or less than 50 meters away, a forager will perform a round dance. The circle dance is when she runs around on the honey comb making narrow circles and then suddenly reverses direction to her original course. They can repeat the dance several times while running across the comb and may move to different spots on the honey comb to convey the message. After the dance, the worker will share some food with the other foragers following her so they can also locate the flowers by smell. A round dance overall says, “close to the hive.”

Food sources that aren’t as close to the hive or are between 50 and 150 meters from the hive are portrayed to the other worker bees using the sickle dance. This dance is what could be described as crescent shaped and is a mix of the round dance and the waggle dance. The waggle dance is to convey that food sources are more than 150 meters from the hive. This dance not only tells the other foragers distance, but also lets them know the direction of the floral source. A worker bee performing this dance runs straight ahead for a short distance, returns in a semicircle to the starting point of the dance, runs again through the straight course, them makes a semicircle in the opposite direction to make a figure eight circuit (NY State University). While completing this circle, the bee’s body, especially the abdomen, shakes or wags vigorously from side to side (To watch the waggle dance check out this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUCoLeI5Qxg). She also lets out a buzzing noise from her wings beating during the dance. While many variables in this dance refer to distance (dance tempo or duration of buzzing sounds), the most reliable part of the dance is the straight-run portion. As the distance to the food increases, so does the length of the waggle part of the dance. If the distance to the food decreases, so does the waggle portion of the dance. 

To help show the direction of where the food is outside the hive, honeybees will change the position of their dance. The orientation of the dancing bee during the straight portion of her waggle dance indicates the location of the food source relative to the sun. The bee takes the solar angle of where the food source is located and turns it into the gravitational angle to convey in the dance where the food is located. Since the sun changes place in the sky throughout the day, the bees dance will change throughout the day even for the same floral source because they use the sun to tell the other bees, using geometry, where the food is. Therefore, if you want to know where the honeybees are communicating to forage, you need to know the angle of the waggle run and the compass direction of the sun, which depends on the location, date, and time of day. 

If you're interested in where I learned about honeybee communication, check outhttp://www.cals.ncsu.edu/entomology/apiculture/pdfs/1.11%20copy.pdf by NY State University andhttp://ag.arizona.edu/pubs/insects/ahb/lsn14.html by University of Arizona.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Careers in Honey Bees

Honeybees are interwoven into many different aspects of our lives and play an incredibly critical role in the pollination of many different crops. Because honeybees are so important to us, there are many different careers which include spending lots of time with these little insects! Here are a few of the careers in honeybees and what they entail.


Beekeeper:
Beekeepers are the people who manage honeybees year-round. While small-scale beekeepers who maintain only a few hives and keep them in one location may only have to work with their hives every other week, commercial beekeepers who manage thousands of bee hives work with their bees as a full-time job. Commercial beekeepers not only produce honey to sell, they also ship their bees across the country to pollinate many different crops. 

Queen Rearer:
The queen bee in a honeybee hive is the mother of all the other bees in that hive, which makes her the single most important bee in the entire beehive. Because the queen is so important, there are beekeepers who focus just on producing new queens. Queen Rearers focus on raising and breeding healthy new queens to keep our beehives strong. The queens are shipped to beekeepers all over the country once they are ready to begin their duties in the hive.


Apiary Inspectors:
Apiary Inspectors work for the state apiary departments to regulate beekeeping across the country. Apiary Inspectors visit apiaries to ensure that beekeepers are following state requirements which ensure that bees and the people around them are safe. Inspectors also check the health of the hives to make sure the bees are being properly cared for and do not have any diseases which could harm other bees in the area. Another task of an apiary inspector is to educate beekeepers and the public about issues relating to bees, from why we keep them to how to get started for yourself.



Supply Manufacturer/Distributer: 
Keeping bees requires special equipment and the people who manufacture and distribute supplies play an important role in keeping bees. Supply manufacturers make many different items which we need to effectively keep bees. Bee suits to protect beekeepers from stings,  wooden hives to house our bees and nutrient and mineral supplements to feed our bees. Distributors bring those supplies all across the country and make it available to local beekeepers.  


Pest Control Operator/Swarm Catcher:
Honeybees and other insects are great...most of the time. Sometimes bees and others insects become a problem when they decide to move in where they shouldn’t be living and start causing problems for humans. Pest Control Operators and Swarm Catchers are able to capture and remove swarms of bees which have taken up residence where they don’t belong. Pest Control Operators also remove many other types of insects and can exterminate insects if necessary.


Scientist:
Scientists all over the world are researching honeybees to try and learn the causes of diseases in bees, how to best manage our bees to keep them healthy, why bees exhibit certain behaviors, and many other questions. Scientist also help to educate beekeepers with the information they gather in their research. They play a very important role in helping to keep our honeybees happy.

Just like in a beehive where different bees perform different tasks to keep things running smoothly, there are many different jobs in honeybees so that we our bees stay as healthy as possible. The many different aspects of caring for and studying bees are all important roles performed by a wide variety of talented people across the country. What is your favorite honeybee career?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

From the Hive to your Home


When you aren’t a beekeeper or don’t know a beekeeper, you get jars of honey from the store or buy it from a local beekeeper and that’s about it. Have you ever wondered how that honey gets to the jar and then into your home? It can be a long process for beekeepers to extract honey, but in the end, the final golden, delicious product is worth it. 

The first thing the beekeeper does is gather the frames full of honey comb and honey from the beehive. They need a smoker in order to complete this job. The beekeeper will light the smoker using pine needles, dry branches or other easily flammable kindling. The smoker is an essential tool because it calms the honeybees and makes them gorge on honey, which further pacifies them so beekeepers can work the hive. The beekeeper will open the hive with a hive tool and blow some smoke into the hive while lifting the lid slowly. 
 
Next, the beekeeper pulls frames out of the super and inspects the honey combs. There could be multiple supers on one hive, each filled with frames. Depending on how busy the bees were, how warm it was, and if the hive didn’t swarm, there could be anywhere from 20 to 100 pounds of honey in a super! Only completely sealed frames of honey are harvested. An easy way to transport the frames full of honey is to have an extra empty super to put them in until the beekeeper can extract the honey. Each frame can hold an average of 6.5 pounds of honey. 

Once the beekeeper is ready to extract the honey, they have to uncap the wax cells from both sides of the frame. They place the frame above a tub to catch the wax and honey that comes off with the wax. The beekeeper will run a heated knife called an uncapping knife down each side of the frame to unseal the cells. They don’t linger too long on the frame with the uncapping knife, because it can burn the honey! Then, the beekeeper will use an uncapping fork to gently shave off the caps of the cells to catch any cells that weren't uncapped with the heated knife.
 
After uncapping each frame, they place the frames into an extractor. This is a large barrel like machine that has a motor or hand crank used to spin the frames. When they start the extractor, the centrifugal force created by the extractor spins the honey out of the honeycomb onto the walls of the extractor. Thanks to gravity, the honey drips to the bottom of the extractor. There is a spout (which can be kept closed or open) where honey comes out at the bottom of the extractor.  


The beekeeper can either place a food grade bucket underneath the spout to catch the honey and bottle it later or bottle it as it comes out of the extractor. Typically they’ll place something like a colander over the jar or bucket to strain any extra wax that may have ended up in the honey. After they pour honey from the extractor into the jars, it’s locally sold or sent to farmers markets or grocery stores where it finally makes it to your home!