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The Science Behind Honey’s Eternal Shelf Life
A slew of factors—its acidity, its lack of water and the presence of hydrogen peroxide—work in perfect harmony, allowing the sticky treat to last forever
[By Natasha Geiling via smithsonianmag.com]
Modern archeologists, excavating ancient Egyptian tombs, have often found something unexpected amongst the tombs’ artifacts: pots of honey, thousands of years old, and yet still preserved. Through millennia, the archeologists discover, the food remains unspoiled, an unmistakable testament to the eternal shelf-life of honey.
There are a few other examples of foods that keep–indefinitely–in their raw state: salt, sugar, dried rice are a few. But there’s something about honey; it can remain preserved in a completely edible form, and while you wouldn’t want to chow down on raw rice or straight salt, one could ostensibly dip into a thousand year old jar of honey and enjoy it, without preparation, as if it were a day old. Moreover, honey’s longevity lends it other properties–mainly medicinal–that other resilient foods don’t have. Which raises the question–what exactly makes honey such a special food?
The answer is as complex as honey’s flavor–you don’t get a food source with no expiration date without a whole slew of factors working in perfect harmony.
The first comes from the chemical make-up of honey itself. Honey is, first and foremost, a sugar. Sugars are hygroscopic, a term that means they contain very little water in their natural state but can readily suck in moisture if left unsealed. As Amina Harris, executive director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute at Univeristy of California, Davis explains, “Honey in its natural form is very low moisture. Very few bacteria or microorganisms can survive in an environment like that, they just die. They’re smothered by it, essentially.” What Harris points out represents an important feature of honey’s longevity: for honey to spoil, there needs to be something inside of it that can spoil. With such an inhospitable environment, organisms can’t survive long enough within the jar of honey to have the chance to spoil.
Honey is also naturally extremely acidic. “It has a pH that falls between 3 and 4.5, approximately, and that acid will kill off almost anything that wants to grow there,” Harris explains. So bacteria and spoil-ready organisms must look elsewhere for a home–the life expectancy inside of honey is just too low.
But honey isn’t the only hygroscopic food source out there. Molasses, for example, which comes from the byproduct of cane sugar, is extremely hygroscopic, and is acidic, though less so than honey (molasses has a pH of around 5.5). And yet–although it may take a long time, as the sugar cane product has a longer shelf-life than fresh produce, eventually molasses will spoil.
So why does one sugar solution spoil, while another lasts indefinitely? Enter bees.
“Bees are magical,” Harris jokes. But there is certainly a special alchemy that goes into honey. Nectar, the first material collected by bees to make honey, is naturally very high in water–anywhere from 60-80 percent, by Harris’ estimate. But through the process of making honey, the bees play a large part in removing much of this moisture by flapping their wings to literally dry out the nectar. On top of behavior, the chemical makeup of a bees stomach also plays a large part in honey’s resilience. Bees have an enzyme in their stomachs called glucose oxidase (PDF). When the bees regurgitate the nectar from their mouths into the combs to make honey, this enzyme mixes with the nectar, breaking it down into two by-products: gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. “Then,” Harris explains, “hydrogen peroxide is the next thing that goes into work against all these other bad things that could possibly grow.”
For this reason, honey has been used for centuries as a medicinal remedy. Because it’s so thick, rejects any kind of growth and contains hydrogen peroxide, it creates the perfect barrier against infection for wounds. The earliest recorded use of honey for medicinal purposes comes from Sumerian clay tablets, which state that honey was used in 30 percent of prescriptions. The ancient Egyptians used medicinal honey regularly, making ointments to treat skin and eye diseases. “Honey was used to cover a wound or a burn or a slash, or something like that, because nothing could grow on it – so it was a natural bandage,” Harris explains.
What’s more, when honey isn’t sealed in a jar, it sucks in moisture. “While it’s drawing water out of the wound, which is how it might get infected, it’s letting off this very minute amount of hydrogen peroxide. The amount of hydrogen peroxide comes off of honey is exactly what we need–it’s so small and so minute that it actually promotes healing.” And honey for healing open gashes is no longer just folk medicine–in the past decade, Derma Sciences, a medical device company, has been marketing and selling MEDIHONEY, bandages covered in honey used in hospitals around the world.
If you buy your honey from the supermarket, that little plastic bottle of golden nectar has been heated, strained and processed so that it contains zero particulates, meaning that there’s nothing in the liquid for molecules to crystallize on, and your supermarket honey will look the same for almost forever. If you buy your honey from a small-scale vendor, however, certain particulates might remain, from pollen to enzymes. With these particulates, the honey might crystallize, but don’t worry–if it’s sealed, it’s not spoiled and won’t be for quite some time.
A jar of honey’s seal, it turns out, is the final factor that’s key to honey’s long shelf life, as exemplified by the storied millennia-old Egyptian specimens. While honey is certainly a super-food, it isn’t supernatural–if you leave it out, unsealed in a humid environment, it will spoil. As Harris explains, ” As long as the lid stays on it and no water is added to it, honey will not go bad. As soon as you add water to it, it may go bad. Or if you open the lid, it may get more water in it and it may go bad.”
So if you’re interested in keeping honey for hundreds of years, do what the bees do and keep it sealed–a hard thing to do with this delicious treat!
[Read original article via smithsonianmag.com]
Did you know a honey bee has hairy eyes? Micro-Science takes you beyond the reach of your own eyes to reveal the tiny details you won’t believe are there.
The Planning and Land Use Management Committee directed city staff to study the idea and report back in two months.
[Posted by Alexander Nguyen on Patch.com]
A City Council committee Tuesday took the first steps toward allowing residents to keep beehives in their yards for the production of honey and wax and to pollinate their gardens.
The Planning and Land Use Management Committee directed city staff to report back in two months on the best ways to allow “beekeeping” activity in single-family residential areas.
Council members who last year proposed overturning the city’s prohibition on beekeeping in those areas said promoting the practice will “foster a healthier bee population.”
The bee population has been reported to be “in steep decline,” prompting concerns that the local economy and the state’s agricultural industry would be negatively affected, according to a related motion introduced Tuesday by Councilman Jose Huizar.
His motion calls for city staff to come up with “humane and non-lethal” ways to relocate or remove unwanted bee hives to serve as alternatives to existing methods used by government agencies, “given the usefulness of bees to California’s agricultural industry and the growing popularity of urban beekeeping.” — City News Service
RSVP: Meetup | Facebook
Tuesday, December 10, 2:30PM
@ City Hall (3rd Floor – Public Works Board Meeting Room)
Please come out and show your support for urban beekeeping in Los Angeles!
And if you haven’t done so already, please sign our petition and send a quick email of support!!
Interview by Rob McFarland—HoneyLove.org
FLIGHT PATH PROJECT
Produced by The Common Acre with support from the Port of Seattle and Urban Bee Company, the project will turn scrub land into pollinator habitat, and transform a corner of the airport concourse (Terminal “Bee,” naturally) into a sparkling art and education exhibit.
Core co-producers are Bob Redmond, Kate Fernandez, Rod Hatfield, Amy Baranski, and Charlie Spitzack, with collective experience managing and directing programs at some of Seattle’s most established organizations including Bumbershoot, Town Hall Seattle, Experience Music Project, Smoke Farm, the Capitol Hill Arts Center, Spaceboat, and others. We will involve 30 – 40 regional artists, with additional involvement from local scientists, engineers, and designers.
The Port of Seattle is the nation’s 15th busiest airport, with 34 million visitors per year. This project was inspired by related work in Chicago, as well as Frankfurt, Germany, and Düsseldorf, Germany.
Urban Bee Company is a progressive urban agricultural organization in Seattle, with a focus on bees, habitat, and sustainable agriculture. They deliver honey by bicycle and operate numerous apiaries in community gardens.
For more information please check out CommonAcre.org
On August 17th HoneyLovers, beekeepers and honey bee enthusiasts across the country celebrated National Honey Bee Day to honor nature’s hardest working insect, and HoneyLove decided to celebrate with a Waggle Dance Flash Mob. We choreographed a routine and invited everyone to participate in person or by uploading a video. Special THANK YOU goes out to LUSH Cosmetics and all who joined in the festivities to help make it the best National Honey Bee Day EVER!!!
MUSIC: “When You’re Smiling” by the Leftover Cuties: http://goo.gl/eiGBR
Subscribe to our YouTube Channel HERE: http://full.sc/MRAY21
Learn the WAGGLE DANCE and send it to us to bee in our compilation video!!
We captured these photos today of a honey bee nectaring on catmint (genus Nepeta). The bee was moving fast. To blur the wings, we set the shutter speed at 1/640 of a second with an f-stop of 13 and IS0 of 800.
But just how fast can a honey bee fly?
Its wings beat 230 times every second, according to Douglas Altshuler, a researcher at California Institute of Technology who co-authored research, “Short-Amplitude High-Frequency Wing Strokes Determine the Aerodynamics of Honeybee Flight,” published in December 2005 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“The honey bees have a rapid wing beat,” he told LiveScience in an interview published in January 2006. “In contrast to the fruit fly that has one-eightieth the body size and flaps its wings 200 times each second, the much larger honeybee flaps its wings 230 times every second.”
“And this was just for hovering,” Altshuler said. “They also have to transfer pollen and nectar and carry large loads, sometimes as much as their body mass, for the rest of the colony.”
The Hive and the Honey Bee, the “Bible” of beekeeping, indicates that a bee’s flight speed averages about 15 miles per hour and they’re capable of flying 20 miles per hour.
If they’re not carrying nectar, pollen, water or propolis (plant resin), they’ll fly much faster!
[read original article via ucanr.edu]
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