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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.
Following the recent BEE VOTE at LA CITY COUNCIL… the press was BUZZING! Check out some of the press coverage below!
POLITICO: “LA abuzz about push for urban beekeeping”
KPCC: “LA City Council takes step to allow urban beekeeping”
CURBED LA: “Los Angeles on Its Way to Legalizing Backyard Beekeeping”
laist: “Los Angeles Considers Legalizing Urban Beekeeping”
by Saul Gonzalez [KCRW]
“In many parts of the world honeybees are in trouble, with their populations in sharp decline. That decline has scientists, environmentalists, farmers and bee lovers worried because of the bees/ importance to pollination and, thus, agriculture.
But there’s some good news: here in Los Angeles the wild bee population is thriving, with as many as a dozen hives per square mile in some neighborhoods. And where there are bees there are beekeepers. L.A. has a surprisingly big community of urban beekeepers who have backyard hives. These urban beekeepers are motivated both by their love of straight, fresh-from-the-hive honey and a desire to do something to help save the global bee population.
However, when it comes to municipal rules and regulations, urban beekeeping in the City of L.A. isn’t explicitly legal. Urban beekeeping advocates, led by a group called HoneyLove, are trying to change that. They’d like to see the city adopt rules and regulations that both promote urban beekeeping and safeguard wild bee hives reported by the public.”
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By The Times editorial board—December 27, 2013
Los Angeles is honeybee heaven. The warm Southern California climate and long growing seasons provide year-round food for bees. The city’s trees, flowers and flora are largely free of pesticides. It’s the perfect place for backyard beekeeping — except that beekeeping is not legal here.
That could soon change. A group of bee advocates and neighborhood councils has been lobbying the City Council to expressly allow beekeeping on single-family residential lots. Current law permits it only in areas zoned for agriculture. Next month, the City Council will decide whether to move forward with legalized beekeeping.
There’s a good reason to allow it. Commercially raised bees used to pollinate crops are disappearing in big numbers because of what’s known as colony collapse disorder, but nobody knows what’s causing the problem. Urban honeybees may end up replenishing the diminishing supply, or providing disease-resistant genes that can be introduced in the commercial bee lines.
Los Angeles should follow the lead of other major cities and draft rules that allow residents to keep bees, while providing some common-sense protections for neighbors. There’s already an established backyard beekeeping community in Los Angeles despite the fact that it is not legal. The growing urban agriculture movement has spurred more interest in homegrown hives (in part because the bees are needed to pollinate the new urban crops) and more confusion over what is and isn’t allowed.
New York City allowed illicit apiarists to come out of the shadows in 2010, and since then hobbyists have established hives on building roofs and in backyards. The city set basic rules: Colonies must be in well-maintained, movable frame hives with a constant water source, in a location that doesn’t pose a nuisance. Beekeepers file a one-page hive registration form with the city health department each year.
Santa Monica permitted beekeeping in 2011 with similar requirements. Residents are allowed two hives per backyard, and the hives must be at least five feet from the property lines. Apiarists who don’t follow the rules or who let their hives become a nuisance to neighbors face fines or misdemeanor charges.
Both cities said they’ve had no major problems; beekeepers have largely followed the rules or moved their hives in response to complaints. And city officials said there’s been a benefit: a larger network of amateur beekeepers to call upon to remove swarms rather than exterminate them.
There will understandably be some concern and fear from neighbors — a swarm of feral honeybees can look like something out of a horror movie. Beekeeping experts say there are already lots of naturally occurring, unmanaged hives in the region. A managed hive in which bees have adequate food and space is less likely to produce a swarm.
We need bees. We want more bees. It’s time to legalize beekeeping.
[view original article via latimes.com]
Interested in helping HoneyLove to spread the buzz for bees?
We would LOVE for you to attend our monthly outreach volunteer training session and get all set up with the supplies and tools you need to do event/school outreach!
No experience necessary, just a passion for bees. We’ll teach you what you need to know.
Dr. Roberta Kato, a longtime Bee Rescuer in Los Angeles, Master Gardener, Chicken-keeper and all-around great human being, spoke at the Advanced Beekeeper meeting on November 24 at HoneyLove HQ. Her topic was “Making the World Better, One Beekeeper at a Time,” and Roberta walks the walk. She recommends volunteering, paying it forward, building good karma (no matter what your beliefs are), inspiring others and developing altruism. Her suggested methods for achieving this are doing rescues, mentoring, talking to schools and classes, garden clubs and the public (email firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved with outreach!). Her last suggested method is to be a little unapologetically eccentric.
Roberta told the group how she got started doing bee rescues, how it quickly grew out of hand and what she learned by “diving in.” It wasn’t long before she found herself picking up swarms and doing cutouts at 5a.m. before work and in the evenings after a long day. Working at night was how Roberta first learned that bees crawl when it’s dark. Climbing 25-foot ladders never helped her get over her fear of heights but it saved dozens of swarms. So why does she still do it, with gardening and chickens and dogs and rabbits and pediatric pulmonary research to keep her busy? Because she doesn’t want other new beekeepers to make the same mistakes she did, to help reduce the number of times chemicals are used to exterminate a colony, to deepen her appreciation of nature and to make feral bees and beekeeping not such a big deal. There was a time when having a hive in one’s yard was not uncommon.
And while it’s satisfying to introduce hundreds of new people to bees and beekeeping, a mentor also has to understand when to say “No.” Roberta had to turn away more than one overly enthusiastic rogue beekeeper in tulle and crew socks.
On this Giving Tuesday, think about what the honeybees do for you and your family. Bees pollinate 80% of the world’s plants, and a third of our food supply. Without them, our lives would be devoid of some of our favorite foods – like strawberries, broccoli, almonds, and coffee! They are responsible for $15 billion dollars in annual U.S. agricultural crops, but honeybee populations are dropping off at an alarming rate. The USDA estimates that 45% of our agricultural bee colonies died off last year alone. We can’t let them die off.
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