It is difficult to say exactly how long honey has been around for. Some sources say that honey bees have been on the planet for around 40 million years, while there are sources that claim there are honey bee fossils dating back 150 million years. However, the earliest records of bee keeping and human consumption of honey are shown in prehistoric cave paintings in Spain, believed to date back to 7000 BC.
Throughout history honey has been used for a multitude of purposes, such as cosmetic and medicinal purposes as well as to sweeten food and beverages. Honey was considered to be sacred for many centuries, due to its healing properties and rarity. It was often used in religious ceremonies and the ancient Egyptians used it as an ingredient in embalming fluid. The sticky substance is much more widely available today and is still very popular thanks to its many health benefits and super sweet taste. It is estimated that the global consumption of honey will exceed 2.8 million tons by 2024. The largest exporter of honey is currently China, followed by New Zealand and Argentina.
Fun Fact: The average honey bee will make only 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime
- The bees – the most crucial workers in the honey supply chain. Worker bees collect nectar from plants and store it in a sac – which is essentially a second stomach. The stored honey gets mixed with enzymes that change its chemical composition and PH so that it can be stored for longer. The bee returns to the hive to begin the regurgitation process where the nectar is passed on from bee to bee until it is broken down into simple sugars. The partially digested nectar is then deposited into honeycombs. The water in the substance must be evaporated to complete the process, so to speed things up the bees fan the honey comb with their wings. Once enough water has evaporated, the bees seal (cap) the honey comb with a liquid that solidifies into beeswax.
- Removal – For centuries, the only way to extract honey from a beehive successfully was to kill the bees inside. Fortunately, in 1851 an American beekeeper invented a more humane method, using removable honeycomb frames. This frame method is still used today.
- There are a few methods for removing honeycomb frames: the more traditional method is to remove the individual frames and to shake and gently brush the bees into the entrance of the hive. However, this is very time consuming and not the safest method for the beekeeper or the bees.The most commonly used method today is the bee escape/ separator board method. The beekeeper inserts a board between the honey chamber and the brood chamber. When the bees discover that they have been separated from their queen they instinctively move through the exit in the frame into the brood chamber. However, once through they no longer have access to the honey chamber. After approximately 2-3 hours the honey is ready for removal. Additionally, beekeepers can use fumes or smoke to repel or tranquilize the bees.
- Uncapping & extraction – The beekeeper may choose to remove the beeswax caps manually with a capping fork or heated blade but uncapping machines can also be used – though this is more common for mass production.
- Honey may be extracted using the manual ‘crush and strain’ method or an extractor machine. An extractor machine is a large metal drum that uses centrifugal force to draw out the honey. It spins the honeycomb until all of the honey is forced out and sinks to the bottom. The honey then passes through a spigot and sieves are used to filter out any wax particles and debris.
- Processing and bottling – Most of the honey we buy in the stores is processed by a commercial distributor. The honey is heated up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (48.9°C) to melt out crystals and then flash heated to 165°F (73.9 °C) The honey must then be cooled back down before bottling. This process lasts approximately 7 seconds. Some of the healthy properties of honey are lost during processing.
Honey fraud & supply chain transparency
The honey supply chain is particularly vulnerable to fraudulent activities, largely due to a global lack of transparency. According to European research, honey is the 6th most faked food in Europe. Types of honey fraud include: selling cheap multifloral honey as single source honey at a higher price, adding sugar syrups to increase product volume, and unripe honey production using artificial evaporation. The unripe production method is common in China and although it is illegal in the EU, Chinese honey accounts for the majority of EU honey imports. Honey is frequently tested for authenticity, bulking agents and illegal antibiotics. But testing has become trickier as fraudsters have started using syrups such as from rice and beet, which can go undetected using a standard C4 adulteration test.
Falsely listed origins and poor traceability is another prominent issue. For example, due to US tariffs on imported Chinese honey a few years ago, China began to ship its produce to other countries first, like Malaysia and Thailand, where it would be rebranded as, for example, “Malaysian” honey and sold to the US. These issues could be avoided with stricter, more accurate labelling and greater supply chain transparency. The global honey market could greatly benefit from using technologies such as blockchain to track and trace products from each stage in the supply chain to the final destination, providing evidence of testing protocols and sourcing. This year TrackBack successfully authenticated Manuka honey on the blockchain, tracking it from New Zealand all the way to Shanghai, China.
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