Story of Honey
The earliest record of keeping bees in hives was found in the sun temple erected in 2400 BC near Cairo. The bee featured frequently in Egyptian hieroglyphs and, being favoured by the pharaohs, often symbolized royalty.
The ancient Egyptians used honey as a sweetener, as a gift to their gods and even as an ingredient in embalming fluid. Honey cakes were baked by the Egyptians and used as an offering to placate the gods. The Greeks, too, made honey cakes and offered them to the gods.
The Greeks viewed honey as not only an important food, but also as a healing medicine. Greek recipe books were full of sweet meats and cakes made from honey. Cheeses were mixed with honey to make cheesecakes, described by Euripides in the 5th century BC as being, “Steeped most thoroughly in the rich honey of the golden bee.”
The Romans also used honey as a gift to the gods and they used it extensively in cooking. Beekeeping flourished throughout the Roman empire.
Once Christianity was established, honey and beeswax production increased greatly to meet the demand for church candles.
Honey continued to be of importance in Europe until the Renaissance, when the arrival of sugar from further afield meant honey was used less. By the 17th century, sugar was being used regularly as a sweetener and honey was used even less. As bees were thought to have special powers, they were often used as emblems:
Pope Urban VIII used the bee as his emblem.
The bee was the sign of the king of Lower Egypt during the First Dynasty (3,200BC).
Napoleon’s flag carried a single line of bees in flight, and his robe was embroidered with bees.
In the third century BC, the bee was the emblem used on coins in the Greek city of Ephesus.
The bee was the symbol of the Greek goddess Artemis.
The bee was the emblem of eros/cupid.
Bees have been around for millions of years - they were fully developed in their present form long before modern mammals had evolved.
Honeybees are the most important producers of honey. They gather nectar from flowers and plants and carry it to the hive or nest. Other worker bees then take over, preparing it for storing by adding enzymes. (Water evaporates away and this, together with the action of the enzyme, turns nectar to honey.)
Did you know?
- Bees can fly for up to six miles, although one or two is more common.
- Bees collect pollen and nectar in the spring when most plants are in bloom.
- Once they have collected the pollen and nectar, they process and store honey in honey combs in the beehive.
- Honey can be used to treat sore throats and coughs and even cuts and burns
Honey has long been recognized as a natural remedy and has been used as a medicine for thousands of years. It has antiseptic properties and can be used as a remedy for ailments from sore throats to burns and cuts.
- For a soothing drink for sore throats, mix honey with the juice of half a lemon, add boiling water and stir.
- If you're feeling low, try a spoonful of honey as a pick-me-up. The fructose and glucose in honey are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream.
Honey in Cooking
You can use honey in cooking instead of sugar. Because it is sweeter than sugar, you need to use less.
- If you are experimenting with honey in a recipe, try replacing half the sugar with honey as the flavour can be very strong.
- Honey is hygroscopic (meaning it attracts water) so it is good for baking cakes as it keeps them moister for longer. Look on our recipe pages for some delicious recipes using honey.
What gives honey its flavour?
Honey is produced all over the world, from the heat of the tropics to the crisp cold of Scandinavia, Canada, and Siberia. The warm climate of equatorial countries allows honey to be produced for most of the year, whilst beekeepers in Finland have a short season of just 2-3 weeks each year! The distinct aroma, flavour and colour is determined by the type of flower from which the bee collects the nectar. Some honey closely mimics the characteristics of the herb or tree whose flower the bee has visited, such as Orange Blossom and Lime Blossom, or Rosemary and Thyme.
Most honey comes from bees foraging on many different floral sources, and are known as polyfloral. However some plants provide enough nectar during their short flowering season, and are so irresistible to the local bee population, that a hive can yield honey from one single type of flower. This honey, known as monofloral, is keenly sought by beekeepers.
In Britain, honey is produced primarily for the local market. With over 35,000 beekeepers throughout the country harvesting honey from Apple Blossom, Cherry Blossom, Hawthorn, Lime Blossom, Dandelion, and the more popular and commercially viable Borage and Heather; an excellent range of different honey types are available on our own doorstep. The beekeeper also plays an important role in the pollination of fruit crops, and he travels for miles with his bees in a season to help pollinate plants and trees that produce the fruit we see in our supermarkets.
Unfortunately production in Britain is limited due to the unpredictable climate in this country. In a normal year around 4,000 tonnes is produced in Britain, but we consume over 35,000 tonnes per year spread on bread, in cereals, in baking and cooking, or simply by the spoonful! Fortunately, this demand is met thanks to areas of the world with longer production seasons, and a surplus of honey available to trade. This also introduces us to a whole new range of aromas and exotic flavours from different parts of the world.