How is honey made?

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Me as a beekeeper!

Having worked in an apiary for a summer a few years ago, I have developed a different, stronger connection to bees than most have. I learned a lot about bee-farming, colony collapse disorder and bee communication. We harvested honey and beeswax, made candles, and took care of the bees, ensuring the hives were healthy and kept busy. But what I didn’t learn that much about was how the honey was actually made by the bees, so here I took it upon myself to learn and to share this with you all here. Also enjoy some photos of the candle-making, me in a bee keeper’s outfit and bees hard at work!

Honey, as we see it in grocery stores, is simply nectar that has been collected and processed by honey bees. Nectar is a sugary liquid secreted by flowers as an evolutionary mechanism. Insects consume it and use it for energy, meanwhile, the flowers’ pollen sticks to the insect bodies and is carried from flower to flower as the insects collect more food for themselves. This pollen exchange, fueled by the desire for nectar by the insects, is how different plants reproduce. This is referred to as the co-evolution of insects and plants, which you can learn more about here.

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Bees will fly from flower to flower, collecting nectar and storing it into one of two stomachs. One stomach is called the honey stomach. It takes nectar from over 1000 flowers to fill this stomach, and once it is full, it can weigh as much as the bee itself.

The honey stomach contains special digestive enzymes that break down the nectar into the smaller sugar molecules that make up honey. However, one bee alone cannot produce honey. Honey bees are extremely social and complex creatures, and the making of honey is just one demonstration of this. Once a worker bee returns to the hive with a full honey stomach, it will vomit the nectar into another bee’s mouth, and that bee will vomit it into another bee’s mouth, and so on. As this is happening, each bee is adding more and more digestive enzymes to the nectar.

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Worker bees hard at work in their hive. In the bottom right corner you can see the honey-filled cells capped with bees wax

Once there are enough enzymes in the nectar, it is then deposited into a beeswax cell in the hive. The worker bees then beat their wings to create an air current to evaporate excess water from the nectar-enzyme mix to increase its viscosity. Once this is done, the cell is capped with beeswax so that the digestive enzymes can continue to complete the nectar’s transformation into honey.

So yes, honey is literally digested-bee-vomit, but it is also the hive’s source of food in the winter. Therefore, it is important for apiaries to ensure that they do not extract too much honey from each hive, as this can result in the mass die-out of colonies over the winter. However, these apiaries need to take some honey from the bees to keep them from swarming. When a hive runs out of space to store honey, they have officially run out of things to do, making them restless, unhappy and will eventually lead them to swarm in search of a new hive.

One hive will make and consume more than 50 kg of honey in a single year, but this takes much more work then you think. To make one pound of honey, 10 000 bees have to fly over 120 000 km and visit over 8 million flowers. So next time you eat honey, take a moment to appreciate the tremendous amount of work that went into producing this delicious substance.

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DIY beeswax candles in the making. We used the sticks to hold the wick out of the wax wile it solidified

honey extraction

Is there enough land to feed the world? Calling for more sustainable diets

A new study at the University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo have found that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommended diet is too land-intensive for the planet. If everyone on the planet followed this recommended diet, then an additional gigahectare of land (the size of Canada) devoted agriculture would be needed to produce this food, exceeding the amount of fertile land actually available. This means that these dietary guidelines are fundamentally flawed and that not only nutrition, but also the long-term stability of the food system and of the environment need to be considered when creating them.

This study focuses specifically on the supply of food needed to feed the world based on USDA dietary recommendations, and the land required to achieve this supply, regardless of the accessibility of the food to the world population and how much of this food is lost or wasted from farm to table. Results show that in North America, land could be spared by switching to the USDA recommended diet, because the current consumption of land-intensive foods by people in this area, such as meat products, is higher than the USDA guidelines recommend. Conversely, Africa, Eastern Europe, the European Union and Oceania would cause a large land deficit by following the USDA recommended diet. Focusing in on the European Union, where instances of malnourishment are currently infrequent, causing a land deficit, suggests that the USDA guidelines are unsustainable when it comes to land-intensive foods.

The information in this study is novel in terms of the physical quantification of the land required to feed the world according to USDA guidelines, however, the results and implications line up with what the sustainable diets discourses have been saying for many years. As early as 1971, Frances Moore Lappé’s pioneering book, Diet for a Small Planet, pointed out the consequences of unfair and ineffective food policies that favor meat production over plant-based diets. Lappé advocated for change toward overall consumption of food that is lower down the food chain and placed urgency on the need of corporate and social responsibility to achieve this.

To feed a person on a plant-based vegan diet for one year, requires one-sixth of an acre of land. To feed a person on a vegetarian diet including egg and dairy products, requires three times that amount of land. The average American’s diet, that is high in meat, egg and dairy consumption, requires 18 times as much land. This accounts for the land required to grow the food needed to feed the livestock as well as the land needed to keep livestock. There are currently 9 billion livestock maintained on US soil to meet the demand of animal protein consumed by Americans. These livestock consume 7 times more grain than is consumed directly by the entire American population. This amount of grain would be sufficient to meet the needs of 840 million people on a plant-based diet. Additionally, producing 1 kg of animal protein requires 100 times more water than producing 1 kg of grain protein. This incorporates the water needed to grow the amount of feed needed to maintain the livestock over the course of their lives as well as to support the livestock themselves. For example, to produce 1 kg of beef requires about 13 kg of grain and 30 kg of hay. Approximately 17 000 L of water is needed to grow that grain and about 30 000 L for the hay.

Given the land and resource intensity of meat production, devoting more land to meat production to meet the USDA guidelines worldwide is neither a feasible nor sustainable way to feed to world. For food production to be sustainable, it must not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Current food production is condoning the overuse of chemical fertilizers, land and water, degrading the soil, accelerating biodiversity loss, altering biochemical cycles, disturbing the carbon cycle and supports unfair trading practices. These exploitative and destructive patterns are severely compromising the health and even the existence of future generations as well as future planetary health.

Given this, it is no surprise that the policies surrounding food production and standardized dietary guidelines are in serious need of an overhaul, but this is not the first time researchers are saying this. In 1986 Joan Gussow and Kate Clancy coined the term “sustainable diet,” arguing that food choices cannot be solely based on nutrition, but must also incorporate environmental, cultural and economic and ethical criteria. A sustainable diet therefore works toward protecting and respecting biodiversity and natural ecosystems, is culturally acceptable, accessible, economically just and affordable, nutritionally sufficient, safe, and healthy.

 Sustainable diets are therefore needed because as humans, our well-being is founded on the well-being of the environment in which we live. Anything threatening its well-being, integrity and stability is inherently threatening our own. This new research supports the urgency of policies that promote sustainable diets by putting a quantitative lens on this ethical foundation of sustainability and implies that dietary guidelines must consider sustainable global land use, equity, and natural ecosystem conservation in addition to human health requirements.