Making honey: Sweet things in life are hard won

Thomas Quigley and Mary O’Riordan show how much work the little bee puts into producing a single jar of your morning honey.
Making honey: Sweet things in life are hard won

Producing honey is hard work — a bee makes just a 12th of a teaspoon in its lifetime; a one-pound jar represents the nectar from two million flowers. We’ve been collecting it for 10,000 years. It never goes off in its raw state, has supposed health benefits, tastes heavenly and was – until the discovery of sugar – our only sweetener.

Nowadays a wide range of honeys adorn our shops, supermarkets and farmers’ markets and the displays in specialist shops can be bewildering. In Ireland we don’t half get through honey: 5500 tonnes annually.

Honey ranges in colour from almost white to nearly black; it may be clear or creamy and its origin is diverse. Fortunately, things are not as complex as they might appear at first glance.

Honey is an intricate mix of about 80% natural sugars, 18% water and 2% minerals, vitamins, pollen and protein. Of the honey’s natural sugar content, around 70% is made up of fructose and glucose. The balance of these two sugars determines whether a honey is clear or set. Both types are equally pure and additive free. The higher the fructose content, the longer the honey will remain liquid. Some honey contains more glucose than fructose and, therefore, is very likely to crystallise swiftly, for example, honey from oil seed rape.

There is no difference in the taste or nutritional value of these two states. Honey can be restored to a liquid state by standing it in warm water for an hour or so.

Comb honey is honey presented in its original comb, or portions of it, straight from the hive with the honey still in the cells. You get the wax, honey, pollen and any other bits and pieces. Section honey in squares is where bees are persuaded to pack their golden harvest into small squares of comb in individual wooden frames.

It is very difficult to produce as the bees hate to work that way, the beehive needs to have huge numbers of bees packed tightly together and the weather seldom obliges in Ireland.

Clear honey is fairly fluid and is virtually the same state as it was in the hive, but is extracted from the comb. It only has been strained through a cloth or fine sieve to remove any debris.

Occasionally, although rarely with Irish honey, it may be heat-treated to prevent crystallisation. It is usually a lovely pale or golden amber colour, but can de darker, almost black, depending on the flowers from which it was made.

You will sometimes see clear honey marketed as ‘raw honey’. This is honey obtained by extraction, settling or straining without adding heat. In Ireland, pure local honey and raw honey are practically the same product, just labelled differently.

Creamy set honey is thick and opaque. It is also called whipped honey, spun honey, churned honey, and set honey. It is honey which has been whipped to control crystallization and therefore contains a large number of small crystals, which prevent the formation of larger crystals that can occur in granulated honey.

The whipping process produces a honey with a smooth, spreadable consistency. Creamed honey is very popular in the UK and Germany where a lot of the honey produced by bees is obtained from oil seed rape which granulates very rapidly and is commonly creamed before jarring for sale.

All honeys are sweet, but when it comes to tasting them individually it is surprising how much range there is. The range of scents and flavours depends on the type of flowers used by the bees. A professional honey-taster can nose a honey to identify the flower and assess the quality of the honey. A honey is termed polyflower if the bees were allowed to pick and choose the nectar from a range of vegetation, making up their own unique recipe. Virtually all Irish honeys are polyflower.

Monoflower or single-flower honey may sound simpler, but it requires more skill on the part of the beekeeper to ensure that the bees take the nectar largely from one specific type of flower; one way for the beekeeper to ensure predominantly single flower produce is to physically transport the hives to the place where a particular flower or crop is in blossom, and leave them there until the flowering is over. The honey has then to be harvested before the hive is moved on to another spot, perhaps as a different crop comes into flower.

Blended honey is mix of several varieties of honey differing in floral source, colour, flavour and/or geographic origin. Commercial honey producers blend honey to create a uniform honey from undistinguished harvests, with a sustainable texture and flavour that will appeal.

However, the taste of blended honeys is quite mild. About 80% of honeys sold in Ireland are most likely to be blended. Check the labels of your jar of honey to determine if it is merely a blended honey from EU and non-EU sources.

In 2015 we imported 4550 tonnes of honey, most from outside the EU. UK, Germany, Spain, France, and Belgium produce high quantities, but they also consume it. Ireland’s small band of beekeepers produce, in a good year, a 10th of that and less in cool wet summers, as the bees won’t fly.

The UK is a big exporter of honey to Ireland and China, the world’s largest honey producer, is the exporter which dominates the Irish honey-packaging market. Other honey on the Irish market comes also from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Thailand, New Zealand and more recently the Ukraine.

Honeys from these diverse countries are generally blended to achieve a consistent flavour and packaged in Ireland or the UK as pure honey. Due to food standard regulations, there’s no such thing as bad honey, but these blended products are just less interesting than their pure Irish counterparts.

Pure Irish honey is rare now as it was a poor year for beekeepers, so if you see it in the shops, or at the farmers’ market make sure to snap it up now, as it will be gone soon.

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