Today I want to pay all my attention to what we all like most: HONEY.
Or do we?
Even though most honey is wonderfully magic, it doesn’t have the magical properties to deliver itself spontaneously into a jar, ready to eat. Before you get to see it, it has undergone a lot of faithful industrious work by both bee and beekeeper. And there are things that can go wrong.
Think about these things next time you put a big spoonful in your mouth.
A shocker. Not all honeys are edible. In fact, you could die by eating the wrong type of honey. Only one teaspoon of toxic honey can be enough to put you down after a semi-epileptic attack; from rolling of the eyes to a true delirium.
Don’t worry too much. Besides the strict regulations of food safety in New Zealand that makes it basically impossible for you to buy a jar of toxic honey, the biological process that creates it is a quite unlikely one, and dependent on a specific combination of quite unlikely factors.
It all starts with New Zealand’s native bush Tutu (Coriaria arborea). Tutu’s sap is poisonous, containing a toxin called tutin. If you own any cattle that are exposed to these bushes, you know what I’m talking about. It tips ‘em over pretty quickly.
It’s not toxic to bees though. Bees can collect Tutu honeydew, store it in their hives and feed on it without a problem. A vine hopper (Scolypopa sp) prepares it for them. It feeds on the Tutu sap and excretes it on the bush leaves as a sugary honeydew. This honeydew honey stored in the beehive looks, taste and smells exactly the same as any other honey.
A recipe for this disaster contains the following ingredients:
A warmish climate (North Island and top of South Island)
A lot of vine hoppers and Tutu bushes
Drought (rain can wash off the honeydew)
Absence of more attractive bushes and flowers
And of course honey bees.
Chemicals in my honey
Have you ever wondered what those honey labels mean that proudly state “UMF Active 10+ Manuka Honey”?
You’ve probably heard about the wonderful medicinal properties of Manuka honey. Just so that you know: all honeys have medicinal properties. This is caused by the antibacterial chemical hydrogen peroxide. But there is something extra special about honey from Manuka flowers.
Your honey only needs to consist of 20% Manuka flowers in order to be able to label it as Manuka honey. So obviously, the higher the percentage, the better. However it is not legally required to put this type of information on your label. Often it will remain a mystery for the buyer.
No honey is exactly the same. In Manuka honey especially, variation has great effects on its healing powers. Some Manuka honeys have the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) while others don’t. And commercial sellers are all too happy to advertise this.
It all depends on the specific tree the honey comes from. The tree has to have a fungus on it that produces a chemical. it is the antiseptic phenol (carbolic acid). It’s actually quite a nasty chemical. In large quantities this chemical can be harmful, but in the right dose it brings an additional antibacterial quality. So if your honey label says UMF 10+ it means it has the same strenght as a 10% solution of phenol. Both the peroxide chemical and the phenol work together and form an extra strong and stable medicine. In some cases there is even an additional chemical present: dihydroxyacetone (DHA) that can later on convert into methylglyoxal. This means that the antibacterial activity of Manuka honey can increase over time.
It is even possible to test nectar of the flowers for DHA, which can help beekeepers decide if their honey should be sold for eating or as a proper medicine…
As you see, it’ s all quite a chemical business. Some people go even as far as to say that you shouldn’t eat more than a teaspoon of Manuka honey per day…
Not all flowers create beautiful delicious honey. Beware!
Beware of swedes! Honey made from swede flowers smell like vomit.
Beware of fennel! Honey made from fennel has a very unpleasant sickening taste.
Bees will always choose the best flowers they can find, but when resources are scarce or if the “inferior ones” are just conveniently close by, they won’t hesitate.
Believe me, when beekeepers extract their honey from the hives they love to stick their fingers in it every now and again. Yummm….
Don’t worry, I’m really not trying to put you off honey so that I can eat it all.