According to the most recent regulations (D. Lgs. 21 may 2004 n.179) honey is “the naturally sweet substance that bees (Apis mellifera) produce from the nectar of the flowers or from the secretions from plants or parts of them, which bees collect, transform, combine with specific substances that they produce and leave them ripen in the honeycombs of the hive”.
Based on this definition we could assess that, referring to the territory of Sardinia, honey is not always “sweet” but “bitter” as well.
The bitterness of honey is an anomaly which is peculiar not only for the Sardinian Arbutus Unedo, but is also sporadically spotted in other botanical species in other regions of Europe and of the rest of the world.
Honey is actually produced almost in the whole world and is one of the first nourishments which has been used and developed by the mankind not only for sustenance purposes.
From the half of the last century honey has been matter of numerous scientifical studies and researches which have focused on its origins, its properties, the techniques to improve the production, the extraction and the commercialization.
In its wide variety honey is today a very simple food which is however exploited in several areas such as industrial and pharmaceutical.
It is the only product which holds the aroma of the flowers from which it has been produced and keeps inalterated the identity of the territory even after the production process.
Its fascinating history starts with the harvest of the natural sugary secretions such as the nectar or the honeydew. This harvest is performed by the bees through flights which can cover in total three terrestrial circumferences for just a half kilo of honey, obtained with an accurate work in the hives and in the combs.
The evocative history of honey is indeed more complex as it implies biological premises which are essential for the life of the whole Planet and well expressed in the interaction bee-plant-soil-climate. It is not a case that the statement “if the bees had to disappear from the Earth, the mankind would have only four years of life”, is attribute to a scientist like Albert Einstein”.
“Nectar is a sugary liquid derived from the sap of the superior plants and produced through specific glandular organs, the nectars, usually located in the flowers at the base of the petals”.
It is basically composed of water and three types of sugar: sucrose, glucose and fructose in different concentration and proportion. Little quantities of other types of sugars are also contained as well as chemical compounds such as aromatic essences, mineral salts, biological acids, aminoacids, enzymes.
The secretion of the nectar varies based on the type of plants but also depending on external factors such as the climate and the soil. The composition of the nectar, peculiar for each botanical species, impacts directly the composition of honey which is produced from it: for this reason the cardoon honey is in the physical properties, the colour, the scent, the taste and aroma different from a citrus or eucalyptus honey.
Likewise the nectar, the honeydew also derives from the lymph of the plants but while the nectar secretion is an active process, the honeydew is produced with the support of insects which sip the lymph from the plants for nourishment purposes. In order to procure the necessary substances these insects absorb significant quantities of lymph, they keep the nitrogen parts while the liquid in eccess which contains mainly sugar is transferred directly to the backside intestine and is excreted in the form of honeydew. Honeydew is in fact likewise nectar compounded mainly on sugar, but it contains more oligosaccharides. The drops of honeydew, which are excreted stay on the surface of leaves and of small branches of the plants attacked by the parassitics, are collected by the bees and other insects, wasps and ants. Numerous are the insects which produce honeydew and belong to several groups of the order of the Rhynchota (psyllium, coccoideas, aphidoidea, cicadellidaes).
The plants involved in the production of the honeydew in our geographical areas are mainly conifer trees (the silver fir, the European spruce, the pinus and the larch), but also deciduous and no nectar plants (oaks, beeches, poplars) or nectar plants (lindens, sallows, maples, chestnuts, black locust and fruit trees).
How is honey produced
The worker bee sips the sugary secretions (nectar and honeydew) by means of the part of the buccal apparatus aimed to suck and store the liquid and store it. The process of production of honey starts when the worker bee returns to the hive and hands over the drop of nectar to the other bees. The same drop before it is deposited in one of the honeycombs of the hive is rapidly passed from one bee to the other and this process, which takes approximately 15-20 minutes, causes the reduction of water through vaporisation because of the warm and dry air inside the hive. During this process nectar is mixed with the glandular secretions of the bees which contain enzymes that provoke chemical transformations of the sugar.
Inside the honeycombs the vaporation process continues until the point where the consistency of the water is low enough to assure the consistency of honey (less than 18 %): at this point the comb is sealed by the bees with the wax.
Generally the process of transformation of the nectar or the honeydew is a reduction of the quantity of water until its level reaches the amount compatible with the conservation of honey, with the increase of the enzymes and modification of the sugar.
Composition of honey
In the honey have been identified more than 300 different components. The composition depends mainly on two main factors: the most important one is the composition of the raw materials, nectar and honeydew which are directly harvested by the bees from the plants; the second one is related to environmental conditions and production techniques.
Raw materials can vary based on sugary elements or other features which influence flavour and aroma.
Among other factors which influence the composition are to be mentioned the techinque of honey collection and storage. Analytic techniques aimed to define the carachteristics of honey can also influence its composition.
Main components are carbohydrates (sugars), and monosaccharides, fructose and glucose, representing up tp the 95% od the carbohydrates.
The water is one of the most important elements as it impacts the conservation and it is expressed in % of humidity. The maximum level of humidity shall be the 20%, until this level no fermentation shall take place. In the honey are contained several organic acids such as acetic, butyric, citric, formic, gluconic, lactic, malic, oxalic and many others. Mineral elements are another significant component: potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, manganese, phosphorus and silicon. Proteins are also containd in very little quantities (0,2-0,3%).
Very important are the enzymes, specific proteic elements able to speed up biochemical reactions during the process of maturation of honey. Honey contains vitamins mainly from group B and C.
Together with the colour the crystallization is the physical characteristic which more impacts on the marketing of the product. Many types of honey (especially the ones produced in Europe) have the tendency to crystallize at normal storage temperatures because they contain more sugar than the quantity they would need in solution.
The process of crystallization is the formation of crystals of monohydrate glucose. Quantity, shape and disposition vary depending on the conditions in which the crystallization has taken place. Usually the longer the crystallization takes, the bigger are the crystals. Different types of honey also differ in the crystallization process according to their composition (the lower is the quantity of water contained, higher the quantity of glucose, the faster will be the crystallization), but also based on storage temperature.
The crystallization is very fast at temperatures about 14°C, whereas it is practically impossible above 25°C and below 5°C.
Composition and temperature are however not the only elements which influence the process: also hanging solide particles and the act of shaking cause the formation of crystals.
Honey is a particular and unique food thanks to its composition rich on glucose, fructose, organic acids, minerals, enzymes, aromas and many other substances.
Honey is rich on carbohydrates and has strong energetic power. There are 320 calories/100 g in comparison to 400 calories in sucrose or sugar.
Given that honey is composed mainly by elementary sugar (glucose and fructose) it is very light to digest. It immediately provides energy which makes it an ideal component in any diet, especially for sportsmen, elders, and generally when there is energetic need.
Notable is the sweetening power of the honey which is stronger than normal sugar: considering 100 as the value of the sweetening properties of sucrose, fructose is 173 and glucose 74.
Another difference from sugar is that honey is richer on flavours, scents and aromas and it gives less calories than the sugar.
Numerous are the therapeutic properties attributed to the honey so far.
Honey is supposed to heal the aches of the breathing apparatus, circulatory and digestive system, has positive effects on the liver and helps children teething by supporting the production of calcium. The list of the properties is very long but many of them have never been scientifically verified.
The antibacterial property has been verified in the honey as well as in his derivates (due to the concentration of sugar and to the acid pH).
This last property has been for a long time attributed to an undefined substance known as “inibina”: the enzyme glucose-oxidasys, in specific conditions of dilution, produces peroxide and glucose- acid from the glucose.
The accumulation of peroxide (which is later eliminated) gives to the honey the antibacterial characteristic; from a biological perspective this activity aims to protect the honey from microbial attacks during formation, when the concentration of sugar is still not enough.
This explains the antibacterial activity when honey is applied on wounds. Other substances contained in honey, such as polyphenoles have antibacterial qualities.
Generally most known benefits of honey are the trophic activity and the soothing effect, slightly laxative, hepatoprotector and detoxifying due to fructose.