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Science by Laurisa

THE SCIENCE OF HONEY

by Laurisa White Reyes

I’ve probably driven down Highway 126, a two-lane road running through the heart of rural Southern California, at least a hundred times over the past ten years. Yet, despite its familiarity, this was the first time I’ve noticed that sign, that big yellow sign with the words "Bennett’s Honey Farm" printed on it. Intrigued, I decided to turn onto the dirt lane that runs perpendicular to the highway to see just what this honey farm was all about.

The lane ended in a tiny parking lot next to a rectangular building nestled in a grove of orange trees. The blue, green and white plaid curtains in the windows were reminiscent of country kitchens and good old-fashioned home cookin’. A sea of low growing crops nearby provided an inviting backdrop of green.

As I stepped through the door I found myself in a narrow room with a wooden rocking chair and wood burning stove in one corner and a cash register in another. The walls were lined with shelves and tables all laden with honey paraphernalia: Beeswax candles, cookbooks, a honey stix dispenser, and dozens of jars of golden honey.

A woman with short curly blonde hair greeted me with a warm and friendly smile. As we spoke, I learned that her name is Ann Bennett and she and her husband, Red, have owned Bennett’s Honey Farm for twenty-seven years. The reason I hadn’t noticed it before is that their store’s current location has only been open one year. Prior to that, they sold their private label honey from their small shop in the nearby town of Piru. After a nearly a quarter century in that location, the building was destroyed in a fire. Mrs. Bennett pointed out the photo of that little shack pinned up on the wall by the door of the new store.

With his overalls and graying beard, Red Bennett is the very picture of a rural farm owner. He spoke softly and seemed more than happy to leave the storytelling to his wife. He did tell me, however, that before going into the beekeeping business he worked as a Senior Engineer for Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"Our children were in junior high and elementary school," explained Ann. "Beekeeping had been a hobby for Red, but when we realized it could be a means of support for us, we decided to move here to the country."

The Bennett’s currently manage between three and four hundred colonies of bees. They extract and package honey, which they ship to various businesses throughout Southern California.

HISTORY OF HONEY

Honey has been used as a sweetener for foods and beverages for thousands of years. Civilizations dating as far back as 4,000 B.C. used honey not only for food but also in sacred rituals. In ancient Greece, honey was used to make Mead, the drink of the Gods. In colonial America honey was used to preserve fruit, make cement and furniture varnish, and for medicinal purposes. Beekeeping dates back to ancient Egypt, but modern beekeeping methods began in 1852 when Reverend L.L. Langstroth invented a wooden hive with movable frames.

Today, foods are more commonly sweetened with sugar or sugar substitutes, though honey is an ingredient in more foods than you might realize. Honey is frequently used as a sandwich spread or to sweeten herbal tea or oatmeal. Yet honey is one of the most versatile foods available and can be used in the place of sugar in many recipes lending the food a more distinctive flavor.

HOW BEES MAKE HONEY

Each honeybee colony consists of one queen, between 500 and 1,000 drones and as many as 60,000 workers. The queen is the only sexually-developed female in the hive. Shortly after hatching, the queen mates with the male drones and begins her life of reproduction. Queens can live as long as two years and are capable of laying 3,000 eggs in a single day.

Worker bees are sexually-undeveloped females. Their responsibilities include cleaning the hive, collecting nectar, feeding the larvae, and fanning their wings to keep the hive cool. The nectar they collect is used to make honey, the hive’s source of food. Workers must travel 55,000 miles and collect nectar from two million flowers to make a single pound of honey. One hive can produce as much as 80 pounds of excess honey each year, which is a lot, considering the fact that each honey bee makes only 1/12th teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.

HOW HONEY IS PROCESSED

There are 211,000 beekeepers in the United States today and approximately 3 million individual honey bee colonies. Hives are located where bees have access to water and large numbers of blossoms. The bees build their combs from wax, which they also produce, and fill the six-sided cells with honey. Beekeepers remove the frames and scrape off the ends of the cells exposing the honey, then extract it through centrifugal force, gravity, or straining. After passing through a filter, the honey is either stored in 55 gallon drums for distribution or bottled for local sale.

WHAT MAKES HONEY SO SPECIAL

Honey is the only insect-produced food consumed by humans. The U.S. per capita consumption of honey is 1.31 pounds. But despite the quantity of honey we Americans eat each year, most people are not aware of how unique a food it really is.

First of all, honey is an antimicrobial agent. It inhibits the growth of bacteria, yeast and molds. When used to treat minor wounds and burns, honey promotes healing and prevents scarring. Honey is high in vitamins and minerals and contains several compounds which act as antioxidants. It also boosts energy levels and endurance.

Honey is used in a wide array of prepared foods from mustard and beer, to graham crackers and marinades. Honey is also great all by itself. However, if you were to visit the Bennett’s farm looking for honey, you might be surprised at what you would find there.

The Bennett’s produce no fewer than eight different types of honey. Each type of honey is named for its floral source -- the flower from which the bees collect their pollen. (Beekeepers keep their bees in the confines of particular crops for the purpose of producing a definitive flavor/quality of honey. The Bennetts have their own orange and avocado groves for their bees. Other beekeepers actually "borrow" crops for their colonies, moving the colonies from crop to crop, sometimes all over the country. The bees’ activities are always the same. Only the flavor/quality of the honey they produce changes, depending on where the keeper places the hives.) There are actually over 300 kinds of honey in the United States, each one with its own distinct characteristics, such as color, flavor, and texture. The types of honey made by the Bennett’s include Orange Blossom, Avocado, Eucalyptus, Sage, Buckwheat, Clover, Cactus, and Wildflower. The honey most -commonly available in supermarkets is clover, which is light amber in color with a mild, delicate flavor. Darker honeys, such as Avocado, have more robust flavors.

CONCLUSION

Before I left the Bennett’s farm, I bought six jars of honey. Having sampled all eight flavors I realized that each one was unique and I couldn’t decide on only one. My children and I each have our favorite. My daughter loves the thick, crystalline cactus honey. My son likes sage honey. I prefer the honeysuckle fragrance and flavor of orange blossom honey. We haven’t yet tried the jar of honeycomb, which I understand is quite a treat, and according to Mrs. Bennett, the honeycomb is edible.

After my visit to Bennett’s Honey Farm I brought my collection of honey jars home and lined them up on the table for my husband. "Honey’s honey," he said with a shrug. I grinned as I handed him a spoon and told him, "Just wait ‘til you taste this!" L.R.