Understanding the Anatomy of a Honeybee
On October 19, 1909, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Entomology received a manuscript from Mr. R. E. Snodgrass, an agent and expert of the Bureau. It was entitled “The Anatomy of the Honeybee.” This exhaustive 150-page document was described as “embodying the results of detailed studies made by Mr. Snodgrass and should prove of value as bringing to the beekeeper reliable information concerning an insect of such great importance, and also as furnishing a sound basis in devising new and improved practical manipulations.” The brilliant work of Mr. Snodgrass is considered a valuable piece of work which has now been quoted and used continuously for over 100 years.
In 1956, the work of Robert Snodgrass was published into book form. With over 350 pages, it is a classic work that is acclaimed as much for the author’s remarkably detailed line drawings of the various body parts and organs of his subject as his authoritative knowledge of entomology. Over the years, it was suggested that his book should be in the library of every student of the honeybee and bee behavior.
For the sake of brevity, and in the words of Mr. Snodgrass, here is a summary of the primary functions of the honeybee:
“It possesses mouth organs for taking up raw food, an alimentary canal to digest it, salivary glands to furnish a digestive liquid, a contractile heart to keep the blood in circulation, a respiratory system to furnish fresh oxygen and carry off waste gases, excretory organs for eliminating waste substances from the blood, a nervous system to regulate and control all the other parts, and, finally, organs to produce the reproductive elements from which new individuals are formed to take the places of those that die.”
And, just to think, this is the masterfully created tiny machine that gives us honey!
Now, let’s take a closer look at how this happens.
“Drops of Honey” …FebruaryFeature
What is honey and how is it made?
Scientifically speaking, honey is a complex carbohydrate composed of approximately 80 percent monosaccharides, or simple sugars, mostly fructose (levulose) and glucose (dextrose) in varying ratios depending on the nectar source. The remaining content, approximately 16-18 percent, is water. Fructose is slightly sweeter than glucose and, when it occurs in larger quantities than the glucose, can lead to rapid crystallization of the honey,
Over twenty-five other disaccharides have been identified in honey along with oligosaccharides, including erlose, theanderose and panos. These are not naturally present in nectar but are formed during the honey ripening process.
One of the most important attributes of any honey is its water content. The average water content of most good-quality honeys is 17-18 percent. This happens because bees make it that way.
Yeast is also present in all honeys as a result of being in the environment in general. Proteins make up about twenty-five percent of honey composition with at least 19 different ones present. The proteins are mainly enzymes added by the bees during the ripening process. Invertase, the most significant enzyme is what sets honey apart from other sweeteners.
Honey contains a few amino acids. The most important, of which, is proline. Some proline is derived from the plant source, and some added by the bees. Proline is the measure of honeys ripeness and is an important standard for judging quality and flavor profile.
Gluconic acid is the most prominent acid found in honey. It adds flavor enhancing properties.
Honey contains a wide variety of minerals including potassium and trace elements. Worth noting, darker honeys are stronger in flavor due to their higher mineral content. Important also, is that these elements make it possible to identify different types of varietal honey.
Finally, honey also contains over six hundred volatile organic compounds (VOC) or plant-based essential oils. Many originate from the plant and some are added by the bee.
*Volatile organic compounds evaporate from honey when the honey is heated, therefore, heating honey compromises its delicate flavors.
In summary, let’s close with a few simple answers to the question, ‘what is honey’.
*Honey is the essence of flowers.
*Honey is a thick, golden liquid produced by industrious bees.
*Honey is the result of a colony of bees working together to collect flower nectar and transform it into a high-energy source for the hive.
*Honey is an organic, natural sugar alternative with no additives.
The A, Bee Cs of Honey Making
Honey production is a carefully orchestrated series of chemical processes including digestion, regurgitation, enzyme activity and evaporation. It is exclusively the creation of the female worker bees. Nectar, a sugary liquid, is extracted from flowers using a bee’s long tube-like tongue called a proboscis then stored in its stomach or “crop”. While sloshing around in the crop, the nectar mixes with the enzyme invertase which begins the transformation of its chemical composition and pH, making it more suitable for long-term storage.
When a honeybee returns to the hive, it passes the nectar to another bee by regurgitating the liquid into the other bee’s mouth. This regurgitation process is repeated until the partially digested nectar is finally deposited into a honeycomb.
Once in the comb, nectar is still a viscous liquid – nothing like the honey you use at home. To get all that extra water out of their honey, bees set to work fanning the honeycomb with their wings to speed up the process of evaporation.
When most of the water has evaporated from the honeycomb, the bee seals the comb with a secretion of liquid from its abdomen, which eventually hardens into beeswax. Away from air and water, honey can be stored indefinitely, providing bees with the perfect food source for cold winter months.
Linda Alexander, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2008
Honey Chocolate Cake with Chocolate-Honey Icing and/or Honey Whipped Cream