Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 583-A   November 29, 1975
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Man was a hunter of wild honey and a keeper of bees in prehistoric times. A rock painting on the wall of a cave near Valencia, Spain -- made many thousands of years ago -- shows a Stone Age man hanging by grass ropes and surrounded by angry bees as he takes a honeycomb out of a hole in a cliff and puts it in a basket. The lore of the honeybee and the uses of its stored honey have been favorite topics since the beginnings of written mythology and history. Certainly, honey has been the all-time favorite sweet of mankind.

The early colonists brought the honeybee to America about 300 years ago. Before that time there was no native honey except the spoonful or two in a nest of bumblebees. There was no other source of sweetening except maple sugar which the Indians learned to make by laboriously boiling down maple sap. Soon, swarms of these Old World honeybees escaped and established colonies in hollow trees. Over the years they spread westward through the forests, usually keeping about 100 miles in advance of the frontier. The Indians called them "White people's flies. " Woodlands near prairies with their wealth of flowers were especially productive and, in 1820, an early traveler said that Illinois had more honey than any other place in the world. Bee trees were hunted as much as big game and were more valuable.

Honey is the sweet, sticky fluid which bees make from the nectar of flowers. Honey is not the same as nectar because the double sugar in nectar is changed chemically while it is in the bee's honey sac. Each molecule of that sucrose (cane sugar), is split into two molecules of simple sugar: one of dextrose and one of levulose. Then the bees put this freshly made honey into the cells of the comb where it is allowed to "ripen, " and air is fanned over the open cells until about half of the water evaporates. Then each cell is sealed with a cap.

Honey contains about 77 per cent of sugar and only 18 per cent of water. Used as human food, the dextrose of honey is quickly absorbed by the blood and becomes an immediate source of muscular energy and heat. In contrast, before levulose can be used as fuel, it must first be converted into glycogen in the liver, then reconverted into dextrose. Honey, with its simple sugars, is often recommended by physicians and athletic trainers.

In Illinois, nectar is gathered mainly in summer from white clover, sweet clover and alsike clover, yielding a light-colored honey with a mild flavor. In fall, nectar of the smartweeds produce an amber honey with a stronger flavor while that made from Spanish needles is golden with a slight spicy flavor. The famous buckwheat honey is dark purplish and strong. Hundreds of other kinds of flowering plants contribute to the honey yield but by far the bulk of the Illinois crop comes from cultivated plants, many of which could scarcely survive without the services of these bee pollinators.

Each American eats an average of about one pound of honey in a year. Most of it is extracted from the comb before it is sold, and the comb is re-used by the bees. Some of the finest is marketed, in the comb, in small wooden frames, each with a double layer of cells and weighing about a pound. "raditionally, honey is spread on bread, biscuits, pancakes or waffles. Bread and bakery goods with honey in their recipes, instead of cane or beet sugar, remain moist longer. In olden times honey was fermented to make the drink called mead.

Bees must make 40,000 to 80,000 trips to make a single pound of honey. Each trip averages one to one and one-half miles -- a total distance more than twice around the world.

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