Caring for bees organically: producing raw honey without dangerous synthetic chemicals & antibiotics.
The Properties Of Honey
When gathered by the bees and brought into the hive, the nectar from the blossoms of flowering plants contains about 60% water. After mixing the nectar with enzymes, the bees will evaporate off much of the water by moving the air within the hive around with their wings until the moisture content falls to about 18 percent or less. This is the point at which honey is considered to be ripe.
Ripe honey is hygroscopic in nature. This means that it has the tendency to draw moisture to itself. If honey is left exposed to the air, it will absorb the moisture in the air that exists in the form of humidity. If the water concentration increases to the point where it is above the 18 percent range, yeast (that is found naturally in the environment) will be able to multiply in the honey. A by-product of the yeast growth is alcohol as the honey ferments. If the correct yeast is present (and naturally occurring yeast is not typically such), a drink known as mead is produced. When the moisture content of the honey is allowed to increase to between 18 and 19 percent or higher, naturally occurring yeast will cause the honey to ferment and develop a somewhat unpalatable taste that is sour...though it still can be eaten or used in baking or mead making.
Because honey is hygroscopic, it is often used to extend the shelf-life of baked goods. Cookies, cakes and pastries are less likely to dry out because the honey in them absorbs moisture from the surrounding air. If you want to experiment, bake a batch of cookies using sugar. Then make a second batch and replace half of the sugar with honey. When doing this you need to reduce the liquids in the recipe by 1/4 cup for each cup of honey (because of the moisture content of the honey...remember, about 18 percent or so) and reduce the cooking temperature by about 25 degrees. See which batch lasts longer before going stale.
The bees prevent the fermentation of honey by sealing fully ripened honey in the honey comb with a thin layer of beeswax. When honey is harvested, we can leave it in the comb or extract it from the comb and seal it in jars. At a moisture level of 18 percent or below, and with a pH of 3-4, the honey is very stable and can last literally for centuries. (Honey was found in Egyptian tombs still in eatable condition) As long as it is protected from moisture, nothing harmful to humans (e.g. mold or bacteria) can grow in honey. Fully ripened honey may become hard and lumpy, but it will never become moldy or rancid. While stored honey will naturally darken over time, this does not adversely effect its ability to be eaten and enjoyed.
When first extracted from the hive, honey is typically in its liquid form. Over time most kinds of honey will naturally start to crystallize and become opaque. The crystallization process is a natural one and does not spoil the honey in any way other than to make it less runny by giving the honey the consistency of butter. To extend the shelf life of honey in its liquid form, most honey processors will heat crystallized honey to melt the sugar crystals and reliquify the honey. Unfortunately this cooking process destroys the enzymes found in raw honey and ruins the delicate flavor of the honey. When in its liquid form, honey is translucent. This allows the small bits and pieces of pollen, beeswax and propolis that enter the honey during the extraction process to become visible. Since most folks don't want things floating around in their honey, the pollen, beeswax and propolis are filtered out, seriously degrading the nutritional quality of the honey that remains.
Honey does not need to be refrigerated. Cool temperatures will simply make crystallized honey harder. When stored in a warm environment, honey will soften. If kept for extended periods in temperatures between 85-95 degrees Fahrenheit or more, honey will tend to liquefy as the sugar crystals slowly melt. Liquid or comb honey can be kept frozen, which will retard the crystallization process. Unfortunately, once thawed out, the liquid honey will tend to crystallize faster than it would normally.
Healing With Raw Honey
Honey has a long history of medicinal use dating back thousands of years. While the health and healing properties of honey are wide and varied, it is raw honey's antibacterial and antifungal properties that make it ideal for use on wounds, burns and infections. With its low pH and high sugar content, honey inhibits the growth of pathogens in much the same way that sugar is used to preserve jams and jellies. The hygroscopic nature of honey allow it to draw the moisture out of any bacteria or mold that are unfortunate enough to find themselves in contact with it. In this way, the bacteria found in infectious wounds are dehydrated and killed off by the application of honey. As if that was not enough, honey contains the enzyme glucose oxidase that upon contact with the skin, breaks down and slowly releases hydrogen peroxide in the process. Thus, honey provides a degree of antiseptic action that is unparalleled in the world of medicine.
When it comes to burns, raw honey is miles ahead of other treatments. In less than a minute after application, a honey poultice will stop the pain associated with even nasty burns by sealing off the wound from the air. In addition to the antibacterial action described above that prevents infection, honey keeps the burn site moist so that the typical pain associated with the changing of burn wound dressings is significantly diminished. Additionally, the typical discoloration and scarring associated with burns is greatly reduced and in many cases eliminated completely. Now if the pharmaceutical industry could manage to manufacture a treatment with the above attributes, the FDA and AMA would mandate that it be used as the primary treatment for all burn victims throughout the United States. So why do we not hear more about the miraculous effects of raw honey on wounds, burns or infections? It is because honey is a natural product, like herbs and food supplements, and as such it is unpatentable and therefore its manufacture and distribution can not be controlled and monopolized. Our capitalistic system holds so much promise, and yet contains a fatal flaw...it only produces and encourages that which makes the most profit, not what is necessarily best for society.
The Dancing Bee Philosophy
We believe in managing our hives in a manner that places the interests of the bees ahead of the personal interests of the beekeeper. This means that here, in the Champlain Valley of Vermont, we often give up a significant part of the honey harvest to be sure the hives have plenty of honey to get them through the long winter months. By conducting our annual harvest earlier in the year than most beekeepers in this neck of the woods, we not only ensure that all the Autumn honey the bees collect goes toward their winter provisions, but that there is plenty of time to provide necessary treatments for mites and diseases ensuring that the bees in our care are strong and vibrantly healthy as they head into the long winter months. In order to make it through the winter without starving, bees in Vermont typically require a minimum of 60-80 pounds of honey depending on the colony age and size. We only feed our bees sugar syrup as a last resort, in emergency situations, believing that bees are meant to eat honey made from the nectar of flowers and that regularly feeding them artificial diets that are devoid of the necessary nutrients and enzymes they require will not allow the bees to thrive.
Honey and Infant Botulism
"Do not feed honey to infants under one year of age" or some similar warning is common on honey labels. This is because honey may contain spores of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Botulism spores are similar to seeds in that they are in a favorable environment they will germinate and grow into their vegetative phase. Infant botulism is caused when enough C. botulinum enter their vegetative stage and start growing rapidly in the infants immature digestive tract producing a toxin that impacts the child's neurological functions. Newborn babies lack the intestinal micro flora that prevent healthy children and adults from getting sick after ingesting C. botulinum. About half of reported cases of infant botulism have occurred in babies less than two months old. While it is believed that by six months of age most infants will have developed their intestinal fora to the point where they become resistant to C. botulinum (especially if they are breast fed), an additional six months has been added to the warning by the national Center for Disease Control (CDC) as a safety factor.
Symptoms of infant botulism include muscle weakness or loss of control such as droopy eye lids, weak cry, feeble sucking, drooling, lethargy, irritability, constipation, and progressive 'floppiness', all of which may follow an initial fever. An infant exhibiting these symptoms should receive prompt medical attention. Recovery is almost certain as long as the condition is diagnosed and treated early and the baby has not gotten brain damage. Infant botulism should not be confused with food borne botulism resulting from the consumption of preformed botulism toxin that can sicken older children and adults.
Infant botulism often occurs in babies that are not fed honey. This is because Clostridium botulinum spores are ubiquitous in our environment and found in soil, water, and on dust floating in the air. It is not known how many spores must be ingested before infant botulism will occur, or why only some babies seem to become sick. However, it does seem that chances of contracting the illness depends a lot on the immediate environment of the infant and the overall health and susceptibility of the baby. Infants may contract botulism from the surfaces in the environment, breathing dust in the air, or from water or food, as most foods will contain C. botulinum spores unless they have been processed in a way that has cleaned off or destroyed the spores and bacteria. The states of Pennsylvania, Utah, Arizona, and California tend to have higher instances of infant botulism than other states. It is believed that these states may have soils that have higher than average levels of C. botulinum spores.
C. botulinum in its vegetative stage can not survive in honey due to honey's antibacterial and antimicrobial properties that are well documented. In fact, when honey is ripe with a moisture content below about 18 percent, nothing harmful to humans can grow in it. Raw honey that is ripe is the only natural unprocessed food, that for all intensive purposes will never spoil when stored properly in an air tight moisture proof container. Honey does not need to be refrigerated.
There are several ways that honey controls the growth of bacteria and mold. The higher sugar content and the pH of honey inhibits the growth of molds and other pathogens in much the same way that sugar is used to preserve jams and jellies. Raw honey that has been unheated and unfiltered also contains the enzyme glucose oxidase which converts into hydrogen peroxide and gluconic acid as it breaks down on the skin. Thus, raw honey applied to a wound will be constantly releasing hydrogen peroxide that will help sterilize the wound area. In addition, honey is hygroscopic. This means that it draws moisture to itself. As a result, when honey comes into contact with bacteria, it will suck the moisture out of the bacteria killing off the microscopic critters. In fact, if you have botulism growing in a petri dish and add raw honey, the honey will kill the botulism. Given that honey itself will kill off botulism in its vegetative stage and that C. botulinum spores are prevalent throughout our environment and thus present in many foods besides honey, why do we focus specifically on feeding honey to infants under the age of one?
To date I have not been able to find any documented evidence of a single case of infant botulism that can be proven to be caused by honey. This may be because it would be considered immoral to conduct a study where babies were purposely fed honey contaminated with botulism spores in an effort to clearly prove cause and effect. However, this begs the question, why is honey the only food that is singled out for a warning label stating that it should not be fed to infants less than a year old?
When researchers investigate instances of infant botulism, they find that in most cases the child has not consumed honey. However, there have been cases of infant botulism where the baby had been fed honey at some point prior to getting sick. When this information is combined with the fact that about five percent of the roughly 2,100 honey samples tested have been found to contain C. botulinum spores, and in at least one case an infant that contracted botulism had eaten honey that tested positive, this identifies honey as a risk factor and establishes a correlation between honey and infant botulism. This is the reason why the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Health Canada, along with other public health associations and the National Honey Board all agree that there is enough of a scientific link between honey and infant botulism to warrant the precautionary measure of a warning statement. However, any scientist worth his or her salt will tell you: one of the most basic principles of science is that correlation does not prove causation. This basic truth seems to be what the CDC, AAP, Health Canada, and the National Honey Board want us all to forget.
Now don't get me wrong, I am not claiming that just because it has yet to be definitively proven that honey is a cause of infant botulism that it is impossible for babies under one year of age to contract botulism from contaminated honey. After all, high concentrations of spores have been found in honey at times. What gets me is that the same can likely be said for many other foods. As a result I will admit that while label warnings may be prudently cautious and appropriate in the case of honey, I am at a loss to understand why honey is the only food item singled out with regard to carrying a warning statement.
Where are these spores coming from in the rare cases where honey has been found to be severely contaminated with C. botulinum spores? Some scientists believe that high concentrations of botulism spores may enter honey during rare and extreme conditions within the hive, or when dead bees get into the honey. However, since botulism spores have not been shown to grow in nectar that is being processed into honey inside the hive, nor can it grow in ripe honey that is in the comb or in the jar, it seems most likely that contamination occurs sometime during the honey harvesting, extracting, and bottling processes.
Efforts to produce honey free from botulism spores start by thoroughly cleaning your honey processing area, and all equipment prior to use for extracting and bottling. Everyone involved in the processing of honey should wash their hands before work. These are common sense actions that should be done by everyone on a regular basis anyway.
If you want to go the extra mile, keep bees from getting into the honey during extracting and close open windows to prevent dust buildup in the honey house. To be extra cautious, outdoor shoes should be left outside and only clean indoor shoes should be worn by those processing the honey so as not to track dirt into the processing area. As unlikely and inconvenient as these last suggestions sound, they may be the easiest way to ensure that honey is free from significant amounts of C. botulinum, especially if you keep bees in one of the states identified as a higher than normal risk.
Boodman, Sandra, Time Was Running Out For "Rag Doll" Baby, The Washington Post, April 21, 2009
CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Infant Botulism--Massachusetts, March 30, 1984, 33(12); 165-66
Snowdon, Jill A., Infant Botulism: An Overview, National Honey Board http://www.honey.com/
American Apitherapy Society http://www.apitherapy.org/