Nature’s most skilled and experienced syrup makers are the bees. They’ve been making syrup out of plant nectar for millions of years. The process they use is the same one we employ for making syrup out of tree sap or cane juice: reduction. They start with a thin 80-20 water-to-sugar solution that they extract from flowers, then slowly reduce it until it has a moisture content right around 18%. At that point they deposit the syrup in a cell in the honey comb, cap it off with wax and await the winter (or the beekeeper).
The process by which bees convert nectar to honey is fascinating, and it begins at the moment a honey bee extracts the nectar from a flower. The nectar, which can be made of sucrose, glucose, fructose or any combination, flows into an organ called a honey stomach. There enzymes go to work on it, breaking any sucrose molecules (and other more complex sugars) down into simple glucose and fructose. When the forager bees arrive back at the hive they pass the nectar to other workers who first suck the honey into their own honey stomachs then begin a process of repeated regurgitation. They hold a small droplet of nectar just under their tiny mouth parts which exposes it to the air, causing some of the moisture to evaporate. They re-ingest the droplet and do it again. All the while enzymes continue to work on the honey, continuing the sugar breakdown and converting some of the glucose to gluconic acid (the reason for which I’ll explain in a moment).
After about 20 minutes of this, the worker deposits the nectar — which by this time is down to about 50% water — on the surfaces and the edges of the open honeycomb. There it’s left to evaporate further, a process that’s facilitated by other workers who beat their wings to create air flow through the hive.
Having been a beekeeper (Mrs. Pastry and I used to keep a few hives on a building in Chicago) I can say I’ve witnessed this behavior and it’s stunning. The humming sound that issued from our hives at night rivaled that of the HVAC units on nearby rooftops. Holding your hand out in front of the hive entrance you could feel the warm humid air flowing out, like the breath of some large animal. It gives you chills.
Once the honey has been reduced down to less than 20% moisture, it’s deposited in the comb and capped. The whole process, start to finish, takes about three weeks. The big question is: why do bees do this? Why do they expend so much time and energy creating the 5-1 syrup that the rest of the world knows as honey? The reason is: to prevent their nectar harvest from being plundered by microbes. For indeed syrups much over 20% water will eventually ferment in a warm environment. The concentration of sugar — combined with the gluconic acid I mentioned a few paragraphs ago — is enough to keep honey from spoiling indefinitely.
And when I say indefinitely I mean it. It’s been reported that an Egyptologist by the name of Theodore Davies found an urn that contained crystallized but still usable honey that was over 3,000 years old. Maybe that’s true maybe it isn’t, but suffice to say bees can successfully keep their harvest out of the hands of greedy microbes for a long, long time. Now if those poor bees could only do the same with greedy beekeepers…