For many centuries, humans have harvested honey from bees for its sweet taste and waxy comb, a unique substance that can be used for many purposes. What is honeycomb? Like honey, honeycomb is made by honeybees in their hives. Both substances get their start as nectar from flowers, which the honeybees transform into honey through a process of partial digestion and regurgitation (yes, honey is bee vomit). The honey can then be turned into honeycomb, which is used to store the bees’ eggs, larvae, pollen, and honey.
Honeycomb is made of a series of cells that are always assembled in a horizontal, hexagonal pattern for maximum strength and volume. A natural wax, honeycomb is made up of chemical compounds of fatty acids along with long chain alcohols. Like honey, the precise taste of the honeycomb will depend on the environment and type of flowers used for nectar. It is formed by the female worker bees, who secrete the substance from glands on the sides of their bodies – and must have a hive temperature of 91 – 97 degrees Fahrenheit to do so. Bees must consume over eight pounds of honey to create one pound of wax for their honeycomb, and it is estimated that a bee must fly 150,000 miles (the equivalent of six times around the earth) to produce one pound of beeswax.
Harvesting honey does not require the destruction of the honeycomb, thanks to a centrifugal machine that “spins” the honey out and returns the honeycomb basically intact to the bees. This honeycomb may be filled up again and again by the bees. Although it starts out almost clear, honeycomb is darkened over time by the cocoons inside and traffic stains from the bees’ feet. Honeycomb that you see for sale at upscale markets is fresh, brand new comb that has just been made by the bees and is full of honey, not cocoons. The honey is not removed from the waxy cells, and is instead sold intact as “comb honey” to be spread on bread, muffins and pastries.
Many honey enthusiasts contend that old-fashioned “comb honey,” a.k.a. honeycomb, is the only true unprocessed honey – a food put into its container by the animal that made it. Taken directly from the hive and usually cut by hand, honeycomb in this form preserves more of its wild flavor and nutrients. Honey in the comb is how most of our grandparents ate it, and the wax can be chewed like a natural gum, a sweet treat that’s popular with kids.
According to The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture, the comb honey era lasted from 1880 to 1915, and was a time when most beekeepers in America produced comb honey. Before the enactment of the pure food and drug laws, liquid honey was frequently “extended” with corn syrup, so consumers preferred honey that came straight from the bees with no human interference. When they ate a chunk of comb honey they knew it was pure, just as the bees had intended. As time went on, several things happened. Laws came into being that assured better food handling and labeling, honey extraction equipment improved, and beeswax by itself became popular for industrial uses. Beekeepers could make more money by selling the honey and the wax separately. In addition, if a beekeeper re-used his wax combs year after year, he could get bigger crops of honey. It takes a lot of bee-power to make the comb, so providing ready-made comb allows the bees to store more honey.
Unfortunately, with the declining availability of honeycomb, we lost a real treat. Each batch of honey retains the floral essences of the plants from which it was made, but the flavor of wax comb also differs according to what the bees ate and adds a richness to the flavor that extracted honey doesn’t have. Add to this the aroma of the basswood section box in which the comb was built, and you have a combination of flavors, textures, and aromas you can’t find anywhere else on earth. However, Winter Park Honey makes it easy to find natural honeycomb with minimal processing and maximum taste. Just visit our website at Winter Park Honey. Spread it on your favorite breakfast toast, enjoy on its own, or freeze the honeycomb to prevent crystallization and keep it fresh for months on end. One of nature’s most delicious gifts, honeycomb has always been an important ingredient on human menus and will no doubt continue to sweeten our lives and our desserts.