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Honey, unlike the perishable items found in your refrigerator or pantry, possesses the remarkable ability to remain unspoiled for thousands of years. The oldest recorded honey, dating to around 3,500 BC, was discovered in a burial tomb in the country of Georgia in 2003. Honey has also been found in ancient Egyptian tombs alongside other artifacts left for the afterlife.
Honey has several chemical properties that keep it from spoiling. First, as a sugar, honey is hygroscopic and thus has a very low moisture content. Therefore, it possesses a very dry environment where it is difficult for microorganisms to survive. However, hygroscopic substances can easily absorb water, which is why honey must be sealed securely to remain preserved. Additionally, with a pH level of around 3.9, honey’s acidity helps protect it from microbial growth.
However, although other hygroscopic foods such as molasses share this acidic property, they do not exhibit honey’s miraculous shelf-life, typically lasting no more than a year.
So why is honey the only food that doesn’t spoil in its edible form? Bees are integral to the reason honey is so long-lasting. When nectar is collected by bees, it has a very high water content. The bees effectively remove most of this moisture by fanning their wings, creating air circulation in the hive and drying out the nectar. Over the course of one to three days, they reduce the water content of the nectar to around 17%, turning it into honey.
Bees also have an enzyme in their stomachs called glucose oxidase. When nectar is regurgitated from the bees' mouths, it mixes with this enzyme to create the byproducts gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. The hydrogen peroxide in honey helps create an environment that is hostile to bacteria and other microorganisms, therefore keeping the honey preserved.
The buzz about honey and bees:
- Due to its antibacterial properties, honey has been used for centuries as a wound barrier. It is still used in some medical settings today.
- Despite the fact that a single honeybee can only produce 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, collectively, a hive of bees can produce 30 to 100 pounds of honey each year.
- The honeybee has five eyes which help it to navigate precisely and detect different shapes and colors.