What is Honeycomb? Everything You Should Know About It
What is honeycomb? For many people, raw honeycomb brings back memories of visiting their grandparent's farm. A generation or two ago, most family farms had beehives. The bees would pollinate the summer crops and, as a added bonus, farmers would harvest some honey. Often, they would keep the honey in the comb and offer it as a special treat to visiting friends and family. Biting into a fresh piece of honeycomb is a rare and satisfying treat. Plus, honeycomb is nutritious and there are some health benefits from eating raw honeycomb.
What is honeycomb made of?
Honeycomb is made from beeswax cells that are filled with honey. A portion of the bees in a hive are making fresh beeswax and honeycomb structure nearly every day. The beeswax is secreted from a special gland on the honeybee's abdomen, and comes out as small, oval scales. When fresh, it is white in color. Beeswax turns yellow as the bees walk all over it with their fuzzy, pollen-covered bodies.
How do bees make honeycomb?
To make the honey comb structure, a beekeeper will place wooden frames inside the beehive. Wedged inside these frames are thin sheets of beeswax, stamped with little hexagon shapes. Using these hexagon outlines, the honey bees then make their own beeswax to create three-dimensional cells. This is called "drawing out the comb." Worker bees then deposit nectar mixed with enzymes into these cells and fan the mixture to evaporate excess moisture. When the honey falls below 18% moisture (how do the honey bees know this?), then the cell is capped with a thin layer of wax. Capped honey is ready to harvest. You can either uncap the honeycomb and spin out the honey using an extractor, or simply cut out squares and package it as pure honeycomb.
Why do honeycomb cells have 6 sides?
A six-sided polygon, commonly called a hexagon, is not a random shape adopted by the bees inside their beehive. This shape is a deliberate and excellent choice for several reasons. First, a hexagon has a property called tessallation. This means that the shape can be repeated across a flat surface without overlapping or leaving any gaps. Several rows of circles, for example, would not fit neatly together. Second, hexagons are strong. The six equal sides provide for significant cell rigidity and strength. Third, hexagons are an efficient shape. Squares and triangles can also tessallate, but the same number of squares or triangles on a surface take up more space as compared to the same number of hexagons. This is very important for the bees, as it requires a lot of food and energy to make beeswax. Fourth, hexagons are very efficient at holding liquids. And what better liquid to fill them with than honey?
How long does it take bees to make honey comb?
It all depends on the "nectar flow." Honey bees collect nectar from nectar-producing flowers. These flowers can be on plants, grasses, bushes and trees. When lots of nectar is available in areas close to the beehive, then the bees work hard and fast. With a strong nectar flow, a healthy beehive can complete the honeycomb structure and completely fill it with nectar in a matter of days. Only a few days later, the honey will be capped and ready to eat. But with a weak or slow nectar flow, it can take several weeks to draw out and fill the comb. If there is no nectar flow (called a "dearth") then very little work gets done and beekeepers will often need to feed the honey bees sugar water to tide them over until the next nectar flow.
Benefits of eating honeycomb.
Some people wonder if you can even eat honeycomb. Of course you can! Honeycomb is very nutritious. Not only do you get the health benefits of honey, but there is also an abundance of pollen on honeycomb, plus small amounts of propolis. Honey, pollen and propolis are all beneficial for your health and offer honey comb health benefits. If you eat honey for cough, then honeycomb will work just as well - and maybe even better due to the little bit of propolis present in the beeswax. Propolis has natural anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. In addition to these healthy honeycomb benefits, you also get the great flavor and fun of eating the raw honeycomb.
How to eat honeycomb.
How do you eat honeycomb? It's easy. Cut off a small piece of the comb and chew on it. Honey will immediately squirt out of the cells and fill you mouth with sweet flavor. Keep chewing for a few minutes until all of the honey has been extracted, and then spit out the small ball of beeswax. Some people just chew and swallow the beeswax, but that's up to you. Beeswax is not digestible, although it might add a bit of fiber to your diet.
What to do with honeycomb/How to use honeycomb?
Some people might think that honeycomb should be reserved for special events. But that's not what we believe at Smiley Honey. Eat it whenever you want - just like you might eat liquid honey. The picture shown below is from a breakfast buffet spread at a hotel in Germany. It was placed near the meat and cheese selection, which is perfect. A small piece of honey comb matches well with cured meats and deli cheese.
What does honeycomb taste like?
The honeycomb tastes like the honey inside the comb. So honeycomb from different plants and trees will have a different flavor. Most people prefer a mild tasting honeycomb, like acacia, clover or gallberry (holly). You can also find wildflower honeycomb at some markets, which is generally darker in color. Although more rare, you can sometimes find honeycomb with tupelo honey. After the honey has been chewed out, there will be a bit of a waxy flavor. But this after-taste is very mild and pleasant.
How long does honeycomb last?
Honeycomb, like raw honey, will last indefinitely as long as it is stored in a container with a tight fitting lid to prevent water or critters like ants from getting into the comb. But the flavor is often best when the honeycomb is fresh. So you should eat the honeycomb within a few weeks after receiving it.
Where can I buy honeycomb?
Try to find a reputable honey company (either online or at your farmer's market) and ask if they have any comb honey for sale. When it's in stock, Smiley Honey has a great selection of honeycomb made with gallberry (holly) honey. Wildflower honeycomb is also very good to eat, but it will be stronger in flavor.
Should you eat honeycomb? Absolutely! Honeycomb is fun to eat, honeycomb is nutritious, and that means honeycomb offers health benefits. It's a special and healthy treat made by hardworking honey bees. When you bite into a piece of fresh honeycomb, remember to thank them for their amazing, sweet work.