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A bee alights upon a flower, having been attracted to it by the sweet smell of nectar. Knowing of the plant's readiness to release nectar, the bee begins to extract the sugary substance and stores it away in a stomach pouch along with the other nectar it has collected for the day. This is only the first step in a complex process that brings honey to our tables. In fact, it will take over two hundred days and trips to over eight hundred thousand flowers to produce a 35 ounce pot of honey. Honey is one of the few foods for which we still rely on a natural process, and it is the only one which relies on an insect. In a time when most foods are processed and produced in labs, the honey industry still revolves around the unique alchemy and ability of the honeybee. The path from flower to table connects nature to modern production. It is a simple product with complex connections and a fascinating process.
It all begins in a manmade beehive; a multilevel contraption of boxes and screens that recreates the environment of a hive, but is designed to make removing excess honeycomb a more efficient procedure. A set of hives in the field looks more like abandoned dresser drawers than the site of mass production. Despite its uncomplicated aesthetics though, the beehive is a very efficient factory. Honeybees are perfect models for division of labor. Within their society there are three very distinct categories, each with specific duties and functions.
The Worker Bees are the active force behind the hive. These female honeybees gather the nectar and pollen, feed the larvae and pupae, supply water, secrete beeswax, build comb, and complete many other necessary tasks. In its lifetime this Worker Bee will produce only half a teaspoon of honey, but it will travel fifty-five thousand miles to do so (Dadant1).
The Drone is the most expendable member of the colony. These males bees only exist to impregnate the Queen Bee. In the winter months when the hive thins out due to the ceasing of honey production, it is mostly the Drones who are forced to leave and soon perish (Dadant 2).
The center of reproduction in the colony is the Queen Bee.
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Each bee knows its place in the colony and performs its specific duty to support the hive. The Worker Bee searches for nectar and carries it back to the hive in a special sack in its stomach. In this sack enzymes begin to react with the nectar and start the process of turning the water and sugar substance into honey. When the Worker returns to the hive, they transfer the nectar to a younger Worker, who continues the chemical reaction before placing the nectar in a beeswax comb they have produced from wax secretions. This substance then sits in the comb and slowly becomes the pure honey we see on our supermarket shelves. If it were left it would eventually turn hard, but an experienced beekeeper watches his hive and knows the perfect time to remove the full comb. This is the point where honey leaves the hands of nature.
The summer season is a busy time for beekeepers. It is at this time that all of their hard work to cultivate good hives will become prosperous. In the afternoon, when the temperature is warmest, beekeepers go out to their hives to remove the full boxes. To do this they must first either subdue the bees or remove them from the hive. Most beekeepers accomplish this by either using a smoking device that confuses the bees or a Black Lid, which uses a chemical that when warmed produces an displeasing odor causing the bees to leaves the hive. The beekeeper then removes the full boxes from the hive and replaces them with empty ones for the bees to continue filling. The full boxes are then taken to the extracting facility where they are put in a Hot Room, that keeps the honey warm until it is extracted from the comb. Each full box usually contains 8 frames of comb which holds the honey inside its cells. When the bees fill the comb with honey they cap it with wax so they can use it later. To extract the honey however, the comb must be put through an Uncapper, which trims a thin layer of comb off, revealing the cells filled with honey. The cappings fall into a holding tank below the Uncapper and the frame emerges ready to be placed in the Extractor. The Extractor is a machine which uses the principal of centrifugal force to remove the honey from the comb. As the Extractor spins the honey flows into the same holding tank that caught the cappings from the comb. This mixture is then pumped through a Heat Exchanger that warms the honey to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. This hot honey then moves into the Spin Float which separates the honey from the wax. This is accomplished by spinning the mixture at a high speed, causing the wax to be forced to the inside of the drum while the honey flows to the outside. The honey is then placed in another holding tank while the wax is cut and stored separately. All of the honey is held in large storage tanks where it can be sold in small quantities to individuals or put into barrels for bulk shipping (Eidnet). The largest beekeepers who mainly ship to big producers, have at most two thousand bee colonies. Even though their extraction is on a much larger scale, it still follows these same guidelines. So from the hobbyist beekeeper to the large scale producer, all honey must come from the comb in the same fashion.
What happens to the honey once it is extracted though? This is where mass production comes into the honey business. Some honey is packaged by those who extract it, and that is the honey you often find in little roadside fruit stands or a local market. Most people however, get their honey from the supermarket shelves and that means it is probably from one of the major producers, such as Sue Bee Honey.
Sue Bee Honey receives its honey from members of the Sioux Honey Association in huge 55 gallon drums at their plant in Iowa. These drums are weighed and then put in storage after being taken off the semi-trailer trucks. Once removed from storage the honey is dumped into one of 22 stainless steel melting tanks where it can be blended with the other honey delivered to the plant. Sue Bee researchers test the honey after it has been mixed to assure that it has a consistent flavor and quality. From that point it goes to processing where it is sent through a line of flash heating, cooling, and filtering to produce a pure and aesthetically pleasing product. Honey is naturally pure, but this process give us the golden smooth appearance we have become accustomed to. Once pumped through this system the honey is dropped into bottles and then capped. The conveyor moves these bottles along to where labels are placed on both the front and back. Once labeled the honey is delivered to a storage area. People are hired to keep watch over each piece of this packaging system, making sure it goes smoothly and that the proper label goes on each bottle. Each of these production lines makes up to eight thousand cases of finished honey in an eight hour period. The warehouse that stores these cases is computer controlled so that orders can be filled and shipped as efficiently as possible (SueBee). Sue Bee ships its product to many various locations. In the honey market as a whole 50 percent is taken by bulk or industrial users who often turn it into a consumer product like Sue Bee. Another 15 percent goes to foodservice and the remaining 35 percent to retail (Ifas 3). From restaurants and schools to your local market, honey produced in fields of Iowa can now make its way around the nation.
This is the end of the honey circuit, but it is far from the end of its component parts. One of the most important components in the production of honey is the cute plastic bottle. This bear shaped bottle was originally designed by Ralph Gamber a small time beekeeper who made it big. The plastic bottles are made by many different manufacturers, but the process remains mainly the same.
Plastics begin as hydrocarbons which are put through a complex "cracking process" that produces monomers such as ethylene, propylene, butene, and styrene. These monomers are chemically bonded into chains called polymers, which in different variations produce various characteristics for the plastic. In the case of honey bottles a thermoplastic is used, which contains bonding forces that soften when they are exposed to heat. This is needed so that it can be molded into that cute little bear shape. To shape the bottle injection molding is used. In this process the plastic material is put into a hopper that leads to a heating chamber where it is moved by a plunger. This heating softens the plastic to a fluid state so it can be pushed into a closed mold of the bear. After the plastic is formed, the mold is cooled and when solid, opened to expose the honey bear which can then be removed (Plastics Resource). These bottles are distributed throughout the nation to suppliers of honey. Some honey suppliers have their own bottle manufacturing plants, but most contract with outside producers.
The honey cycle continues on because the bottle does not disappear when the honey is gone. Once a bottle is emptied a consumer has three choices as to what he or she will do with it. They can a) keep it and use it for another purpose, b) throw it away where it will end up in the landfill, or c) recycle it. I will focus on option c and its path of movement.
To begin the process the consumer places the bottle on the curb for pick-up by their local collector or takes it to a collection center in their neighborhood. All of the recyclable materials are then taken to a Material Recovery Facility where they are sorted into plastic, glass, and metal. This process can be done manually of mechanically depending on how much money the facility has been granted. Once the plastic has been separated from the other materials, it is sorted again by the type of plastic. The new heaps of separated plastic are then baled and shipped off to a reclaimer. The reclaimer is the facility where the bales of separated plastic are put through a "Bale Breaker" to get the heaps into loose pieces that can be moved by a conveyor. Once this is done the plastic goes through a shaker screen that filters out all the dirt and trash that came with the plastic. The next step for the plastic is shredding, where it is cut into small pieces. The plastic is then sprayed with water to help remove labels and other contaminants before it is pushed through a washing process. This car wash like system uses either heated water or cleaning agent to get the plastic sparkling clean. Because dirt and contaminants have different densities than plastic the Floatation Tank makes easy work of separating the remaining dirt from the plastic. They shiny new flakes are removed from the tank then sent off to be dried by hot air and moved to an Air Classifier. This machine blows any remaining labels off the plastic. The flakes then move to a hopper that blends different batches of plastic together before being sent to be melted. A heated barrel with a conveyor running through it melts the plastics into a flowing liquid, any particles that are not completely liquefied will be caught by a filter at the end of the conveyor and remelted. The plastic is forced out of the barrel in thin strands, so when it is cooled it can be chopped into pellets. These small pellets are then boxed and shipped to manufacturers to be used in making more plastic products. Manufacturers can either mix them with virgin resin or simply use the pellets alone to make the entire product (Plastic Resource). So that sweet little honey bear could be melted down and reincarnated as a Karate Chop-Action GI-Joe, but at least it continues on.
The life of the honeybee is also continuing process. When the bees place their hair-covered legs on the stamens of flowers they pick up that plant's pollen. When they alight upon another plant they drop this pollen on the new flower's pistil. This is the world's most efficient mode of pollination. So efficient that farmers often hire beekeepers to move their hives into their crops during the pollination season, so they will have a good harvest. Even with the millions of dollars spent on new technologies for farming nothing has been found that is better than a honeybee. Some farmers tried spraying the trees, others thought if they did it by hand with a brush they would have more luck. None of this works very well however. A main reason for the inefficiency of these practices is that bees can sense which plants are ripe for pollination and will choose those flowers to land on. Farmers would have to take extreme measures to gain that kind of information. If it weren't for bees we would lose one-third of the foods we eat. That would mean no more fruits, a huge loss in vegetables, and only a small variety of nuts or seeds. Can you even imagine a world without these staple foods? It seems that while honey is the product we most praise the honey bee for, it is really their proficiency as pollinators that makes them so important to our ecosystem.
So as you drizzle that honey on your morning toast it is important to remember that it has effected many things on its way to your kitchen table. Many little bees had to spend hours in flight to make each sweet teaspoon. A beekeeper held his breath while attempting to take the bees precious product from its hive, hoping it would be a good harvest. A big manufacturer looked for faster, more efficient ways to get that bottle to your supermarket and more persuasive ways to get it on your table. This honey bear could contain the remnants of your last bottle of honey, mixed at the recycling plant with pieces of your milk jug and syrup bottle as well. And don't forget, without that honey, the peach you are eyeing for a snack would never have made it to your fruit bowl. It seems like a lot for a little grinning bear, but even those products that seem to be the most simple and natural are complicated by the results and repercussions of their making.
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