Alfalfa Honey

Alfalfa Honey
Alfalfa honey

Alfalfa honey is a honey produced by honey bees harvesting alfalfa flowers nectar. These plants have yellow, blue, or purple flowers that honey bees can pollinate, collect nectar and pollen from. Alfalfa, commonly mistaken for a type of wheat or hay, is actually a legume, similar to peas or beans.

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    Where Does Alfalfa Honey Come From?

    Alfalfa is predominantly grown in the northern and western parts of the United States. Some of the largest alfalfa-growing states include California, Idaho, and Montana. Furthermore, alfalfa honey can be found in abundance within these states: Utah, Oregon, Nevada, Wyoming and Idaho.

    Whilst it is predominantly grown in the northern, western parts of the United States, it can be grown in the southeastern parts. Unfortunately, within the southeastern parts of America, they often suffer from leaf/root diseases and poor soils.

    Alfalfa Production Worldwide

    In 2009, alfalfa was grown in the region of 30 million hectares (74,000,000 acres) worldwide.

    With North America producing 41% (11.9 million hectares; 29,000,000 acres) – the US being the largest alfalfa producer in the world by country in 2009 (9 million hectares – 22,000,000 acres).

    Other producers worldwide include: Europe producing 25% (7.12 million hectares; 17,600,000 acres), South America producing 23% (7 million hectares; 17,000,000 acres), Asia produced 8% (2.23 million hectares; 5,500,000 acres). Africa and Oceania (mainly Australia and New Zealand) producing the remainder.

    Field Of Alfalfa Flowers
    Field of alfalfa flowers

    How Do Bees Produce Alfalfa Honey?

    The moment the honey bee collects the alfalfa nectar it is mixed with an enzyme within the bees mouth. The enzyme itself is known as invertase or the “bee enzyme” which is secreted from the bee’s glands. When the honey bees return to the hive they will pass the alfalfa nectar they have collected between themselves further mixing the nectar with the “bee enzyme”.

    This will reduce the water content converting the nectar into honey. They will then deposit the alfalfa honey into wax cells, but at this point, the water content may be too high. To reduce the water content, the honey bees will fan their wings above the wax cell, this, in turn, will evaporate some of the water.

    Once they’ve finished the process the alfalfa honey will have a water content roughly below 20%. It will then be capped and the honey bees will repeat the process all over again. Its worth noting western honey bee colonies may suffer protein stress when producing a monofloral alfalfa honey.

    Unfortunately, alfalfa pollen protein is deficient in isoleucine, which is one of the amino acids essential to the diet of the honey bee larvae.

    Best Alfalfa for Honey Bees

    Truly, the best alfalfa for honey bees is one that is left to flower for as long as possible. Many alfalfa fields are cut at the first sign of the bud stage so that it can be used as feed for cattle.

    The longer the alfalfa is allowed to flower, the more nectar the bees will be able to harvest.

    In many states, alfalfa is one of the main sources of nectar and pollen for honey bees. 

    Thus many farmers often work together with beekeepers to ensure the success of both industries.

    Alfalfa Flower
    Alfalfa flower

    The Challenge Honey Bees Face Collecting Alfalfa Nectar

    The main challenge honey bees face when collecting the alfalfa nectar, is the pollen carrying keel of the alfalfa.

    The alfalfa keel is essentially an oval-shaped petal which covers the flowers reproductive organs and pollen, which is held closed by a thin membrane – which acts like a spring mechanism. Essentially when the honey bee lands on it to collect the nectar, it will snap and strike the bee whilst releasing pollen.

    It is understood that this predominantly happens to younger honey bees causing them to adapt. The older honey bees, having experienced the keel snap, will harvest the nectar from the side of the flower which doesn’t trigger the snapping keel petal.

    Where the honey bees harvest the nectar from the side, they don’t collect the pollen which is released when the keel snaps, something that is crucial for pollination.

    Honey Bee Harvesting Alfalfa Flower Nectar
    Honey bee harvesting small alfalfa flower nectar

    The alfalfa farmers need the alfalfa pollinated for fertile seed production. To produce fertile alfalfa seeds, they need the female and male parts of the alfalfa to mix, which is done via pollination. It’s estimated that honey bees only trip 10% of the alfalfas keel, which has led farmers, especially in the alfalfa seed business to deploy leafcutter bees which trip roughly 80% of the keels.

    Typically, alfalfa farmers will deploy both leafcutter bees and honey bees.

    In an alfalfa seed field, its typical see 10 to 20 honey bees and 20 to 50 leafcutter bees roughly in a 1-metre radius.

    Essentially the leafcutter bees go in, trip the keel, releasing the pollen, exposing the nectar and the alfalfa reproductive organs. The honey bees then follow up, harvesting the nectar and pollen of the already tripped alfalfa plant. This method allows the farmers to not only pollinate their alfalfa flowers essential to their seed production but produce alfalfa honey.

    Honey Bee Extracting Alfalfa Nectar
    Honey bee extracting alfalfa nectar

    A Quick Note on the Leafcutter Bees

    The leafcutter bees (Megachile rotundata) are roughly half the size of the western honey bee (Apis mellifera). They are used extensively in the USA but also Russia, Canada and New Zealand. They’re so popular/useful that Canada exports $1 million (US dollars) worth of leafcutter bees every year.

    To pollinate 1 hectare (10,000 square metres) of alfalfa plants, the farmers roughly need 70,000 leafcutter bees or 8 colonies. The leafcutter bees won’t make hives, thus they won’t store or protect honey. Instead, the farmers will provide them with “bee hotels”, which are essentially wooden or plastic tubes which they can make their own individual nests in.

    Leafcutter Bee Nesting
    Leafcutter bee nesting
    Nest Of The Leafcutter Bee (Megachile) Inside A Burrow On The Ground Made Up Of Chewed Petals And Leaves Illustration
    Nest of the leafcutter bee (Megachile) inside a burrow of chewed petals and leaves illustration

    Benefits of Alfalfa Honey?

    Healing Wounds and Burns There has been positive effects of using raw honey on wounds & burns reported.
    Reducing The Duration of Diarrhoea According the NCBI consumption of raw honey has been shown to reduce the severity & duration of diarrhoea.
    Preventing Acid Reflux Research has shown that with honey lining the oesophagus and stomach, it actually can reduce the upward flow of undigested food and stomach acid.
    Fighting Infections Scientists in 2010 reported that honey through its protein (defensin-1) has the ability to kill bacteria.
    Relieving cold and cough symptoms Its been proven that honey may prove beneficial in relieving cold and cough symptoms. The World Health Organisation actually recommend honey as a natural cough remedy.
    Rich In Antioxidants High quality raw honey contains many helpful antioxidants. These include phenolic compounds like flavonoids and organic acids.
    Can Lower Triglycerides Triglycerides are associated with insulin resistance and are a major driver of type 2 diabetes. Multiple studies have linked regular honey consumption with lower triglyceride levels, especially when it is used to replace sugar.

    This is based on raw honey, filtered or pasturised honey will break down and diminish these benefits.

    Alfalfa as an Antiseptic

    Due to its high levels of flavonoids and antioxidants, alfalfa honey is widely used as an antiseptic and antibacterial agent. This honey can be used to topically treat burns and ulcers, among other injuries.

    Alfalfa honey absorbs water, this, in turn, aids in the drying out process of wounds, whilst helping to inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. Glucose oxidase also exists in honey, which is an enzyme that catalyzes the production of hydrogen peroxide.

    Bee Hotel Which Leafcutter Bees Can Nest In
    Bee hotel which leafcutter bees can nest in

    Alfalfa Honey vs Regular Honey

    Alfalfa honey has a delicate flavour that isn’t overpowering and often tastes slightly grassy with hints of vanilla. In a raw state, it will naturally contain many if not all of the benefits listed above.

    In comparison, regular honey will hold that fairly industrial standard taste and tends to be missing crucial benefits and nutritional properties of raw honey.

    This is typically due to “regular” mass-produced honey being fine filtered and pasteurized which, unfortunately, destroys many of the antibacterial and active elements.

    When You Should Avoid Alfalfa Honey

    If you are allergic to alfalfa or bee pollen, then you should avoid alfalfa honey at all times.

    Infants younger than 1-year-old should never be given honey due to the presence of small amounts of harmful bacteria that can overwhelm their underdeveloped gastrointestinal tracts.

    Because these bacteria can be transferred to infants, it is important for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding to avoid honey as well.

    Honeybee Pollinating Alfalfa Flower
    Honey bee pollinating alfalfa flower

    Is Alfalfa Honey Vegan?

    The Vegan Society do not consider honey vegan, this includes cornflower honey. They believe that because some honey farmers replace honey with a sugar substitute when harvesting, it will naturally lack the essential micronutrients of honey, thus being detrimental to the honey bees.

    Furthermore, they believe that in conventional beekeeping, honey bees are specifically bred to increase productivity. Which they believe leads to a narrowing of the population gene pool and increases susceptibility to disease and large scale die-offs.

    They also believe that many honey farmers will cull their hives post-harvest and clip the queen bee’s wings to stop them from leaving to start a new colony. Thus the Vegan Society does not consider honey vegan. That, of course, doesn’t stop some vegans arguing its fine if they source their honey from reliable sources that do not practice the above.

    What Is Alfalfa Honey Used For?

    Alfalfa honey is used primarily as a sweetener in drinks, food, and baked goods.

    Alfalfa honey can also be used:

    • To soothe a sore throat or reduce coughing
    • As a topical antiseptic for wounds or burns
    • To soothe an upset stomach
    • To help alleviate the symptoms of certain kinds of stomach ulcers
    • To try to lower blood pressure
    • To try to lower triglyceride levels
    • As a prebiotic
    • As a source of antioxidants
    • As a homemade face mask
    • To create homemade cosmetic wax

    Is Alfalfa Honey Expensive?

    Alfalfa honey naturally will be slightly more expensive than the mass-produced and pasteurized honey.

    Online it can be found roughly around £1 – £2 per 100g ($2 – $3 per 100g). 

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