How Bees Make Honey
Have you ever wondered where honey comes from? How is Honey Made? Well, honey bees make it – so no surprise here, right? Even more amazing is the process – how do bees make honey and why do they do it.
And sometimes, we have just out-right been guilty of stealing the food that bees worked so hard to make.
In spite of our long term relationship with bees, some people are still confused about how honey is made by the bees.
Why do Bees Make Honey?
Honey bee colonies are a great example of a social organism. The individual bees do not live for years but the colony itself can survive for a long time.
Through out the warm season (and in Winter at a different pace) members of the colony work hard.
In accordance with the life cycle of bees, some are growing old and dying – while new bees are emerging to take their place.
In order to continue the colony long term, these cold blooded insects must have a way to survive during the cold months.
Stored food is a necessity. And, it must be food that will not spoil. This is why bees make honey.
Instinctive Bee Behavior
It is design by instinct that allows thousands of worker bees to join together to make food for Winter.
A colony works together when gathering food or defending the hive. There is no “i” in team “bee colony.”
It may seem magical but it is not. It is fascinating to understand how each bee plays a part.
The foragers are important because they need to bring in nectar. But the house worker bees as just as important.
Even though leaving the hive is not part of their job, they are still involved in the honey making process.
How Much Honey Does a Bee Make?
Of course there are many variables involved in honey production. We must take into account nectar availability, weather conditions and the number of bees in the hive.
However, each individual would not make very much honey at all. A worker bee will only make about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
What is Needed for Honey Production?
A bee colony need 3 resources in order to make honey.
- a strong population of healthy worker bees
- floral nectar available for gathering
- good weather conditions to work
Bees must visit approximately 2 million flowers to make 1 pound of honey. That is a lot of work!
No wonder the bees were angry when “Pooh Bear” wanted to steal the efforts of all their hard work. You would not want a chubby bear hanging outside your tree either!
Worker Bees Collect Nectar to Make Honey
As the worker bee travels from flower to flower, she sucks up nectar using her proboscis (a long straw-like mouth part).
This nectar filled bee visits many flowers before returning to the hive.
The nectar is stored in her “honey stomach” until she returns to the hive. This is a special organ directly before her natural stomach.
Honey is not bee vomit – that is an ugly myth. The special storage stomach is different from her regular digestive system. If she is hungry, she can open a special value and allow some nectar into her real stomach.
Our worker bee adds a little saliva to the nectar to make it easier to pass to her crop (honey stomach). She does this even though nectar is already about 80% water.
When her honey stomach is full, she will return to the hive with her bounty.
This is an amazing fact about bees (workers). They can carry a heavy load for their small size. She may travel with a load of nectar or pollen that is almost equivalent to her own weight.
Honey bees like to gather nectar from the same type of flowers on a single trip but the nectar will all be mixed together back at the hive.
Each type of nectar has different natural compounds and floral esters.
This is why I enjoy planting different bee friendly flowers, trees and bushes. It encourages a diverse food source for my bees.
How Honey is Made in the Hive
Upon reaching the hive, the foraging worker bee opens a small slit in the top of her proboscis to allow other bees a taste of her cargo.
House bees, scout bees and other foragers can enjoy the a sample of her hard work.
When her honey stomach is empty, she is ready to return to the field and forage.
The nectar may be passed from bee to bee several times but eventually ends up with a house bee.
These female bees are not foraging outside yet they are called “house bees”. Later they will become foragers and other bees will take their place inside.
Now the actual honey ripening process begins. House bees manipulate the watery nectar with their mouths. The enzyme “invertase” is added to the diluted nectar.
This enzyme is produced by the hypophrangeal glands in the mouth/head of the worker bee.
The process of nectar becoming honey has begun. Ph and chemical composition of the nectar is changing.
Glucose oxidase (another enzyme) is added along with the bee saliva. Sugar molecules begin to change form and gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide are produced. These give honey its acidic and antibacterial properties.
Now it is time for the dehydration process to being. The house bee releases a drop of this changed nectar to her mandibles (jaw). (Similar to us blowing bubbles with bubble gum).
Exposed to the warm, dry air inside the hive, the moisture content begins to drop. Later, the worker house bee will place drops of nectar on the comb to permit more dehydration.
Nectar that is in the drying (or moisture reduction ) process may be placed in droplets along the surface of comb and moved several times.
House bees fan with their wings to increase air flow through the hive. This aids in lowering the water content of the nectar.
When the moisture content of the nectar has dropped from about 70% to 20%, we consider the transformation to be complete.
The bees have made honey from plant nectar. Honey is more stable than the watery nectar and less likely to spoil.
The finished honey is stored in beeswax honeycomb cells and capped with wax.
Do Bees Make Honey all Year?
For most regions, honey production is not a year-round thing. The bees must have blooming plants to use for nectar collection. Not many plants bloom during the cold season.
Honey production is limited to the warmer months of the year in most locations.
The colony may collect a bit of nectar at other times, but not in sufficient quantities for serious production.
Is Honey Made from Pollen?
No. Bees collect pollen. But, they do not use pollen to make honey. Pollen is used to produce food for larva (baby bees).
Having a healthy, strong workforce is necessary for good honey production.
Some pollen will end up in the finished product but it is not the primary ingredient.
Is Honey Produced By All Bees?
No, they do not. There are thousands of different types of bees in the world. Most are solitary bees that do not live together as large social units.
While some species of bees do make honey, none produce large stores of food for Winter like our honey bees.
Only bees in the Scientific Genus Apis are true honey producers. Bumble bees make a small amount of honey and store it in “honey pots” inside their nests.
The honey bee is the only insect that directly produces food for human consumption.
And, this task falls on the “shoulders – do bees have shoulders? ” of the humble worker bee.
Step by Step-How Honey is Made
- worker bees collect plant nectar
- the nectar is carried to the hive in their honey stomach
- house bees take the nectar and add enzymes from their mouth
- nectar is passed from bee to bee
- sugars molecules change during the process
- excess moisture is removed from the nectar
- ripe money is stored in wax cell with a wax cap
After weeks of hard work, the bees have made a lot of honey. (If we are lucky.)
A good crop of honey will yield enough for the bees winter food and some for the beekeeper.