How Is Honey Made?
How do bees make honey? This remarkable sweet substance that stores well and never spoils seems like a miracle substance. The ability of honey bees to make this long lasting food source is key to their survival. Without ample honey stores, the colony will not survive during the long, cold Winter months. The story of how they accomplish this feat is a good one.
The industrious honey bee is valued for a strong work ethic. Seeming to take no great concern for herself, she toils during the daylight hours to gather nectar from millions of blooming flowers.
Inside the hive, there is no rest for any bee – work continues around the clock. Honey bees have been making honey for millions of years and they do a great job at it.
Why do Bees Make Honey?
Bees make honey to store as food for Winter. It is the perfect food source for them because it will not spoil. Plant nectar is watery and would not stay edible over long months of storage.
Ripe honey will remain nutritious and viable for years inside the hive. This long term food storage is crucial because bees can not fly on cold Winter days. And, there would probably be few blooming plants anyway.
This is why bees make and store honey inside the hive. It is a special technique used to survive until Spring.
The honey bee colony is 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.
Producing honey requires the efforts of thousands of individuals. Due to the short life span of honey bees, a new work force is constantly being raised.
The honey bee life cycle allows for thousands of new worker bees to be produced daily during the warm months.
Making Honey is a Survival Instinct
Worker honey bees are the members of the colony that actually make honey. These worker bees are not taught how to make honey. This skill is just something that they are born knowing how to do.
That’s a good thing because bees only live about 6 weeks during the Summer. If they had to learn how to produce honey, they would have to be really good students.
Which Bees Produce Honey?
Not all bees produce honey. 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 the 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 in real quantities.
How Bees Make Honey – Step by Step
- worker bees collect plant nectar
- bees carry nectar to the hive in their honey stomach
- house bees take the nectar and add enzymes from their mouth
- many house bees help produce honey
- sugars molecules change during the process
- waters nectar is dehydrated to remove moisture
- capped wax cells store ripe honey
Worker Bees Collect Plant Nectar
It is the female worker bee that collects plant nectar. Not every blooming flower has nectar! As she travels from flower to flower, she sucks up nectar using her proboscis (a long straw-like mouth part).
An individual bee may visit up to 5,000 flowers in one day. And, bees tend to visit the same type of flower while on a foraging trip. We call this flower fidelity and it aids in crop pollination.
Nectar Carried to the Hive in Honey Stomach
The nectar is stored in her “honey stomach” until she returns to the hive. This is a special organ located in her abdomen directly before her natural stomach.
Our worker bee adds a little saliva (with enzymes) to the nectar to make it easier to pass to her 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.
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.
Worker Bees Ripen Honey Inside the Hive
Now we get into the serious details of how honey is made and ripened in the hive. This is the final step where nectar becomes honey.
House bees receive the incoming plant nectar from foragers. House bees are not foraging outside yet.
Now, the actual honey ripening process begins. House bees manipulate the watery nectar with their mouths adding an enzyme called –Invertase to the diluted nectar.
This special enzyme comes from hypophrangeal glands located in the mouth/head of the worker bees.
The process of nectar becoming honey continues as the 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. Plant nectar is watery – ripe honey is not.
Dehydration Completes the Transformation to Honey
A 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.
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 80% to 20%, we consider the transformation to be complete.
The bees have made honey from plant nectar. Wax honeycomb cells hold the ripe honey until it is needed. Bees cap each cell with wax to keep the food clean and safe.
Bees Making Honey Diagram
How Much Honey Does a Bee Make?
An individual worker bee will only make about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. This makes it easy to understand why a colony requires thousands of bees.
Many different factors affect honey production. Weather conditions, nectar availability and hive healthy all play a role.
An average colony in a good location can make 60 pounds or much more of excess honey in a season.
A honey bee colony needs 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!
Is Honey Bee Vomit or Poop?
No, Honey is not bee vomit – that is an ugly myth. A special structure inside the bee -called her honey stomach holds the collected nectar. It 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. But only nectar and added enzymes are involved in making honey.
Do Bees Make Honey all Year?
For most regions, honey production is not a year-round thing. Bees must have blooming plants that are producing nectar. Not many plants bloom during the cold season.
The colony may collect a bit of nectar at non peak times but not in sufficient quantities for serious honey production.
Do Bees Use Pollen to Make Honey?
Bees do not use pollen to make honey. However, bees do collect pollen. It is a vital protein source needed to rear baby bees.
Pollen only contributes to honey production in that it supports having a healthy, strong workforce. The next generation is always on it way.
During honey harvesting, some pollen will end up in the finished product-but it is not the primary ingredient.
A Final Word on How Honey is Made by Bees
Nectar from millions of flowers and the efforts of thousands of individual bees all go into the process of making honey.
A good crop of honey will yield enough for the bees winter food and some for the beekeeper.