One special little insect is known for it’s remarkable ability to produce a sweet substance we call honey. So, how do bees make honey? The ability of bees to produce this long lasting food source is key to their survival. The story of how they accomplish this feat is a good one.
Do All Bees Make Honey?
The honey bee. A member of the genus “Apis” -the full scientific name is Apis (meaning bee) and mellifera (Latin for “honey bearing”).
This scientific classification includes a diverse group of insects that includes, bees that nest in cavities, dwarf bees and giant honey bees.
Most of these insects originated in southeast Asia. And, all of them are social insects that live in colonies and make honey.
The most well-known is the European Honey Bee (also called Western Honey Bee). These are the ones found in the United States and many other parts of the world.
There are several races or types of bees within this group. All of them make and store honey.
Most bee species do not produce honey. Among the thousands of different types of insects in the world, most are solitary.
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While some species of insects do produce a bit of a sweet substance, none produce large stores of food for Winter. Only insects in the Scientific Genus Apis are true honey producers.
How Honey is Made by Bees – Step by Step
- workers collect plant nectar
- nectar is carried to the hive
- house bees add additional enzymes to the nectar
- sugars molecules change form during the process
- water content is reduced by dehydration
- placed in capped wax cells when ripe
Workers are the Honey Makers
Female workers are responsible for food gathering and production. No one teaches them this task. This skill is just something that they are born knowing how to do.
That’s a good thing because workers only live about 6 weeks during the Summer. If each bee had to learn the process, they would have to be really good students.
An individual bee makes only a small amount of honey during her lifetime.
A forager may visit up to 5,000 flowers in one day. And, they tend to visit the same type of flower while on a trip. We call this flower fidelity and it aids in crop pollination.
They do not use pollen to make honey. However, bees do collect pollen. It is a vital protein source needed to rear babies or young.
Sometimes beekeepers place hives in large fields of a single nectar source, such as Orange Blossom. This is how we get a different types of honey. Foragers concentrate on a single nectar source – at least for a while.
Nectar Brought to the Hive
Workers have a special organ located in her abdomen directly before her natural stomach. This is the honey stomach or crop and is used to transport nectar.
In the crop nectar mixes with enzymes found in the bee’s saliva. This makes it easier to pass to her crop. When her crop is full, she will return to the hive with her bounty and give her load to a house bee.
Honey Produced Inside the Hive
House bees, that are not old enough to forage, receive the incoming plant nectar from foragers. As the nectar is passed from bee to house workers more enzymes are added.
They manipulate the watery nectar with their mouths adding an enzyme called –Invertase. As the process continues, the Ph and chemical composition of the nectar is changing. Glucose oxidase (another enzyme) is added along with the 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 and the excess water must be removed.
Water Content is Decreased-Ripening Honey
A house bee releases a drop of the ripening 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.
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.
Wax cells hold the stored food until it is needed. Each ripe cell is capped with wax to keep the food clean and safe.
Why Bees Produce So Much Honey
Why do they store food inside the hive in such great quantities? Unlike many insects, including wasps etc, honey bees do not build seasonal nests that are abandoned once cold arrives.
Some members of the colony are living in the hive all year. When cold temps arrive, they are unable to fly and look for food.
Why not just store the plant nectar in the comb? Watery nectar would spoil, ripe honey remains edible over the long months of storage. A perfect food source for these cold blooded insects.
Many different factors affect food production. In a good foraging location, an average colony can make 60 pounds or more in a season.
Common Questions & Myths About Honey
Honey is not bee vomit – that is an ugly myth. A special structure inside the bee -called her crop 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. The collected nectar is not in her true stomach.
Bee species that live as solitary individuals do not need to store food. These insects do not have large families to support.
Their goal is simply to feed and raise a small number of young. They do not overwinter as large families so large stores of food is not necessary.
Most of the bees in the world are solitary insects. Therefore, most bees do not make honey. And, even fewer make enough honey for us to harvest.
Wasps are not bees – though to the untrained eye they are sometimes thought of as bees.
A common question is – do yellow jackets wasps make honey?
No, wasps do not make honey. Though these insects are relatives of honey bees, they are primarily meat eaters.
Wasps will certainly enjoy stealing a sweet taste of honey, much like your soda at a picnic, but sweet food is not their primary diet.
Bumble bees store food in the nest in small structures called honey pots.
However, because the bumble bee nest is small and does not overwinter as a family, the amount of honey produced is very small.
For most regions, honey production is not a year-round thing. The colony must have blooming plants that are producing nectar. The colony may collect a bit of nectar at non peak times but not in sufficient quantities for serious honey production.
Nectar from millions of flowers and the efforts of thousands of colony members all go into the process of making and storing food for the hive.
Colony survival depends on sufficient food stores before Winter arrives. And with some luck, the beekeeper may get a share as well.