How Do Bees Make Honey?

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How is Honey Formed by Bees?

One special little insect is known for it’s remarkable ability to produce a sweet substance we call honey. This is such a big part of who they are – it is even part of their name. The ability of bees to produce this long lasting food source is key to their survival. Without ample food stores, the colony will not survive during the long, cold Winter months. The story of how they accomplish this feat is a good one. So, how do bees make honey?

Honey bees making honey in the comb image.

Producing a large quantity of food is no small task – especially for a tiny insect like a bee. The job requires the efforts of thousands of individuals.

During the warm months, new workers emerge daily. The relatively short lifespan of these bees, is only about 6 weeks.

As foragers age and die, a new work force must be constantly in the works. We value the strong work ethic of this industrious bee. Seeming to take no great concern for herself, she toils during the daylight hours to gather nectar from millions of flowering plants.

Inside the hive, there is no rest for any bee – work continues around the clock. Young adults work to rear young, build wax, tend the queen, defend the hive and yes, ripen honey. They have been do this for millions of years and they do a great job.

Why Bees Produce So Much Honey

Why do bees store food inside the hive in such great quantities? The life cycle of the colony as a whole answers this question.

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. While they may venture out on warm days, not many nectar producing plants bloom in Winter.

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.

honey and honeycomb - how do bees make honey

Honey Production is a Survival Instinct

Female worker bees 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 honey making process alone, they would have to be really good students.

Do All Bees Produce Honey?

Most bees do not produce honey. Among the thousands of different types of insects in the world, most are solitary. Solitary bees do not live together as large social units. They have no need for large food stores. 

While some species of insects do produce a bit of a sweet substance, none produce large stores of food for Winter like the honey bee. Only insects in the Scientific Genus Apis are true honey producers

Bumble bees (Genus Bombus) make a small amount of a substance like honey store it in “pots” inside their nests.  However the quantity is very small and not intended for long term storage.

How Bees Make Honey – Step by Step

  1. workers collect plant nectar
  2. nectar brought to the hive in their honey stomach
  3. house workers take the nectar and add more enzymes from their mouth
  4. sugars molecules change during the process
  5. lower water content by dehydration
  6. capped wax cells store ripe honey
Tulip tree blossom with nectar image.

Workers Collect Plant Nectar

It is the female worker bee that collects plant nectar. A field forager is and older bee in the last half of her life cycle.

As the worker bee flies from flower to flower, she sucks up plant nectar using her proboscis (a long straw-like mouth part). But, not every blooming flower has nectar!

An individual bee may visit up to 5,000 flowers in one day. And, foragers 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 Brought to the Hive

The honey stomach or crop holds plant nectar until she returns to the hive. This special organ is 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 crop. When her crop is full, she will return to the hive with her bounty.

Even though foragers tend to gather nectar from the same type of flowers on a single trip, the nectar will all be mixed together back at the hive.  The forager passes the nectar to a house bee and returns to the field for another load.

Ripening Occurs Inside the Hive

House bees, that are not old enough to forage, receive the incoming plant nectar from forager bees. 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. This special enzyme comes from hypopharyngeal glands located in the mouth/head of the workers.

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.

Worker bees and frame from hive with honey image.

Dehydration Completes the Transformation

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. 

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.

Wax cells hold the stored food until it is needed. Each ripe cell is capped with wax to keep the food clean and safe.

Honey bees make honey diagram with all the steps infographic image

Amount of Honey Produced by a Single Bee

An individual worker will only produce about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. This makes it easy to understand why a colony requires thousands of individuals to help in this important task.

Many different factors affect food production. Weather conditions, nectar availability and hive health all play a role in how much food is produced by the colony.

In a good foraging location, an average bee colony can make 60 pounds or much more of excess honey in a season.

3 Resources the Affect Colony Productivity

  • a strong population of healthy workers
  • abundant floral nectar from flowers bees like
  • good weather conditions to fly

Nectar must be gathered from 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!

Misconceptions About Bees Making Honey

In spite of our understanding of how bees produce this wonderful substance, there are still some points that need to be cleared up. These questions are often asked about the process.

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 or 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.

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 for honey production. However, bees do collect pollen. It is a vital protein source needed to rear baby bees.

During harvesting, some pollen will end up in the finished product-but it is plant nectar not pollen that bees use.

A Final Word on How Honey is Made

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.  

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4 Comments

  1. Tim Gardner says:

    Hi, Do you think we will have a fall flow this year, maybe from golden rod? If so when do you think it will start.

    Thank you
    Tim

  2. Honestly, I have never had my bees make excess honey in the Fall. I know some people in the state of SC may and other regions of the country do. I make sure my bees are fed in September if needed and I’ve never needed more room for honey storage. Weather has an affect on everything but if golden rod produces, I would think early to mid September with Asters as well.

  3. Charlotte-
    Thank you so much for all of your information. I read your post on long term honey storage but had a couple of questions. We have a 5 gallon container of honey we bought from a local beekeeper. We would like to transfer this honey to Mason jars for more practical use. Do we need to fill the jars to the very top to prevent any air in the container from causing spoilage? Also, if we use a utensil or funnel to transfer the honey should it be sterilized first or is a normal hand washing sufficient?
    Thank you-
    Nicole

  4. Regular washing and tight fitting lids is fine. Its okay to leave air space inside the jar.

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