How Bees Make Honey: Survival Strategy
Almost everyone knows that honey comes from bees. Well, it’s even part of their name – so no surprise here, right? Even more amazing is the process – how do bees make honey and why do they do it – more interesting honey bee facts.
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 the actual honey making process.
The importance of honey production goes hand-in-hand with bee survival. And, the bees are important to us as well.
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.
Through out the warm season (and in Winter at a different pace) some bees 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. During this time, bees can not leave the hive to gather food.
Because the colony lives through the cold months, stored food is a necessity. And, it must be food that will not spoil. This is why bees make honey. It remains good for a long time.
What do Bees Eat in Winter?
Honey bees do not hibernate but they are not very active during cold temps. They must rely on stored food and all the work done in previous months.
Do they really eat honey? Yes, they do. Bees eat honey and pollen (or bee bread).
And, it takes a lot of worker bees to get the food storage job done before cold weather.
Millions of flowers are visited by foraging worker bees. Nectar and pollen is collected and brought to the hive.
The Summer work force will die and not live to enjoy the fruits of their work. But the colony will live on if prepared for Winter.
Watery nectar would not be suitable for storage. The bees have to convert nectar to something better suited for long term storage.
Instinctive Bee Behavior
It is design by instinct that allows thousands of worker bees to join together to make food for Winter. A single bee or a small handful of bees could not be successful.
This is a team effort that will require the work of many individuals. Once the food is stored, the entire colony will share the bounty during 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.
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.
Worker bees are female. During the Summer, these bees only live about 6 weeks and spend half of that time in the hive.
They are the only members of the colony involved in the honey making process. This is why a hive needs a lot of bees involved in foraging.
What do Bees Need to Make Honey?
A colony of healthy bees needs 3 things for honey production.
- 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!
I love these classy honey pots from Creuset. Any product that require the work of so many – deserves a special serving container.
What is Honey?
By definition, honey is a sweet liquid produced by bees from plant nectar.
Many blooming plants produce sweet nectar to lure pollinators. This nectar is collected by many pollinators and other insects.
Honey is a high energy food source that lasts for a long time without spoiling. And, a colony needs to store a lot of it to last over the cold months of the year.
Honey can vary in color and flavor depending on the type of nectar collected.
Most honey produced is a “poly floral” blend made from the nectar of many different flowers.
Stored Honey Provides Food During Dearths
In addition to storing it for Winter, they can also consume it during times when no nectar is available.
This is called a time of nectar dearth. And it can happen during a hot dry summer with no rain.
Even the best flowers for bees don’t produce nectar in a drought. In bad years, a honey bee colony may eat all of their honey before Winter arrives.
Honey is a By Product of the Pollination Story
Many plants require cross-pollination in order to produce seeds. Pollen needs to be moved from one flower to another.
Many types of pollen are light weight and they spread with the wind.
Other types of pollen are large and sticky. These plants need help from pollinators.
The sweet nectar is a lure. Bees wasps and other pollinators collect the sweet nectar.
But bees (and other pollinators) also collect pollen intentionally – as a protein source for their young.
During pollen collection (or nectar collection too), some pollen is accidentally moved from flower to flower. The result is cross-pollination and fruit bearing for the plants.
Pollination usually requires many bee visits. Plants have developed a wonderful system to lure pollinators – like our bees- to their blooms.
Plants that are wind pollinated do not depend on insects for pollination. Their flowers may produce little or no nectar. So, a lot of flowers in bloom does not guarantee honey will be made.
And, weather conditions affect the amount of nectar available for collection too.
In very dry conditions, plants may not produce nectar or the little nectar produced may evaporate before it is collected.
Most nectar is collected from flowers. But some plants have “extra-floral nectaries” that yield nectar.
Finding Good Nectar Sources
Honey bees use visual cues and odor recognition. Once, a good source is found – they dance to share the location with their sisters. A small percentage of bees in the colony will serve as scout bees .
How Bees Collect Nectar
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 flower 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 Bees Make Honey
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.
Is Honey Production Year-Round?
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.
Even if they did, our cold-blooded honey bee friends could not fly to collect it. 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.
Step by Step How Do Bees Make Honey
- 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.
And remember that the flavor or honey does vary, depending on the type of nectar source.