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How Do Bees Make Honey?

One special little insect is known for it’s remarkable ability to produce a sweet substance we call honey. The ability of bees to produce this long lasting food source is key to their survival. Honey is the main source of energy for these hard working insects. So, how do bees make honey? The story of how they accomplish this feat is a good one.

Do All Bees Make Honey?

Young worker honey bees processing nectar into honey inside the hive image.

Most of the insects that make produce this sweet substance are honey bees. Apis mellifera. A member of the genus “Apis” -the full scientific name is Apis (meaning bee) and mellifera (Latin for “honey bearing”).

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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 Eastern Honey Bee (Apis Cerana) is still managed by beekeepers in parts of Asia.

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.

However, most bee species do not produce this sweet treat. Among the thousands of different types of insects in the world, most are solitary. They don’t need to store large amounts of food.

While some species of insects do produce a bit of a sweet substance, none produce large amounts. Only insects in the Scientific Genus Apis are true honey producers. 

How Honey is Made by Bees – Step by Step

  1. workers collect plant nectar
  2. nectar is carried to the hive
  3. house bees add additional enzymes to the nectar
  4. sugars molecules change form during the process
  5. water content is reduced by dehydration
  6. placed in capped wax cells when ripe

Worker Bees are the Makers

Female worker honey bees are responsible for food gathering and production. These are the older adults and they are called forager bees.

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. But, 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 and flavors of honey. Foragers concentrate on a single nectar source – at least for a while.

Worker honey bees gathers nectar from a flower image.

Collecting Nectar

Workers have a special organ located in her abdomen directly before her natural stomach. This second stomach is called the bee’s honey stomach (or crop) and is used to transport nectar.

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Using her proboscis (or long tongue) to form a straw like mouth structure – she sucks up the liquid found in the plant nectary. This is the parts of a plant that produce sweet nectar. Nectar has different flavors that affects the taste of finished honey.

In the bee’s crop, nectar mixes with enzymes produced by special glands in the mouth or head. The complex sugars of raw nectar begin to breakdown. This is the beginning of the inversion process.

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.

Worker honey bees making honey inside the hive image.

Water Content is Decreased-Ripening

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 honey has dropped from about 80% to 20%, we consider the transformation to be complete.

Beeswax honeycomb cells are used to hold the stored food until it is needed. Each ripe cell is capped with beeswax to keep the food clean and safe.

Each bee colony contains sheets with thousands of hexagon shaped cells. During the long cold Winter months, this stored food will sustain the colony.

Honey bees make honey diagram with all the steps infographic image

Honey Bees Make Honey From

Plant nectar is the primary ingredient used by bees to produce honey. However, it is not the only sweet substance they collect. Sometimes, they collect a sweet secretion of aphids called “honeydew“.

The resulting product is called “Forest Honey”. The idea may seem a bit off-putting but in some countries it is a highly sought after product.

Why do Bees Make Honey in Abundance?

A colony of bees must make and store food in preparation for a time when no nectar is available. 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.

Finding Find Nectar Sources

Food production is so important to the colony that almost every member of the hive is involved. With the exception of the male bees or drones, and the queen bee, everyone else will contribute to nectar collection.

Colony workers proceed through several jobs during the lifetime. The role of the worker bees covers every job: feeding young, guarding the hive, making wax etc.

Some bees will serve as scout bees. Their job is to search out food sources for the hive. They also aid in finding new hive locations during the swarm season.

Upon finding a great field of nectar, foragers return to the hive and use a special bee dance language to tell their sisters! Some hives produce more honey than others but all work very hard.

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.

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.  

Common Questions & Myths About Honey

Is Honey Bee Vomit?

No it is not – 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.

Why Don’t All Bees Make Honey?

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.

Do Wasps Produce Honey?

Wasps are not bees – though to the untrained eye they are sometimes thought of as bees.

No, wasps (and Yellow Jackets) do not make honey. Though these insects are relatives of our bees, they are primarily meat eaters.

Wasps will certainly enjoy stealing a sweet taste of anything, much like your soda at a picnic, but sweet food is not their primary diet.

How Much Honey do Bumble Bees Make?

Bumble bees store food in the nest in small structures called pots. 

However, because the bumble bee nest is small and does not overwinter as a family, the amount of honey produced is very small.

Is blue or Purple Honey a Real Thing?

Yes, in some areas of the Southeast beekeepers do harvest a bit of purple honey. The reason for the color is a subject of debate in the beekeeping community.

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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. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    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. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

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

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