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How Honey Bees Make Honey
Honey bees are known for their 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 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. So, how do bees make honey?
Producing honey requires the efforts of thousands of individuals. Due to the relatively short lifespan of honey bees, thousands of new worker bees are produced daily during the warm months.
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. Young adults work to rear young and produce honey.
Honey bees have been making honey for millions of years and they do a great job at it.
Why do Bees Make Honey?
Why do bees make honey and store it inside the hive in such great quantities? Honey is the perfect food source for these cold blooded insects.
Honey bees do not build seasonal nests that are abandoned once cold arrives. Some honey bees are living in the hive all year.
When cold temps arrive, the bees are unable to fly and look for food. While watery nectar would spoil, ripe honey remains edible over long months of storage.
Honey Production is a Survival Instinct
Female worker bees are responsible for honey production. They 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 worker 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?
Most bees do not produce honey. Among the thousands of different types of bees in the world, most are solitary bees.
Solitary bees do not live together as large social units. They have no need for large food stores.
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 (Genus Bombus) make a small amount of a honey substance and store it in “honey pots” inside their nests. However the quantity is very small and not intended for long term storage.
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. But, not every blooming flower has nectar!
As the worker bee flies from flower to flower, she sucks up plant 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 Brought to the Hive
The nectar is stored in her “honey stomach” 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 honey stomach. When her honey stomach is full, she will return to the hive with her bounty.
Foragers 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
House bees, that are not old enough to forage, receive the incoming plant nectar from field bees. 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 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 of Nectar to Honey
A house bee releases a drop of the ripening honey 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 health all play a role in how much honey bees make.
In a good foraging location, an average bee colony can make 60 pounds or much more of excess honey in a season.
3 Resources Needed by Bees to Make Honey
- a strong population of healthy worker bees
- abundant floral nectar from flowers bees like
- good weather conditions to fly
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!
Misconceptions About Bees Making Honey
In spite of our understanding of how bees make honey, there are still some points that need to be cleared up. These questions are often asked about the honey production 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 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 to make honey. 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 to make honey.
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.
Colony survival depends on a good crop of honey to provide Winter food for the bees. And with some luck, the beekeeper may get a share as well.