Is Honey Bee Vomit?

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Perhaps you have heard someone say that honey is bee vomit. This sounds rather gross and technically is not true. The reason for confusion is due to the way bees collect and bring plant nectar back to the hive. To understand the real answer we need to explore a bit more about honey bees. And, the next time someone asks “Is honey bee vomit?”, you will have an answer.

Bee honey stored in frames of beeswax comb image.

The story of how bees make honey from plant nectar is an amazing one. And, when we look at the way they all work together to bring in a harvest – it becomes rather magical.

Storing Nectar in the Honey Stomach

The story begins in the field where bees must gather nectar from millions of blooming flowers. To perform this big job efficiently, bees dance to communicate the best food locations to others.

Nature has provided some wonderful anatomical structures to help bees with their tasks. One of the most critical is a part of the honey bee called a “honey stomach”. It is designed to hold liquid nectar for transport back to the hive.

Forager honey bees gathers plant nectar image.

Nectar Collection

Of course, honey bees collect several things needed by the colony – including pollen. But, their biggest task is to find and gather nectar.

Contrary to some cartoon images you may see, bees do not carry little buckets along with them to hold the nectar. (Though since a bee is a insect with 6 legs, perhaps they could if they wanted to.)

The proboscis (considered the tongue) is actually made up of several mouth parts that come together like a straw to suck up liquid. Now, where does this liquid go?

Honey Bee’s Crop

A bee actually has 2 organs that could be referred to as stomachs. Why would they need an extra stomach? To carry liquid nectar back to the hive – of course.

Labeled diagram of honey bee anatomy showing honey stomach location.

The first structure after the esophagus is called a “crop” or honey stomach. When the bee is eating, material passes through the mouth and into the honey stomach first.

Then, it leaves the crop through a pulsating valve called the proventriculus. This pulsating value keeps the storage and digestive processes separate. It is a one way value that separates major digestive juices from the crop.

Digestion of food takes place in the true stomach not the honey stomach. When the crop of a foraging bee is full, she heads home.

Back at the hive, the foraging worker finds a house bee to receive her harvest. The contents of the crop or “honey stomach” is regurgitated into the mouth of the house bee.

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Female worker honey bees ripening honey in comb image.

Bee Regurgitation is Not the Same as Humans

Here is where the misunderstanding over “is honey bee vomit” gets started. Many resources say the nectar is regurgitated and transferred to another bee.

The term regurgitation is commonly associated with sickness in humans. (Similar to the term vomit.) Everyone remembers that awful experience when the contents of your stomach decides to make another appearance.

Regurgitate vs Vomit

The regurgitation process in bees is not the same as humans. Regurgitation is defined as “when swallowed food is brought back up to the mouth.”

And the definition of vomiting is – an involuntary response where food is forcibly ejected from the stomach through the mouth. This is not happening during nectar transfer between bees – it is a voluntary action.

Also, no real digestion is taking place in the honey stomach. The material that is transferred to another bee is not partially digested food. The bee is not sick. She is simply transferring her collection to another bee.

Enzyme Rich Bee Saliva

However, the process of nectar becoming honey has already began. While in the crop, enzymes are added through bee saliva (bee spit).

The salivary glands of bees produce these enzymes (such as enzyme invertase) that begin to change the major sugars in plant nectar. This is a conversion of the chemical composition of honey – not digestion.

Honey bee gathers nectar into her honey stomach using her proboscis image.

Honey-Making Process

Nectar has a high moisture content- ripe honey has a low moisture content. In addition to exposing drops of nectar to the air for drying, bees use their wings to fan air over droplets of nectar to reduce water content.

Chemical changes continue as the enzyme diastase aids in the conversion of starch into maltose. The complex sugar sucrose breaks down into fructose and glucose.

And glucose oxidase causes the conversion of glucose to hydrogen peroxide. This prevents spoilage in the pre-honey solution until the chemical changes are complete.

In fact, the original nectar collected by a field forager, changes hands (mouth to mouth) several times during the enzyme and dehydration phases.

This continues from processor bee to bee until the honey is “ripe”? Then, the finished product is sealed into wax honeycomb cells for storage.

Even though the liquid is passed among the mouthparts of many bees, it never enters the true digestive stomach of the insects.

Forest Honey

Bees use plant nectar to produce honey but there is one exception. Perhaps, this is another area that causes confusion in understand honey.

If the availability of nectar is low, hungry bees will do what they must. This means that they will collect honeydew. This is the sweet secretions (poop) of aphids.

The resulting honey is called honeydew honey or Forest honey. It is highly sought after in some regions for the unique flavor. However, the process remains the same and this honey is not bee vomit either.

Worker bees ripening honey in the comb.

FAQs

Why is honey often called “bee vomit”?

The term is used wrongly as regurgitation of nectar is not the same as vomiting where partially digested food is expelled involuntarily. Also, it makes for a catchy headline

Is honey bee regurgitation a natural behavior in the hive?

Yes, regurgitation of nectar from bee to bee is an intricate part of the way honey is made.

Can bees barf?

Not really. Nectar collected for honey making is not bee barf. However, poisoned bees may regurgitate the contents of their crop before death.

Is honey – bee poop or spit?

NO, honey is not bee poop. Collected nectar does receive enzymes from the salivary glands of bees.

A Final Word

While it is normal to think of anything that is ejected from a mouth as: vomit, spit or puke (to be vulgar), that is not actually true. We must especially keep this in mind when we are talking about an insect vs a mammal.

When a worker bee is processing nectar into honey – the transfer action is not involuntary. They do this on purpose.

Relax and enjoy this wonderful product from the beehive. There are so many uses for honey to explore. Add a teaspoon to your morning cup of coffee, drizzle some on a bagel or enjoy eating raw honeycomb. It is delicious.

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