Why do Honey Bees Make Honey?
Throughout the warm months of the year thousands of worker bees toil day and night to produce honey. Why do bees make honey requiring so much effort by so many bees? This big undertaking is the mechanism by which the social organism known as a honey bee colony is able to survive the cold winter months. Honey bees have been executing this plan for millions of years and they do it rather well.
Busy honey bees flying from flower to flower are a common sight. The rarely bother you if you watch from a respectful distance. It is only normal that we always associate bees and honey with each other.
Which Bees Make Honey?
However, not all bees make honey. Only members of the insect genus “Apis” make enough honey to harvest. Other bee species have different survival methods and do not rely on stored food reserves in the same manner as honey bees.
What is Honey and Where Does it Come From?
Honey is a super-saturated sugar that is made from plant nectar by honey bees. For full details on this remarkable process, be sure to read my article How honey is made by bees.
The bee colony collects nectar from millions of blooming flowers to produce honey for the hive. This represents months of hard work to have enough honey stored before cold weather arrives.
Key Points on How Bees Make Honey
- Honey is made from plant nectar
- Bees collect nectar from millions of blooming plants
- Honey is stored in the hive to use when needed
Do Bees Eat Their Own Honey?
Bees eat the honey they have worked so hard to make throughout the year. Honey that has been made and stored in honey comb cells is used mostly during the colder months.
Honey bees store honey to use later because they will not be able to gather plant nectar in Winter. Either the temperature will be too cold for the bees to fly or no nectar producing plants will be available for foraging.
Why do Bees Not Store Plant Nectar?
Plant nectar has a high water content and would spoil quickly. Ripe honey has a low moisture content. Due to the enzyme changes in the sugars of honey, it will keep for a very long time.
Honey is also high in sugar and nutrients that is needed to sustain the colony. This energy is concentrated in the form of honey.
Why Honey is Stored in the Hive
The honey bee colony produces beeswax and builds sheets of honeycomb with thousands of hexagon wax cells. In addition to holding pollen and being used for brood rearing, these cells also provide storage space for ripe honey.
Honey bees are cold blooded insects. When the temperatures drop, the bees will cluster together inside the hive to maintain a survival body temperature.
Honey must be stored in cells near the bee cluster. The bees would become too chilled to move about the hive and bring food back to the cluster.
Of course, flying in cold weather would not be possible. Therefore, ample stores of honey are essential for the bees.
Surviving Winter on Stored Honey
Unlike many insect species that hibernate or only have reproductive females surviving until Spring, honey bees overwinter as a large family.
Life goes on inside the hive, though it may not seem so from the outside view. Bee life moves at a slower pace with the bee cluster keeping the queen bee warm and perhaps a small amount of brood.
While not heating the entire inside of the bee box, the colony is able to generate a little heat. Worker bees can unhook their wings and vibrate their wing muscles. This gives off enough heat to keep the bees alive.
However, this activity requires a lot of energy. A constant source of food is needed to fuel the heater bees. If the cluster loses contact with the food reserves the bees will not survive Winter.
Without proper honey reserves the bee colony would be like many other insects that perish once cold weather arrives.
Why do Bees Make so Much Honey?
Bees are hard workers. They instinctively work to produce as much honey as they can. As long as there is storage space inside the hive and nectar outside to collect. The bees will continue to work.
In spite of the genetic drive for food production, the colony has no way to know how much food it will need for Winter.
Therefore, the best survival technique is to produce as much as you can. It is better to have some left over that to run out of food and starve in January.
This tendency works out well for beekeepers who hope to share the harvest. As long as the colony has a large population, the beekeeper can add extra supers that the bees can fill.
Is it Cruel to Take Bees Honey?
It is not cruel for beekeepers to take a honey harvest from their colonies. The wise beekeeper always has the best interest of the colony in mind. With experience, the beekeeper learns how much honey a colony needs for Winter.
Taking only the excess honey crop does not hurt the colonies survival chances. Of course, the beekeeper must be watchful and ready to step in to help if a longer Winter than normal causes a food shortage for the bees.
What Happens If You Don’t Take Honey from the Bees?
Though many beekeepers keep hives for honey production, that is not the case for all beekeepers. Some folks want bees around for added bee pollination for their gardens or orchards.
One does not have to harvest honey from a beehive. If the colony become crowded, they will most likely cast a bee swarm – where the colony splits into 2 parts.
Otherwise, once all the space inside is filled with honey, nectar foraging will slow down or stop completely until the colony senses a need to continue.
Final Thoughts on Why Bees Make Honey
The honey bee colonies survives overwinter as a large social organism. Members of the colony work together to created food reserves that make life possible through the cold season.
This need to prepare food for a time when gathering is not possible is why bees make honey and one thing that makes them rather unique in the insect world.