Honey is a golden elixir that is revered over many cultures – ancient and present. It is produced by one of nature’s most industrious insects – the honey bee. Join us on the journey from flower to hive and learn – how do bees make honey? The remarkable feat of transforming nectar into honey is not just a good story. The ability of bees to produce this long lasting food source is key to their survival.
While some insects do produce a bit of a sweet substance, none produce large amounts like the honey bee – Apis mellifera. Only insects in the Scientific Genus “Apis” are true honey producers. We thank them for the hundreds of uses for honey that we enjoy.
The Honey Making Process
At the heart of every jar of honey is a tale of days and days of hard work. Venturing out into the field to gather nectar, these field bees face many dangers. I
t is only the combined efforts of thousands of colony individuals that makes the process of making honey a reality. No one bee does it alone.
Even though the process seems magical, the way bees make honey only involves a few steps – but they are very important ones.
Bees Make Honey – Step by Step
- workers gather plant nectar from flowers – and transport it back to the hive
- back at the hive – house bees add additional enzymes to the nectar
- sugar molecules begins to change form
- as part of the ripening process – water content is reduced by dehydration
- ripe honey is placed in wax cells and capped with a layer of wax
Foraging – Bees Collecting Nectar
Using her proboscis (or long tongue) to form a straw-like mouth structure – the worker bee sucks up sweet nectar from the flower.
How do bees take nectar back to the hive? Worker bees have a special organ located in the abdomen directly before the natural stomach. This is called the bee’s honey stomach (or crop) – gathered nectar is stored here.
Inside the bee’s crop, nectar mixes with some enzymes produced by special glands in the mouth or head. The complex sugars of raw nectar begin to breakdown into more simple sugars.
When her crop is full, she will return to the hive with her bounty and give her load to a house bee.
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.
Nectar to Honey – The Transformation
As foragers return to the hive with their load, the magic is truly about to begin. House bees receive the incoming plant nectar and begin the process of transforming watery nectar into honey.
The nectar is passed from bee to bee and manipulated within their mouths. Drops of nectar may be deposited on the surface of the comb to kickstart the dehydration process.
Now the real magic. Bees use enzymes (produced by their bodies) to break down the complex sugars found in nectar.
The enzyme invertase helps break down sucrose into the simple sugars glucose and fructose. The process continues as the Ph and chemical composition of the nectar is changing.
Glucose oxidase, another key enzyme, plays a dual role by producing gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. These give honey its acidic and antibacterial properties.
Water Content is Reduced
Now, it is time for the dehydration process to continue. Plant nectar is watery and that excess water must be removed.
As bees constantly manipulate the nectar, a drop of ripening nectar may be seen on 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 process may be placed in droplets along the surface of comb. Bees fan their wings to increase air flow through the hive to aid the drying process.
Ripe Honey Stored Cells
When the moisture content of the honey has dropped from about 80% to 20%, we consider the transformation to be complete. It is then placed in the cells of wax comb and capped with a layer of fresh beeswax. This helps keep it clean.
Each bee colony contains sheets with thousands of hexagon shaped cells. During the long cold Winter months, this stored food will sustain the colony.
Communication for Honey Production
Honey bees proceed through several jobs during their lifetime. These tasks include feeding young (as nurse bees), guarding the hive, making wax, and collecting resources the hive needs – including nectar.
How do they find nectar sources efficiently? Some members of the colony 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 bee swarm season.
Upon finding a great field of nectar, scouts return to the hive and use a special bee dance language to tell their sisters! This helps the colony be very efficient in collecting nectar – they are working together as a team.
Many different factors affect how much excess honey a colony makes in a year. In a good foraging location, an average colony can make 60 pounds of excess honey or more in a season.
However, for most regions, honey production is not a year-round thing. The bees can only work during the warm months of the year – when there is nectar to gather. They may collect a bit of nectar at non peak times but not in sufficient quantities for a beekeeper to harvest honey.
Taking honey from bees is not a bad thing – properly cared for colonies should be able to produce enough for themselves and a share for the beekeeper. However, it is important for beekeepers to be responsible when taking a share of the harvest.
Plant nectar is the primary ingredient used by bees to produce honey. However, sometimes, they collect a sweet secretion of aphids called “honeydew“. The resulting product is called “Forest Honey”.
No, honey is not vomit from bees – 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. But, the collected nectar is not in her true stomach.
Bee species that live as solitary individuals do not need to store food. They do not have large families to support and do not overwinter as a family..
Their goal is simply to feed and raise a small number of young. Most of the bees in the world are solitary insects. Therefore, most bees do not make honey.
Bees do not use pollen to make honey. But, raw honey may contain grains of pollen. However, bees do use pollen as a vital protein source needed to rear young.
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.
Bumble bees store food (a honey substance) 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.
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.
The large number of bee quotes about their tireless work ethic tells us something about bees. This is a good thing because honey bees do not build seasonal nests like wasps-that are abandoned once cold arrives. Some members of the colony are living in the hive all year and depending on stored food.
A Final Word
The ability to make honey is a remarkable Winter survival strategy for honey bees. Working hard during the warm months of the year allows them to make and store food for the cold season. They do such a good job that they are able to make enough to share with us. You can help bees by choosing flowers bees love to include in your garden and landscape.