Table of contents
- Honey is nothing short of magic
- Which bees make honey?
- Why do honey bees make honey?
- Five major steps for making honey from nectar
- When do honey bees eat the honey they make?
- Are we starving the bees when we steal their honey?
- Frequently asked questions
Honey is nothing short of magic
It seems like magic, right? Little honey bees just over a half-inch long collect nectar from bunches of flowers. Then they bring the nectar home and turn it into one of the sweetest substances on earth. But stop and taste some of that nectar for yourself. Are you befuddled? Of course! Most nectar tastes like nothing.
In some respects, you could compare making honey to making maple syrup. You collect large amounts of watery sap and then spend a lot of time and energy removing most of the water. But the comparison stops there because we don’t add enzymes to maple syrup.
Which bees make honey?
Honey-making is indeed mystical, and few creatures can do it. Only a handful of species, mostly honey bees, stingless bees, and a few honey pot ants make enough honey for humans to eat. Bumble bees make a small amount for the queen, and a handful of wasp species store enough nectar for emergencies.
Solitary bees such as carpenter bees and mining bees do not overwinter in groups. Instead, they spend the cold months as eggs, pupae, or inactive adults, depending on the species. These insects store very little, if any, food for winter.
Why do honey bees make honey?
Honey bees eat honey for energy. Because they live in large groups that remain active in winter, they have an enormous need for food. They need to keep the nursery warm, raise young, hunt for food, defend the hive, build honeycomb, and keep their home clear of dead bodies. With so much to do, they require a stockpile of high-energy food to keep them going.
Social insects that live in groups are much more likely to store extra food. The other famous honey producers, the stingless bees, do basically the same thing as honey bees. Bumble bees are social, but they do not overwinter as a colony, so their energy requirements are much smaller.
Honey bees also store large amounts of pollen. But unlike nectar, pollen is high in protein and fats that are used to raise the young. The nurse bees that feed the larvae eat pollen so they can secrete food to feed them. Except for those nurse bees, adult honey bees eat nothing but honey.
Five major steps for making honey from nectar
Honey-making is a multistep process that requires both planning and energy. A step-by-step to-do list for honey bee workers might look something like this:
Searching for flowers with nectar
Older worker bees in the last stage of their lives collect nectar. Foraging is the most dangerous part of bee life because the foragers will encounter many hazards.
Some foragers are scouts, tasked with finding good patches of flowers secreting lots of high-sugar nectar. When they find a good patch, they go back to the hive and communicate the location to foragers who will go out and collect the nectar.
Collecting and transporting the nectar
Once the foragers get to the recommended patch, they go from flower to flower until they have a full load. The nectar is often in a small pool at the base of the petals. The honey bees use their multi-part tongue like a straw, sucking the sweet liquid from the pool.
The bees swallow this nectar into their honey stomach, a pouch separate from their digesting stomach. The honey stomach is extremely elastic, and it expands to hold a big load—at least big by honey bee standards. When their honey stomach can hold no more, the foragers return home to offload their treasure.
Adding enzymes that invert the sugar
Earlier, I said some of the honey-making steps overlap. Well, here is a good example. As soon as the bees collect the nectar, they add enzymes to it. Some of these are in their saliva and some are in their honey stomach.
Several changes take place. Significantly, the enzymes break complex sugars into simpler ones. For example, the enzymes separate sucrose into glucose and fructose. This is called inversion, and it happens almost instantly. So even as the bees are still collecting nectar, the conversion into honey begins.
Evaporating all that extra water
Just as in maple syrup, evaporation of all the water is the hard part. Although the amount of sugar in nectar is variable, it is roughly 20% percent sugar and 80% water. Honey is the opposite, having about 80% sugar and 20% water. Getting rid of all that water is a big job.
This step also overlaps with others. The foragers get rid of some of the water while it’s in the honey stomach. Once in the hive, the nectar gets passed from bee to bee. During this process, more enzymes are added and more water is removed. Nectar on the bees’ tongue has a high surface area that aids evaporation, so the more it gets passed around the more water it loses.
Finally, when the nectar is thick enough, the bees place it in open honey cells. The house bees beat their wings to make air currents which help to further dry the honey. Honey is supersaturated, which means it holds more sugar than would normally be possible without the aid of those bee enzymes.
Storing the honey for later
When the honey is dry enough, the house bees cap the honey cells to keep the honey from gathering moisture from the air. The caps also keep the honey clean and free of mold. The bees can walk all over the comb without fear of harming the honey.
When do honey bees eat the honey they make?
Like any animal, bees need a constant supply of food, but flowers are only available at certain times of the year. And sometimes flowers are available but the air temperature is too cold for the bees to fly. At these times, bees dip into their honey supplies.
Some people think that honey bees only use their honey in winter, but they use it whenever there is a nectar dearth. A dearth is a lack of something, in this case, nectar.
Are we starving the bees when we steal their honey?
Honey bees are well-known as hoarders, collecting and storing much more honey than they actually use. Therefore, beekeepers can harvest some honey from their hives and still leave plenty for the bees.
Knowing how much to harvest and how much to leave takes some practice and varies with geographic areas. However, published guidelines give new beekeepers good recommendations to help them get started.
Most beekeepers harvest only part of the honey. In addition, many add winter feed just in case their calculations are off. There is no reason carefully monitored colonies should starve.
Frequently asked questions
If bees regurgitate honey, why is it not vomit?
The bees swallow nectar into a special pouch called the honey stomach. The honey stomach does not contain the same enzymes as the digesting stomach. Vomiting from the digestive stomach is not possible in bees, so digested or partially digested food can only go in one direction, out the back end.
The honey stomach is completely separate from the digesting stomach, which ensures the nectar remains pure and uncontaminated by the contents of the digesting stomach.
Do wasps make honey?
Most wasps, including yellowjackets and hornets, do not make honey. However, a few exceptions exist in the social species such as the Mexican honey wasp, Brachygastra mellifica.
Is honey made from pollen?
Bees make honey from nectar, but honey often contains pollen more or less by accident. In fact, the pollen in honey can sometimes help identify the source of the nectar. For example, if you find lots of dandelion pollen in your honey, much of the honey itself probably came from dandelion nectar.
What makes the different colors of honey?
The different colors of honey result from the different nectars that went into it. Some honey is nearly clear like water (fireweed), and some are so dark they almost look black (buckwheat, avocado, tamarind). Most are somewhere in between, with various shades of amber and caramel.
How many flowers are needed to make honey?
The amount of nectar a bee gets from a flower depends on the species of flower, its size, and its age. As a rule of thumb, one pound of honey requires about two million blooms.
Honey Bee Suite
I’m just here to sign up for the comments. (You already know how much I love to eat bee barf, and to label it that way for my family and friends. Which I only mention again because I’m the kind of person who sticks her nose in a busy hive entrance.) : )
I always learn from and enjoy reading your posts, and this one is no exception. I’m not a beekeeper; just a wildlife observer fascinated by honey bees.
This year I’m pretty certain that my bees have enough honey. I raided them around June 1st and decided to do a hands-off approach to my bees. I have sadly lost hives before to starvation in the early spring. They’d be doing great, then we’d get a cold snap, and all activity would cease. Starvation! I’d feel so guilty, so I started making 10-pound sugar blocks for them to go after if they ran short. That seemed to help.
By not “bugging” them (pun intended) they seem to have done better. I haven’t treated for mites or any other pests. I’ll have to see how they do. If they thrive this way, then the one robbery in early June will suffice.
This is a most enjoyable article. I am printing this out because it answers so simply and clearly all the questions I am repeatedly asked. My usual answer is “well, uh…”
What a nice compliment to start the day with! Thank you so much.
How do the bees transfer the nectar to each other in the drying process? This was such a great article to read, it really explained some missing puzzle pieces for me!
To transfer nectar, one bee sticks out her tongue and offers a drop to another bee. The second bee licks up the drop and swallows it into her honey stomach.