How do bees make honey? And... what about
why they make it?
It’s truly amazing to think about.
Honey is made by a colony of honey bees living in a nest (in the wild) or in a hive if kept by a beekeeper. A typical bee hive will house about 60,000 bees, most of them workers, industriously making honey!
Bees certainly have to work very hard to make it.
Here are some great facts and figures. You might like to think about them, next time you’re tucking into honey on pancakes!
So, the bees go to a lot of effort to make honey, and beekeepers go to a
fair bit of expense and effort in setting up hives and keeping bees.
I think this is important to remember.
It starts with foraging worker bees – and flowers, of course. As the weather begins to warm up, the bees will begin collecting nectar from flowers within a radius of around 4 miles. Note, the male honey bees, the drones, do not forage for the hive, and nor does the queen honey bee.
The bees have glands which secrete an enzyme. When the bees collect the nectar, it is then mixed with the enzyme in the bee’s mouth.
nectar is then taken back to the bee hive or nest, where it is dropped
into the honeycomb. These are hexagonal shaped cells, which in the
wild, the bees make themselves out of wax.
How do bees make honey when they live in hives?
When kept in bee hives, however, some beekeepers provide the bees with artificial, ready-made honeycomb frames, to encourage the bees to focus their energies on making honey, rather than making honeycomb. However, not all beekeepers engage in this practice. For example, those using top bar hives and engaging in 'natural beekeeping' practice, allow the bees to make their own honeycombs, as they would in the wild.
Initially the nectar collected and stored in the cells still has a high water content. After some time, however, the water content is reduced to around 17%. This process is aided by the bees themselves, fanning their wings, which helps the water to evaporate. Once the nectar solution has become more concentrated, at this point, the bees will cap the cells. This is also when beekeepers know the honey is ready to be harvested! Beekeepers will then move in to rob the hives!!
I was once asked 'How do bees make honey in the winter, when there are fewer flower blossoms from which they can gather nectar?' The answer is that of course honey bees do not go foraging in winter. The honey they have stored can keep in these capped cells indefinitely – without going off - for the honey bees to eat when they need it, and when they will not be able to forage. During the winter, the colony will need to continue feeding around 20,000 workers and a queen.
brings me back to my point about the preciousness of honey, and
bee-welfare. The bees need honey for its nutrients. Ideally, a
beekeeper will not remove all the honey from bees, and replace it with
sugar - I have included a comparison of honey and sugar on this site.
You can find it on my page
honey vs sugar.
Bees, due to agricultural practice, may be forced to forage on fields
drenched in pesticides. For this reason, I recommend you purchase
organic honey. This helps to support more ecologically friendly land
management practice, which is better for honey bees and other
pollinators. If this is not possible for you, you may wish to purchase
from a local beekeeper.
So in answer to the question how do bees make honey?, the answer lies in much hard work from honey bees, especially during spring and summer. Honey bee workers born and active during this time will live for around 6 or 7 weeks, whereas those born in autumn may live 4 to 6 months!
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