How do bees make honey? And... what about
why they make it?
Honey is made by a colony of honey bees (Apis mellifera) 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 and the honeycombs in which the honey is stored.
Bees certainly have to work very hard to make it, with endless trips to flowers to collect nectar.
It’s truly amazing to think about! Indeed, a Royal beekeeper to King Charles II of England said:
"A bee is an exquisite chemist!"
How right he was! What special little creatures honey bees are.
But first, here are some amazing facts and figures you might like to think about, next time you’re tucking into honey on pancakes!
As the weather begins to warm up, the bees will begin foraging on flowers.
They will collect the sweet nectar from
flowers within a radius of around 4 miles, and this nectar will then be taken to the hive.
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.
Back at the bee hive or nest, the nectar is dropped
into the honeycomb. These are hexagonal shaped cells, which in the
wild, the bees make themselves out of wax.
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 thicker (more concentrated), at this point, the bees will cap the cells - which means adding a layer of wax over the hexagonal shaped honeycomb cells.
Below is an image of honeycombs the bees have capped with wax*.
When bees are kept in hives, this is when beekeepers know the honey is ready to be harvested.
Beekeepers will then move in to rob the hives.
The image right shows the process of uncapping - which is removing the wax cappings from the combs*.
I was once asked:
'How do bees make honey in the winter, when it's very cold and there are fewer flower blossoms from which they can gather nectar?'
The answer is that honey bees do not go foraging in winter when it's too cold - instead, the honey is their winter food.
What this really means, is that beekeepers are essentially removing the honey bees' winter food stores. A few beekeepers may remove all of the honey, then replace this with sugar solution (which is less nutritious for bees), however, a fair-minded beekeeper will only take away what the honey bee colony can afford to lose, leaving the rest for the bees themselves.
The honey the bees have stored can keep in these capped cells of the honeycomb indefinitely 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.
So in answer to the question about 'how 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.
Yes, Stingless Bees make honey, but not in the same quantity as honey bees, and the honey you purchase in a store will have been made by the honey bee, Apis mellifera.
Bumble bees collect nectar and store it for a short time in their honey pots back at the nest. However, they don't make honey in the same way that honey bees do - it's different. You can read more about this subject here.
So, now you know about how bees make honey.
beekeepers go to a
fair bit of expense and effort in setting up hives and keeping bees in
order to bring you the honey you use on your bread or pancakes.
I think this is important to remember.
Given the preciousness of honey, and
the importance of honey bees, it's worth mentioning bee-welfare.
There are times when beekeepers must help honey bees by feeding sugar water (sugar syrup) - for example, after a poor summer with not enough flowers or occasions when bees can go out to forage. You can read more about why beekeepers feed sugar syrup to bees here.
Did You Know?
Male honey bees (drones) have no father, but they do have a grandfather!
Does that sound impossible?
Did you know?
If the honey bee queen is removed from a
hive, within 15 minutes, the rest of the colony will know about it!
* Image by User:Ben pcc - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19217325
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