How Do Bees Make Honey?

Updated: 28th January 2021

How do bees make honey?  Honey bees create amazing honeycombs from beeswax, where they store the honey they make from flower nectar.How do bees make honey? Honey bees create amazing honeycombs from beeswax, where they store the honey they make from flower nectar.

Honey is not only tasty, it is the only food made by an insect that is eaten both by humans and the insect itself (of course, other creatures like to eat honey too, including other invertebrates, mammals and birds).

The method by which bees make honey has been a subject of fascination for hundreds of years.  Even the royal beekeeper to King Charles II of England (1630 - 1685) noted that:  "A bee is an exquisite chemist!" 

A honey bee (<I>Apis mellifera</I>) flies toward purple loosestrife flowers.A honey bee (Apis mellifera) flies toward purple loosestrife flowers.

Before we go in to detail, let's consider these amazing facts and figures:

  • To produce a pound of honey, foraging honey bees have to fly a whopping 55,000 miles!

  • That’s a lot of honey bees, working very hard, because each honey bee will only produce around one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its life!

  • Oh, and that’s despite the fact that a foraging honey bee visits up to 100 flowers – per foraging trip.

  • So no wonder it takes about 556 foraging bees to visit 2 million flowers, just to make a pound of honey!

wooden honey stick dripping with runny honeyWorth remembering: it takes about 556 foraging bees to visit 2 million flowers, just to make a pound of honey!

How bees make honey

It is well known that 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.

A honey bee (<I>Apis mellifera</I>) foraging head first in a pink Geranium flower.A honey bee (Apis mellifera) foraging on a Geranium flower.

The process of making honey starts with foraging worker honey bees – and flowers, of course.  The male honey bees, (the drones), do not forage for the hive, and nor does the queen honey bee.

As the weather begins to warm up, the bees will begin foraging on flowers.  Bees have to work very hard to make honey, with endless trips to flowers to collect nectar.

They will usually 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, known as the 'bee enzyme'.  When the bees collect the nectar, it is then mixed with the enzyme in the bee’s mouth.

A honey bee (<I>Apis mellifera</I>) foraging on a pink Prairie mallow flower.A honey bee (Apis mellifera) foraging on a Prairie mallow flower.

Back at the bee hive or nest, the nectar is passed from one bee to another, further mixing the nectar with the 'bee enzyme'.

This is then dropped into wax cells, called honeycomb. These are hexagonal shaped cells the bees make out of beeswax, and they act just like storage jars, but made of wax.

The bees fan their wings

Honey bee queen with workers on capped honey comb.  The queen has a white spot of paint on her thorax.Honey bee queen marked by a spot of special white paint, with workers.

Initially the honey stored in the cells is still a bit wet, so the bees fan their wings over it, which helps the water to evaporate.  After some time, the water content is reduced to around 17%. 

Once the honey is ready, at this point the bees will cap the cells - which means adding a layer of wax over the hexagonal shaped honeycomb cells (a little bit like putting a lid on a jar).

Robbing the hive!

Wild colonies of honey bees reserve the honey stored in the combs to eat during the winter months.  However, bees kept by beekeepers in hives have at least part of their honey robbed!  Once the bees have capped the honeycomb cells, beekeepers know that the honey is ready, and remove some of the honey.

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. Learn more about the honey bee life cycle.

Common questions about bees and honey making

Q:  'How do bees make honey in the winter, when the weather is very bad and there are fewer flower blossoms from which they can gather nectar?'

During the winter, the colony will need to continue feeding around 20,000 workers and a queen. However, the answer is that honey bees do not go foraging in winter when the weather is very poor and there are few flowers - instead, the honey is their winter food.

What this really means, is that beekeepers are essentially removing the honey bees' winter food stores which they may replace with sugar syrup.  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.  

There are also 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 cannot go out to forage.  

All being well, the remaining honey stored in the honeycomb can keep indefinitely for the honey bees to eat when they need it, and when they will not be able to forage.

Q: Do bumble bees make honey?

Bumble bee foraging on pink hollyhock flower.Bumble bee foraging on hollyhock flower.

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.

Q: Do other bees make honey?

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

Q: What are the different types of honey?

You can read about the different types of honey available here.

Bee-Themed Car Stickers And More

Save the bees plant flowers car bumper sticker
Don't worry bee happy car bumper sticker
Bee kind bee-themed car bumper sticker

Wacky Fact!

Did You Know?

Male honey bees (drones) 
have no father, but they do have a grandfather!

Does that sound impossible?

Read more about Drones!

Wacky Fact

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!

Read more about the honey bee queen

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