How Do Bees Make Honey?

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. 

Royal beekeeper to King Charles II of England (1630 - 1685) said: 
"A bee is an exquisite chemist!" 

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!

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.

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.

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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.

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

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

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The bees fan their wings

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%. 

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Robbing the hive!

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).

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 above shows the process of uncapping - which is removing the wax cappings from the combs*.

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Common questions about bees and honey making

Q:  '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 which they 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 can go out to forage.  

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All being well, 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.

Do bumble bees make honey?

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.

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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

Make sure you only buy real honey

Please purchase your honey with care, always check the label and be prepared to pay a fair price to ensure that you are buying real honey that has not been mixed with corn syrup, and had not become contaminated with chemicals.   See my honey buying tips.  

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.

You might like these

  • Honey Bee Facts

    Honey bee facts: quick, fun snippets of information about honey bees with links to further information.

  • Why Do Bees Need Nectar And Pollen?

    Why do bees need nectar and pollen – and how do they use it? A look at this question from the perspective of different types of bees.

  • Why Do Beekeepers Feed Sugar To Bees?

    Why Do Beekeepers Feed Sugar To Bees? Do honey bees like sugar water? When do beekeepers feed sugar water to honey bees

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

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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!

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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

* Image by User:Ben pcc - Own work, Public Domain,

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