how do bees make honey

How Do Bees Make Honey?

Honey is important to us for many reasons. The golden substance is used in traditional medicine to treat a range of ailments. It sweetens our drinks and foods. Are you curious about how bees make honey? Well, now you’re about to learn.

You’ll discover why bees make honey and what the creation process involves. I’ll tell you if all bees can produce it, or just certain types. You’ll also become familiar with what honey is made of, and the different variations.

Why Do Bees Make Honey?

Bees make honey as a food source for the bee colony. Honey is rich in sugar, which can be broken down into carbohydrates. Bees need carbohydrates for optimal health. Developing bee larvae also eat honey to grow strong and mature.

Honeycomb

Honey is also necessary for survival during the winter months. When winter comes and flowers die, the bees don’t have any pollen to eat. Therefore, honey is a nutritional backup to keep the colony alive until spring. Think of it as the bee equivalent of emergency canned food.

Do All Bees Produce Honey?

There is a two-part answer to the question of whether or not all bees produce honey. Firstly, I will share which species of bees are honey producers.

Next, I will explain which types of honeybee play a part in making honey. Bee colonies are built of separate castes, not identical individuals.

Which Species of Bees Produce Honey?

When you think of bees, you’re probably picturing one insect. In reality, there are thousands of distinct species of bees. They all fall under the suborder of Apocrita and order of Hymenoptera.

Of these 20,000 or so species, only one is capable of producing honey in large quantities. Other species can make honey but in small quantities. Bumblebees (of the genus Bombus) are one such example.

Honey-producing bees are classed as members of the Apis tribe. They are also known as true honeybees.

There are seven members of this species. Six of these live in regions of southeastern and southern Asia. Only one of these Asian-dwelling bees, Apis cerana, has become domesticated.

Domesticated honeybees are those that we can keep in man-made beehives. Artificial beehives allow beekeepers easier access to honey and beeswax.

full hive board

They also play a key role in pollination, which impacts agriculture. Since wild honeybee populations have been on the decline, domesticated honeybees are indispensable.

The most relevant species to us in terms of honey production is Apis mellifera. These bees are better known by their nickname: the European, or Western, honeybee.

Don’t let the moniker mislead you—honeybees are widespread. Thanks to human intervention, honeybees can be found across the globe. Every continent (save for Antarctica) has an Apis mellifera population.

Due to interbreeding, there are many subspecies of honeybees. Hybrids have formed, diversifying honeybees even more.

Hybrid honeybees have their own unique characteristics. The only thing all honeybees share in common is their ability to produce honey.

Take the notorious African honeybee, for example. Certain subspecies of African honeybee may look similar to their European counterparts, but that’s where the comparison ends. When it comes to behavior, they are as different as night and day.

For example, European honeybees may send up to 20 bees to defend the hive if it’s under attack. African honeybees will send 100 or more bees as a defense.

What Caste of Bee Produces Honey?

Now that you know which species of bees produce honey, let’s delve deeper. Bees are social insects that live in colonies. As the name implies, social insects live in organized societies. Other examples include ants or other pests, like termites.

Just as with other social insects, the colony is divided into different castes. Each caste of bee performs a specific task for the colony. A beehive can be compared to an office—except your assigned job is for life. Altogether, the castes work toward the health and survival of the colony.

honeycomb with bees

There are three castes of honeybees: queens, workers, and drones. The drones are males and aren’t equipped with stingers. They only appear in the early summer.

Workers are sexually immature females. Queens are female honeybees that have reached sexual maturity. There is usually only one queen bee per hive. Both of these castes have stingers.

The workers are the ones who produce honey. They also perform the bulk of the labor to sustain the hive.

How Do Bees Make Honey?

Now it’s time to find out how these insects make honey. You’ll be surprised how much effort goes into producing even the smallest quantities of our favorite natural sweetener.

Foragers and Receivers

You already know that worker bees are the ones who make honey. Each worker will dedicate her entire life to honey production, among other tasks in the hive.

In spite of all the hard work involved in honey producing, one worker doesn’t accomplish much on her own. Roughly 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey is produced per working honeybee over a lifetime.

honey on spoon

This means that honey production begins outside the hive. To maintain efficiency, these bees divide the work between them.

Some workers are foragers, and others are receivers. The foragers are the bees who get to leave the hive to search for nectar. Receivers stay in the hive, waiting for the foragers to return.

The foragers head out in search of good spots for nectar. The foraging workers have a wide range of exploration during these searches.

Depending on the species, they can travel up to three miles from the hive on these expeditions. The end goal is to find locations with abundant food sources (i.e. nectar and pollen).

If a forager comes across a great location, she will communicate to the other foragers back at the hive. This is done through a combination of dancing and pheromones.

The foragers don’t dance around randomly. These dances are calculated to communicate information. This includes the quality, quantity, and location of food sources.

Foraging for Pollen and Nectar

Forager bees find nectar and pollen through sight and smell. Certain flowers are more appealing than others.

bee on lavender

The plants that rely on bees for reproduction, or pollination, are the most attractive to the bees. It’s been theorized that these flowers have evolved to attract forager bees.

Take snapdragon flowers, for instance. These vivid flowers will only open if a forager bee lands on them. Other insects that are too heavy or light will not trigger the snapdragon to open.

These flowers are typically bright, sweet-scented, and open during the day. They have accessible nectar tubes for the bees to drink from. The petals are large enough to serve as a landing platform.

Unfortunately, this is why some people accidentally attract forager bees. Perfumes that smell sweet, or brightly-colored clothing, can often be mistaken for flowers by the bee.

Bee-friendly flowers also have nectar guides, invisible to the human eye. The centers of the petals have an ultraviolet reflection that only bees can see.

pollinating bee

The foragers can find the flower’s center—and nectar—effortlessly. Basically, the flower sets out a welcome mat for foraging honeybees.

Once the bee has landed on the flower, the feeding begins. Workers drink the sweet nectar until they are full. Rather than ingesting it, the nectar is kept in the crop—or honey stomach.

Pollen is the sticky, powder-like substance found in many flowers. The pollen is the male part of the plant, crucial for reproduction of the species. Bees are vital to pollination across the globe.

Foragers naturally accumulate pollen on their bodies as they move around on the flower. Thanks to the thousands of little hairs throughout the foragers’ bodies, the pollen stays stuck.

pollen collecting hairs on leg of bee
These tiny leg hairs help to trap and collect pollen.

Now, no forager will fly off with a thick coat of pollen on her. Instead, she will transfer the pollen into her pollen basket. This is an area on the foragers’ hind legs specifically for this purpose.

You may even see forager bees carrying pollen in the summer if you look carefully. Look for bees with yellow or greenish pollen balls hanging from their rears.

These foragers are the main reason why honeybee populations are valuable to us. Bees are vital to pollination across the globe. While foraging, the workers help to pollinate crops, such as cranberries, melons, and more.

As the pollen sticks to the foragers’ furry bodies, by moving to different flowers, they carry and spread the pollen around.

bee covered in pollen
A bee covered in pollen – CC Image courtesy of forestwander-nature-pictures

Back to the Hive

Once the forager has a full load of pollen and nectar, she’ll return to the hive. There, the receivers are waiting for a forager to approach them.

Here’s where the honey-making process gets somewhat off-putting. Each forager bee will regurgitate her collected nectar into the mouth of a receiver.

The nectar is taken into the receiver’s honey-stomach and regurgitated again to another receiver. This is repeated several more times.

The aim of this unpleasant-sounding ritual is to sap the nectar of moisture. The nectar is also exposed to enzymes in the workers’ honey stomachs. These two factors help to turn it into the thick, viscous honey we know and love.

Finally, the honey will be deposited into a honeycomb. These are hexagonal cells built of beeswax and are used for multiple purposes in the hive.

bee and honeycomb

Once the honey is packed into the honeycomb, the workers will fan it with their wings. This fanning is to extract as much remaining moisture as possible.

If raw honey is not dehydrated, it can rot. This is due to the water content and natural yeasts which could cause unwanted fermentation.

The honeycomb cell is then securely capped with beeswax. As with honey, beeswax is manufactured by the workers. They possess special glands to produce it.

What Is Honey Made Of?

Nectar is the main ingredient when it comes to honey. Most of the honey you can buy at the grocery store has been produced from nectar.

There is another substance that bees can use to make honey: honeydew. Honey enthusiasts argue whether or not honeydew honey is “real” honey.

Nectar

Nectar is the sweet substance that plants secrete. It can emerge from stems, leaves, or blossoms. This substance is usually viscous. Some plants excrete thicker or more fluid nectars than others.

The composition of nectar is straightforward. It’s made of sugars—glucose, sucrose, and fructose.

Just as with consistency, the sweetness isn’t set in stone. The sugar content can be as low as three percent or as high as 80 percent.

Honeybees generally won’t drink nectars that aren’t sweet. Forager bees prefer nectar with a sugar content of at least 15 percent.

Honeydew

Honeydew sounds like a wonderful substance. In actuality, it is used to describe nectar excreted by other insects.

Insects that feed off plant nectar will leave excretions on the plant. Certain species of honeybee collect these excretions in their honey stomach, rather than nectar.

The honey-making procedure remains the same. Only the secret ingredient changes, from plain nectar to honeydew.

Are There Different Types of Honey?

Honey isn’t manufactured in a factory. Rather, hives of bees across the globe work to make the honey we enjoy. As a result, there are lots of different types of honey.

The color, consistency, and flavor of honey all depend on the nectar source. Some flowers have sweeter nectar than others. In the United States alone, there are over 300 types of honey.

You can classify the types of honey in a few ways.

Nectar Origins

As I’ve touched on, the origins of the nectar has a lot to do with how honey turns out.

Honey can be single-origin, multi-origin, or regional. An example of single-origin nectar is clover honey. The honey was made from nectar taken exclusively from clover flowers.

Multi-origin means the honey was made from more than one sort of nectar. For instance, honey produced from wildflower nectar.

bee finding pollen

There can be lots of different species of wildflowers in a location. The nectar collected from separate flowers is mixed together when honey is made.

Regional honey relates to location rather than nectar. The most famous type of regional honey is Manuka honey.

This popular regional honey is made by honeybees in New Zealand. Nectar is harvested from the Manuka shrub.

Manuka honey is renowned for its antibacterial properties. One study found that it has more potent antioxidants than other brands of honey on the market.

The same is true of honey made from honeydew. The flavor is dependent on the type of plant nectar the honeydew-secreting insect has consumed.

Color

Honey can range in color, from pale gold to dark amber. Darker kinds of honey are usually more flavorful.

Honey made from avocado flowers is dark, with a rich, full taste. The same is true of buckwheat honey.

Light-colored clover honey is known for its mild taste. Orange-blossom honey has a light, citrus-like tang to it.

honey

Harvesting and Processing

Honey can have a solid or liquid consistency—or anything in between. This will depend on how the honey is harvested and processed. Basically, how the honey gets from the hive into the jar on your kitchen table.

These aspects also influence the purity of your honey. Some brands of honey include added sugars or other artificial ingredients.

Usually, these are less expensive than pure honey. Check the label of the honey you’re considering, to see if anything has been added to it—particularly if it’s cheap.

Comb Honey

If you want honey fresh from the hive, comb honey is for you. This is honey that is sold in its original containers—beeswax from the hive.

The beeswax combs are still sealed. Beeswax isn’t a harmful or toxic substance, so comb honey is safe to eat and is said to have many additional health benefits.

Raw Honey

Raw honey is the purest sort of honey, after comb honey. It isn’t filtered and contains minerals and pollens. This type of honey isn’t subjected to any processing and is free of artificial ingredients. In this form, it is packed with antioxidants that make honey so healthy.

honeycomb

If you’re interested in raw honey, proceed with caution. Raw honey contains pollen grains, which can be an allergen. If you suffer from pollen allergies, you might want to avoid this honey.

You’re also more likely to experience your honey crystallizing faster. The water in the honey will gradually separate from the glucose (sugar), forming crystals.

Any type of honey can crystallize under certain conditions. Your raw honey will still be edible—just a little more solid.

Pasteurized Honey

You’ve likely heard the term pasteurizing connected with juice and dairy products. The pasteurization process ensures these products are safe for us to consume.

Honey can be pasteurized too, but for other reasons. The majority of commercially available honeys are pasteurized.

Pasteurizing raw honey isn’t done to prevent us from getting sick. Since honey has a high acidity content with little humidity, bacteria can’t thrive. Rather, pasteurization keeps your honey lasting longer.

To pasteurize honey, it is heated to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it reaches this temperature, the honey is then rapidly cooled down.

Pasteurized honey is less likely to crystallize. If left alone for long enough, it will—but not for a long time.

During pasteurization, some types of honey are also whipped. This whipping gets rid of any granules that have formed, keeping the honey in liquid form.

Other variations of honey are processed to have a creamy consistency, like butter. This is for convenience—you can spread your honey on toast without the mess.

Summary

So, now you know everything there is to know about honey-making. You must agree that it’s an industrious and remarkable process.

You should take a moment to appreciate these amazing creatures the next time you eat honey. Additionally, you’ll be ready the next time someone asks how bees make honey

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