How Do Bees Make Honey?
First, bees need to obtain the key ingredient for making honey — flower nectar.
Worker bees will go out and harvest the pollen and nectar from a variety of flowering vegetation within a 4-mile radius from their hive. One honey bee only produces about one and a half teaspoons of honey during its lifespan — which is why the majority of bees in a colony are worker bees.
Once a bee has collected the nectar from a flower, its salivary glands release an enzyme that mixes with the nectar — this is how honey is created.
Upon their return to the hive, they store the honey in a honeycomb. These are made up of waxy structures consisting of many hexagon-shaped chambers — produced by the bees themselves.
Honey has a moisture content of 16-20 percent — the bees flap their wings, creating airflow to speed up the evaporation process. The time it takes for this process varies depending on the type of bee and its location.
Why Do Bees Make Honey and What Do They Do With It?
As a bee drinks the nectar of a plant, they digest it. When they return to the hive, they transfer the nectar to other bees via trophallaxis. In simple terms, it’s the process of regurgitating the nectar and sharing it with other bees. This is how they eat and also feed their young.
Bees deposit honey in large quantities. In the colder seasons, there aren’t as many flowers available for them to feed on — they store their food for later use to ensure the survival of the hive.
Bacteria can’t grow in the honeycomb because the sugar content is too high for them to multiply. This gives the bees a food supply without an expiration date.
Every worker bee feeds on honey — but the queen bee’s diet consists of royal jelly. Royal jelly is a nutritional secretion made by the worker bees. Worker bee larvae will consume it during their first few days, while the larvae that have been chosen to become a queen will rely on it throughout their entire development.
This is what allows her to grow so much bigger, live 40 times longer than worker bees, and provide her with enough energy to lay up to 2000 eggs a day. Most of the eggs will become worker bees, who produce, feed on, and store honey throughout their entire six-week lifespan.
As the weather gets warmer and flowers begin to bloom, worker honey bees can start collecting food again. During this time, they consume the honey as they make it, in addition to storing it in the honeycombs.
Are We Harming Bees by Taking Their Honey?
It’s a beekeeper’s responsibility to ensure that their bees have enough to eat after removing the honey.
In some practices, only a modest amount of honey will be harvested, leaving enough honey for the entire colony to feed on throughout winter. On a commercial level, bee farms, will remove all of the honey and substitute it with sugar for the bees to eat.
Sugar isn’t as nutritious for the bees as honey — it could cause a decline in productivity and overall well-being. These practices only exist because of human consumption and demand.
This doesn’t mean that people should never harvest honey. Instead, opt for organic or locally produced honey rather than commercially produced. Not only will it be better for the bees, but it will also reduce your footprint on the environment.
Do All Bees Make Honey?
In total there are seven species of honey bee:
- Phillipene honey bee (Apis nigrocincta)
- Western (European) honey bee (Apis mellifera)
- Koschevnikov’s honey bee (Apis koschevnikovi)
- Eastern (Asiatic) honey bee (Apis cerana)
- Giant honey bee (Apis dorsata)
- Red dwarf honey bee (Apis florea)
- Black dwarf honey bee (Apis andreniformis)
These, and their subspecies are the only bees that make honey.
Bumblebees do consume nectar and make their own version but in much smaller quantities. Their colonies die out in the winter, with only the queen bee remaining. She then feeds on whatever honey remains from her workers.
The key to understanding which species do or don’t — is the social aspect. Only bees that live in colonies will produce honey. Those that live a solitary existence will collect nectar to create a pollen loaf. This provides all the food for their eggs, and in addition, it acts as a protective shield for their nesting chambers.
Honey bees make and store honey for the cold winter months when there aren’t enough flowers to feed on. Honey contains 82.4 percent sugar (carbohydrates) — bees use it to fuel the high demands that their work requires. It’s also packed with the nutrients they need to remain healthy.
What might seem like a sweet treat to us is what’s keeping an entire species alive.