Why Do Bees Make Honey?
Perhaps you’ve often wondered why bees make honey but you never had the time to search for an answer. Maybe the question came up just now while you were enjoying some delicious honey.
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about why bees produce honey. You’ll discover which types of bees produce honey and if they eat it. Finally, I’ll tell you if taking honey from the hive is harmful or damaging to bees and their colonies.
Do All Bees Make Honey?
No, not all bees are able to produce honey. To begin with, there are more than 20,000 different bee species.
Next, bees live in colonies separated by caste. This means there are different social classes of bee, each with their own responsibilities. Even inside honeybee colonies, not all bees can make honey.
Bees as a whole are members of the Hymenoptera order of insects. They are a part of the Apocrita suborder, one of two suborders of Hymenoptera. It’s a common misconception that the majority of bees are honey producers. Some species produce honey, but only in small quantities—like bumblebees, for example.
Making honey isn’t a central focus for these species as it is for honeybees. True honeybee colonies aren’t seasonal, they endure for a long time. So long as the hive is left undisturbed, a colony can have a population numbering in the thousands. There are only seven distinct types (or species) that are true honeybees.
These seven species fall under the Apis classification. Six species are native to southeastern and southern Asian regions. Aside from Apis cerana, the other species have yet to be domesticated. They still produce honey—just not under human control.
Domesticated honeybees are the species that beekeepers take care of. They are usually more docile than their wild counterparts. The most important domesticated honeybee is Apis mellifera. Originally known as the western or European honeybee, A. mellifera exists worldwide. You can find them in nearly any country except for Antarctica.
- A. mellifera has also become diversified through interbreeding. There are hundreds of subspecies that exist. This is a result of hybrids mating with each other.
Keep in mind that not every bee belonging to A. mellifera is domesticated. Many are not, and are considered wild species. These varied species have little in common aside from honey production. Their colors, shapes, sizes, and behaviors are all unique to the species.
Do All Honeybees Produce Honey?
Not all castes of bee are able to make honey. Consider ants, another well-studied social insect. Each caste has a job and sticks to it—the same is true of honeybees.
Understanding how a bee colony operates is simple. Bees can be male or female, and grow up to become a member of one of the three social classes.
These are drones, workers, or queens. All bees live inside the beehive, a structure built by the workers to house the colony.
The drones and the queen exist mainly to reproduce. Workers are the ones who make honey in the hive.
A single worker bee will only produce, on average, just 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey during her lifetime.
The average worker bee lives for six to eight weeks. However, if born in fall, worker honeybees can live as long as four months. One pound of honey requires visiting approximately two million flowers. The next time you have a taste of honey, remember each worker dedicates their entire life to producing it.
Why Do Bees Produce Honey?
There are a few reasons why honeybees make honey. First and foremost, the colony needs honey to survive through winters. In the winter time, bees take advantage of stored honey as a food source. They can also use stored honey if nectar sources outside the hive are low.
This is why only true honeybee colonies survive the winters. Other species that produce small amounts of honey don’t have long-lasting emergency stores to rely on.
Drones also subsist off honey. The male caste is reared only seasonally, usually during the late spring or early summer. Toward the end of summer, drone production will stop entirely.
One of the reasons is that drones are a drain on resources. They don’t forage for nectar or pollen like the workers. Drones rarely perform any other tasks aside from waiting to fertilize young queens. Since they don’t need to leave the hive for this, they prefer to eat close to home.
The drones use honey stores as a food supply. The rest of the day involves heading to future mating areas (to check if the new queens have emerged) and breaks for rest. Drones may also approach workers and beg for food. Workers in the hive are likely to have food available, as they feed the bee larvae.
Bee larvae are baby bees. In social colonies, like those of honeybees, workers raise them until they pupate. Stored honey is the most convenient way to nourish the larvae. Workers mix honey with bee bread for the extra nutriment. Bee bread is pollen the workers season with their salivary glands.
Another reason bees eat honey is for the essential nutrients it provides. These insects need both pollen and nectar to stay healthy. Bees break down the glucose (sugar) in nectar into carbohydrates for energy. If nectar is unavailable, bees will consume the next best thing—honey.
Foraging worker bees in particular burn through a lot of energy. They fly at an average speed of 12 to 15 miles per hour. On trips out of the hive, they can go as far as three miles away looking for food. Honey is the fuel these foragers use to make constant trips in and out of the hive.
When Do Bees Eat Their Own Honey?
Bees eat their own honey during the winter. They can also feed off honey if there are no viable food sources within flying distance of the hive.
Nearly every bee in the hive will enjoy honey at some point or another. The queens of social colonies subsist off royal jelly rather than honey.
This is a secretion that worker bees make. It’s fed only to mature and developing queens.
The exception is the queens of certain bee species, such as bumblebees. Before the queen bumblebee hatches her first batch of workers, she eats stored nectar and pollen. This enables her to stay close to her larvae until they pupate.
Otherwise, other castes (larvae, workers, and drones) can and do eat honey when needed.
The sole reason unmated male bees aren’t let back into the beehive is to preserve honey. Drones are gluttons when it comes to eating honey.
Is It Damaging to Bees When Honey is Taken from a Hive?
With bee populations on the decline, this is an important consideration. Under some circumstances, harvesting honey can damage bees.
In the wild, honey-eating animals can be destructive to beehives. Don’t forget that bees produce honey for their winter rations.
If large quantities of honey are taken from the hive, it isn’t easy to replace. Not to mention the physical destruction of the hive itself.
For instance, consider the so-called honey bears. Also known as black bears, these animals are one of the most destructive creatures when it comes to beehives. The bears shred and destroy the hives to access the honey. Bees that survive the encounter end up homeless.
Winter honey shortages aren’t something domesticated bees have to worry about. Beekeepers are responsible for keeping the colony fed over the winter with nectar substitutes.
This is not to say that harvesting honey can’t hurt them if carried out incorrectly. Bees can end up stressed, injured, or even killed.
Harvesting honey without providing the bees an alternate food source can cause starvation. Giving bees the wrong foods, such as molasses or dark sugar, can cause dysentery.
Unfortunate incidents like this happen with careless or inexperienced beekeepers. A good beekeeper must prioritize the health and happiness of his or her charges. The goal is to make honey extraction as stress-free and non-invasive as possible.
Intervention in the colony’s daily activities should be kept to a minimum. Aside from providing food, a beekeeper’s main job is to monitor the colony.
Beekeepers who are looking for a quick profit sometimes engage in bad practices. This can include artificial insemination to up the colony’s population, which can stress the bees involved.
Other unsavory approaches to beekeeping include clipping the wings of the queen. This is to prevent her from leaving the hive, taking her colony with her. It’s also cruel and unnecessary.
Ideally, honeycombs should be returned to the beehive in one piece. If they are broken while harvesting honey, it’s unnecessary extra work for the bees. This is something that a substandard beekeeper won’t care about.
It’s always intriguing to learn new information on hand about where your food comes from. You can also take steps to buy honey from reputable beekeepers. The welfare of the bees should come first.
Now you know why bees make honey. You can share your knowledge with fellow honey-lovers or impress a beekeeper if you meet one.