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We’re all familiar with the fact that bees make honey but there’s something of a process to the creation of this sweet, sticky substance. Have you ever asked yourself how do bees make honey? If you have then you’re in the right place.
In the simplest terms, bees make honey using nectar which is taken back to the hive and then broken down into sugars within the honeycomb.
Of course, there’s a lot more that happens between the flower and the honey jar and I’d love to take you on the bee’s wondrous honey-making journey.
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Contrary to popular belief, honeymaking isn’t a skill that’s seen in all bees. In fact, only around 5% of all the bee species in the world make honey and one of the most obvious is the honeybee. However, other types of stingless bees are also known to produce honey that’s worth human harvest.
Surprisingly, bumblebees are able to produce honey but the amount is so little that it largely goes unnoticed.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that our winged friends are out there producing honey just for human benefit. These flying insects were making and using honey long before humans took a taste. In fact, any beekeeper will tell you that it’s super important not to harvest every last drop of honey from the hive as the bees need enough to survive as well.
Bees make honey as a food source. It’s as simple as that. Honey is high in all of the sugars and nutrients that bees need and it’s not only an important food source for adult bees but for the young too.
Over the winter, bees become inactive and remain inside their hive or nest to stay warm. They have trouble flying in cold conditions so, over the spring and summer, they must gather nectar and create enough honey to sustain the hive during winter.
Making honey is no mean feat. Have you ever heard someone say that they’re as busy as a bee? This is a very accurate analogy since bees never stop and there’s always something to do when it comes to making honey. Usually, this process can be broken down into four stages which I’ll discuss in more detail below.
The first thing that bees have to do to produce honey is gather nectar from flowers. This is often what you will see them doing when they’re buzzing around your garden in spring and summer. Nectar is a type of sweet liquid produced by flowers and it’s the worker bees that will fly out from the hive to collect this.
Honeybees have a tongue known as a proboscis which is much like a straw that they use to suck the nectar out of the flowers. Did you know that bees also have hairy tongues? How strange!
Once they have sucked up the nectar, it is contained within the bee’s honey stomach. There’s a valve inside this pouch that the bee has total control over and allows her to eat some of the nectar if she’s feeling a little peckish. Inside the pouch, the bee can store as much as 40 mg of nectar which is almost the same as her own body weight!
These bees have incredible senses that allow them to pick out nectar-containing flowers as far as two kilometers away. What’s more, their senses allow them to choose just the right time of day to forage on certain flowers as they all produce nectar at different times.
At the same time as collecting nectar, the honeybee will also gather pollen. This sticks to her hairy little body or in pollen baskets on the legs. This pollen is used to pollinate flowers but some is also taken back to the hive where it’s used for feeding the young.
When honeybees have gathered as much nectar as they can, they will return to the hive to start the next part of the honey-making process. It’s now the turn of the house bees to do the work and worker bees will pass nectar from their mouths into those of the house bees. These house bees digest the nectar where it remains in their bodies for around half an hour.
While inside the bee, the nectar is mixed with enzymes that break down the sucrose into other sugars glucose and fructose which are much simpler types of sugar.
But it doesn’t end there. Bees will transfer the nectar from one to the other until the moisture content goes from about 70% down to 20%. Once this happens, it’s time for the bees to transfer the substance into one of the many honeycombs within the hive.
Honey needs to be ripened and this is something that requires a lot of energy from the bees since they have to use their wings to create a wind that will dry out the honey, causing it to ripen. When honey has too much moisture, it will start to ferment, however, when it’s ripened, there’s no chance of it being affected by bacteria so it’ll last a very long time.
After a lot of wing flapping; around 11,000 flaps per minute, the honey will finally dry out. The next step for the honeybees is to seal the honeycomb cells using wax. This ensures that none of the nutrients are lost and that the honey is not exposed to air or moisture.
Over the course of the winter, the bees can then dip into these honey stores to provide themselves with all the essential nutrients and energy that they need. What’s more, they’ll even make a product known as bee bread using honey and pollen which is offered to the young bees as a source of food.
One of the most truly fascinating things about honey, in my opinion, is that its very production can be affected by the type of flowers that the bee uses to gather nectar. You’ll notice that there are lots of different types of honey on shelves in farm shops and grocery stores and this is to do with which flowers were used.
In some parts of the United States, goldenrod honey is abundant whereas, in others, you’ll find a lot of clover honey. Different flowers produce different tastes and textures of honey as well as impacting the aroma of the product.
A great example of this is lavender honey. When bees use this scent, the honey will have a very distinct lavender aroma and taste. This is one of the sweeter kinds of honey whereas something like clover will produce something much milder.
If you are looking for something that isn’t as sweet then you’ll want to choose honey that has a lighter color. On the other hand, honey that is dark will be much richer and sweeter to taste.
Another thing that always amazes me about honey is that it won’t ever go bad. In fact, there was some honey found in the tomb of King Tut that is thought to be around 3000 years old and can still be eaten today. Although with all those myths of ancient Egyptian curses, I’d probably give it a miss!
The reason that honey doesn’t go bad is thanks to a process called crenation. This is essentially the removal of air and water from the substance which makes it inhospitable to fungi and bacteria.
Honey is a popular sweet product that is made by bees but have you ever wondered how bees make honey? It’s a four-step process that involves a lot of hard work, time and dedication on the bee’s part and it all begins with nectar. The results can vary depending on the type of flower the bee has gathered nectar from but one thing all honey has in common is it is mighty delicious!