How do bees make honey?

04.04.2020. 14:00

We all know and love the taste of nature’s precious nectar - honey. There is nothing that compares to the sweet taste of honey, especially raw honey. It is not only tasty, but it is also the only food made by an insect that can be eaten by humans. But how exactly do bees make honey? The method which bees use to make honey has been fascinating us for hundreds of years. An interesting fact is that the royal beekeeper to King Charles II of England noted that a bee is an exquisite chemist. The creation of honey is an incredible process that really makes us appreciate bees and the work they do. Besides making honey, which we eat, they also have an essential role in bringing food to our tables because of pollination. Before we go into details about how bees make honey, we have to answer some important questions. Why bees make honey? Why they store it?

Why bees make honey?

You have heard it plenty of times that honey is a health punch for humans, and it is recommended to consume it in moderation. Some types like Manuka or Acacia honey are more healthy than others but all of them are good for you. A unique taste, aroma, and health benefits make honey a great addition to meals, drinks, cosmetics, etc. Well, for little bees honey is of extreme importance not only because of many benefits but also because it is their food source. Knowing this, it is pretty easy to answer the question of ‘why bees make honey’. Like all living creatures, bees need food to stay alive and to function properly, which is a role reserved for honey.

Since honey is food to bees, we are kinda the same in that regard. Through its vitamins and sugar honey provides bees with the necessary energy, and we have all heard that saying ‘busy as a bee’. Well, bees are indeed very busy little workers. For example, they flap their wings over  11,000 times per minute, which requires a lot of energy. When you take into consideration the fact that an average bee colony has hundreds and even thousands of individual bees, you realize that bees need a lot of honey. 

Why bees store honey?

When trying to understand why bees store honey, we can compare them to someone who preserves and stores their food. In our households the reason for storing food is usually to have plenty of food regardless of circumstances. An example of this is storing fresh food for winter months when most fresh foods aren’t available. By storing honey, bees make sure that they have what they need throughout the year. 

You might be surprised to know that with plenty of resources for making honey, bees can make and store enough honey to last them for years. If something prevents them from foraging (lack of vegetation for foraging or a drought), the colony could still survive for a few years. When it comes to survival bees are very proactive. 

Is it ok to take honey from bees?

Since bees make and store honey for their own needs, is it ok for humans to steal their honey? When taking honey from the hive it is never recommended to take all of it. You should always leave some honey, so a bee colony has food to support itself. If the season has been good, then there might be plenty of surplus honey that can be taken out. Since how much honey a colony will make and need depends on many factors, it is always recommended to frequently check the hive to make sure they have enough food. If the honey left in the hive might not be enough, special man-made food is put in the hive as a supplement to honey. 

Predation is natural in the wild so other insects, mammals, and birds will often steal some honey from bee colonies. So yes, it’s ok to take some honey from the bees as long as their needs are taken into consideration.

How bees make honey?

Firstly, bees need to collect resources required for making honey, and that resource is nectar. To collect nectar bees will forage within an 8 kilometers (5 miles) radius from the hive, but they will generally stay as close to the hive as possible. Foraging bees will check for water and nectar sources and communicate their location to the rest of the bees using their special ‘dance’. You can learn more about a honey bee dance here.

Flowers are bee’s source of nectar, but not all flowers are created equal. Some flowers (such as dandelion, clover, apple, blackberry, lavender, and live) attract bees more than others. Flowers give bees high protein pollen and sugary nectar, which are not only needed for honey production but also essential for young bees (larvae) to have a good start to life. Moreover, adult bees also need the energy to do their work in and around the hive. 

Bees collect nectar using their long tongue (proboscis) that can slide down into the flower and suck the nectar out. The collected nectar is stored in their second stomach called honey stomach, which doesn’t digest nectar - only stores it. Here nectar is mixed with some enzymes that pull out some water out of the nectar and start the process of making honey. 

What is important to note here is that honey is not bee vomit. When a bee intakes nectar, it can go through one of two valves which decide whether the nectar will be digested or just stored. This comes in handy because a bee can use stored nectar during the flight if she needs the extra energy. 

When the forager bee returns to the hive, there will be a younger worker bee waiting to suck the nectar out of the honey stomach. After sucking it out she will chew it for about 30 minutes. While chewing the nectar a bee will also add enzymes that will break down the nectar further reduce the water content in it. This makes it easier to digest and less likely to get bacteria while it’s stored in the hive.  

After this is complete, the syrup is deposited inside the cells of a honeycomb. The syrup is left to sit in these cells so it can thicken as the water evaporates further. 

Once the water content and consistency of honey are at the right level, cells containing honey are capped with beeswax to preserve it. 

Honey is the result of a lot of hard work

Now that we have explained the process of how bees make honey, you can see that it requires a lot of work. From collecting all the resources to processing them into honey we all know and love. The whole colony works together to make it happen, each bee with its own role in the process. Their organization and work distribution have fascinated many for thousands of years, and it is inspiring new advancements in technology even today. Unfortunately, bee numbers are declining worldwide due to pesticides, habitat loss, and some other factors. If we want our future generations to also be able to enjoy honey, we should do whatever we can to help them. One of the ways you can help our little workers is to teach people about the fascinating life of bees and their importance for our environment. Let’s work together! Let’s show everyone how amazing are our friends honey bees by teaching our friends and family about how bees make honey!