A short overview of the process of how honey bees make honey.
Foraging for sources for honey
Worker bees leave their hive and fly to nearby flowers to gather nectar, a sweet liquid produced by flowers that contains sugars. The bees have a long, tube-like tongue called a proboscis that they use to suck the nectar out of the flowers.
Flower Selection: The first step in foraging is flower selection. Worker bees, also known as forager bees, seek out flowers in bloom within a 5-mile radius from their hive. They can recognize the color and pattern of flowers, and are attracted to those with high sugar content in their nectar. They also have the ability to detect the scent of flowers, using their antennae, to find their nectar source.
Nectar Collection: Once a suitable flower is found, the bee lands on the flower and uses its proboscis, a long, straw-like tongue, to reach into the flower to its nectaries, where the nectar is stored. The nectar is a sweet liquid produced by flowers that consists mainly of water and sugars, which are an essential energy source for bees. The worker bee sucks up the nectar and stores it in its "honey stomach" or crop, a separate storage area in the bee's abdomen.
Pollen Collection: Besides nectar, worker bees also collect pollen during their foraging trips. Pollen is a protein source for bees, especially for their young. They gather pollen on their hind legs in a structure called the "pollen basket" or corbicula. It's important to note that the collection of pollen also results in the bee performing a vital role for the ecosystem: pollination. As the bee moves from flower to flower, some of the pollen rubs off onto the stigma of other flowers, fertilizing them and allowing the plants to reproduce.
Communication and Recruitment: If a worker bee finds a particularly rich source of nectar, it can communicate this to other bees in the hive using a "waggle dance". This unique movement provides information about the direction and distance to the source of nectar. Other worker bees then decode this dance and follow the directions to the new nectar source.
Return to Hive: After the bee's honey stomach is full (this can take more than a thousand flowers worth of nectar!), it returns to the hive to unload the nectar and pollen. The nectar will then be processed into honey as described in my previous response.
The foraging process is an incredible display of nature's coordination and complexity, and it's the first crucial step in the production of honey.
Honey Storing Process
Once its stomach is full, the bee flies back to the hive. Here, it passes the nectar to a younger "house bee" by regurgitating it into the house bee's mouth. This process begins the transformation of nectar into honey.
Transfer of Nectar: Upon return to the hive, the forager bee transfers the nectar to one of the younger house bees. The transfer happens by regurgitation from the forager bee's honey stomach to the mouth of the receiving bee. This passing process also involves the addition of enzymes that start to break down the nectar’s sugars.
Further Enzymatic Breakdown: The house bee further breaks down the nectar by adding more enzymes, such as invertase, which converts the complex sugars in the nectar into simpler sugars like glucose and fructose. This process of conversion is crucial as it makes the honey more digestible for the bees and also helps to preserve the honey by making it less suitable for bacterial growth.
Placement in the Honeycomb: Once the nectar has been partially digested and transformed, the house bee deposits the liquid into a cell of the honeycomb. Honeycombs are the hexagonal wax cells built by the bees for storage within the hive. They use their mouths to shape and mold the beeswax, which is secreted from glands on the underside of their bodies, into these hexagonal shapes.
More Enzymatic Action and Water Evaporation: The nectar isn't honey just yet. It remains in the cell where enzymes continue to break down the sugars and where a large amount of the water content of the nectar will be evaporated. The bees assist this process by fanning their wings over the open cells to increase air flow and speed up the evaporation.
Capping the Cell: Once the water content of the nectar is reduced to around 18%, it has now transformed into honey. At this point, the bees cap the cell with beeswax to seal the honey for storage. This honey will be used to feed the colony, especially in the colder winter months when flowers and therefore nectar are scarce.
It's a complex process, but every step is essential to ensure the preservation and longevity of the honey.
Honey Digestion Process
The house bees chew the nectar for about half an hour. During this time, enzymes in the bees' saliva break down the complex sugars in the nectar into simpler ones. This process is called inversion.
Enzyme Addition: As soon as the forager bee transfers the nectar to the house bee, enzymes are added to the nectar. These enzymes are secreted from glands in the bee's head and include invertase, diastase (amylase), and glucose oxidase. The most important of these for the honey-making process is invertase.
Inversion Process: The primary purpose of invertase is to break down the sucrose (a complex sugar) found in nectar into two simpler sugars: glucose and fructose. This process is known as inversion. While in the bee's honey stomach, the invertase works on the nectar, transforming the complex sugars into simpler ones.
Further Digestion: The partially digested nectar is then regurgitated by the house bee into a cell of the honeycomb. Here, the enzymatic activity continues. The bees produce and add more enzymes, and the nectar is allowed to sit and undergo a period of enzymatic digestion, breaking down any remaining complex sugars.
Preservation and Antibacterial Properties: One of the other enzymes bees add is glucose oxidase. This enzyme plays a significant role in the preservation of honey. When honey is diluted (for example, when consumed), glucose oxidase produces hydrogen peroxide, which creates an inhospitable environment for bacteria and other microorganisms. This is why honey has natural antibacterial properties and a long shelf life.
Formation of Honey: After the enzymatic digestion and the evaporation of water (as mentioned in previous steps), the inverted nectar becomes honey, a supersaturated sugar solution, primarily composed of fructose and glucose.
The process of digestion not only transforms the nectar into a food source that is easily consumed by the bees but also creates a product that is naturally preserved and can be stored by the bees indefinitely. It's a fascinating example of nature's alchemy!
Honey Evaporation Process
Honey Capping process
Once the honey has reached the right consistency, the bees seal off the honeycomb cell with a wax cap. This is how bees keep the honey safe and clean until it’s ready to be consumed.
Assessing Readiness: The bees have an impressive ability to determine when the honey in the honeycomb is ready to be sealed, or "capped". This is typically when the honey's moisture content has been reduced to around 17-18%. At this stage, the honey is thick and gooey, similar to the consistency of honey we're used to seeing in jars.
Creating Wax: When it's time to cap the cells, the bees use the wax-producing glands on the undersides of their bodies. These glands convert the sugar content of the honey into wax, which is secreted in thin flakes or scales. Bees then chew these wax scales to soften them, mixing in saliva which contains enzymes to alter the composition of the wax making it more workable.
Capping the Cells: Once the wax is ready, bees use their mandibles (jaws) to manipulate and mold the wax to cap the honey-filled cells. The cap is a flat layer that completely seals the cell, protecting the honey from air and moisture which helps keep it fresh and prevents fermentation.
Insulation and Protection: The capped honeycomb not only serves as a food storage but also as insulation for the hive. The structure of the honeycomb, full of honey and sealed with wax, helps to regulate the temperature within the hive, keeping it warm in winter and cool in summer.
Winter Stores: The bees will leave the capped honey until it's needed. This is often during winter or during other periods when there is a shortage of nectar available. When they need to access the honey, they simply uncap the cell, consume the honey, and then often re-cap the cell if there's honey left over.
The capping process is a fascinating demonstration of the industrious nature and the complex social structure of honeybees. The bees' ability to create honey and store it effectively allows them to survive even when conditions outside the hive are unfavorable.
Final thoughts on honey production
The journey of honey creation, from the diligent foraging of nectar and pollen to the intricate enzymatic transformations, evaporation, and careful capping of each honeycomb cell, is truly a testament to nature's intelligence and ingenuity.
In this dance of survival and sustenance, we not only gain a better understanding of the complex social structure of honey bees but also come to appreciate the intricate processes that yield the golden sweetness we all enjoy.
By understanding how honey is made, we deepen our respect for the honey bee and the vital role it plays in our ecosystem. Their tireless efforts not only provide us with this delectable natural sweetener but also significantly contribute to the biodiversity of our planet through pollination.
Now that you've unraveled the magic behind the creation of honey, we invite you to take a moment and reflect on the hard work and dedication of these tiny creatures.
Every time you drizzle honey over your toast or stir it into your tea, remember the journey it took from flower to hive, and hive to your home. Let's all do our part in protecting and preserving the bee populations.
Plant a bee-friendly garden, support your local beekeepers, or if you're ready for a unique adventure, consider setting up your own beehive. Every little effort goes a long way in helping these industrious pollinators.
After all, a world without bees would certainly be a less sweet place to be.
Will & Smiley team.