How Do Bees Make Honey?
A honeybee hive is a wondrous society of order and precision. In the summer months, when nectar and pollen are plentiful, there are between 40,000 and 50,000 buzzing, 6-legged and 4-winged insects packed inside of a few wooden boxes. Each worker bee (all females) in the colony is diligently focused on a task that no one assigned to her. And every few days, she will move on to another job - again without being asked. The queen bee is busy laying up to 2,000 eggs per day to keep the colony populated with new workers. And what do the drones do besides loaf around and eat honey? Well, that's another story. But in the fall, when flowers fold and honey production is done, the drones are unceremoniously kicked out of the hive to die. Thus, bees observe the biblical admonition: "If you don't work, you don't eat."
The most common beehive design is called a Langstroth (a "Lang"), named after the American clergyman and apiarist Lorenzo L. Langstroth. Drawing from prior innovations of European beekeepers, Langstroth added several other critical improvements and in 1852 was granted a patent for a system of moveable wooden frames that fit inside of stacking boxes. These boxes had neither tops nor bottoms so the bees could move freely between them. The frames and boxes were carefully sized and spaced causing the bees to build honeycomb inside the frames in a straight line, rather than in free flowing waves like they do in wild beehives. When it came time to harvest the honey, a beekeeper could simply remove the frame, extract the honey, and then return the frame to the beehive where the bees would repair and reuse it. This new design was a smashing success, and the Lang hive persists today in much the same form as it did back in 1852.
The lowest box in the stack is where the queen stays. This box, which is larger than the upper boxes, is called the "brood chamber". In this box, the queen moves from frame to frame, looking for sections of empty cells. There, she starts laying eggs, one at a time, in cells that were previously cleaned by workers. Following behind her, nursemaid bees add some royal jelly - a highly nutritious and thick liquid that kick starts the eggs into larvae. After 3 days, their diet changes over to bee bread - a mixture of honey and pollen (honey for carbs, and pollen for protein). At day 10, the grown larva now takes up most of the cell space, and a thin layer of beeswax is added as a cover. Over the next 12 days, the larva develops (pupates) into a fully formed bee. When the new bee chews through the wax cap, she emerges ready to work. Worker bees then go through a succession of jobs, but not every bee will perform every task. How do they decide who does what? We're not sure, but the jobs include hive cleaners, nursemaid bees, queen attendants, wax makers, builders and repairers, honey carriers and packers, pollen packers, HVAC techs that beat their wings to fan new honey and cool the hive, guard bees, and foragers. Foraging is the last phase of life, and it lasts about 2 weeks. After 42 to 45 days, a worker bee retires, permanently. In consideration of her co-workers, she will usually die outside of the hive.
The upper boxes on a hive are the honey supers. This is where the liquid gold is kept. But how is it made? Foraging bees will find nectar sources within a 2 mile radius of the hive. They slurp up a couple drops and deposit them into their honey stomach. Around 1,000 flowers and an hour of work are needed to fill their honey stomachs with about 40 mg of nectar. Now, special enzymes go to work. Nectar contains water mixed with a number of simple and complex sugars, as well as starches and proteins. The enzymes break it all down into mostly simple sugars and water. Returning to the hive, the forager bees pass the honey off to transfer bees, who again take the nectar into their honey stomachs to continue the enzyme action. Finally, the partially digested nectar is deposited into honey cells. At this stage, the moisture content in the honey is still too high. Left alone, this "green" honey would combine with natural yeasts in the air and ferment. So a brigade of worker bees will fan the open cells until the honey reaches 18% moisture or less. Then, the finished honey is capped with a thin layer of beeswax. Capped honey is ready for harvest.
To extract honey from honeycomb, the wax caps are removed in a process called "uncapping." Dripping honey frames are then placed in an extractor, which spins the frames inside of a stainless steel tank. Centrifugal force empties out the honey cells, and the honey flows from the extractor and into a holding tank. When enough honey is collected in the tank, it's time to fill drums of honey -- 54 gallons at a time, which is around 640 pounds of honey. At Smiley Honey, we purchase these drums throughout the summer months from various beekeepers, and we then bottle and sell the honey throughout the year.
- In her lifetime, one bee will make around 1/10 of a teaspoon of honey.
- It takes the nectar from 1 to 2 million flowers to make a pound of honey.
- On one trip, a forager bee can travel 6 miles; they make several trips per day.
- Honeybees are the only insect that makes a food that we eat (not to be confused with eating the insects).
- Honeybees are one of the few invertebrates that have a resting state resembling human sleep - and by gosh, they deserve it!
- The average American eats 1 pound of honey per year. Thank goodness our customers are far better than average.