Honey: it’s the sweet, beautiful golden liquid we enjoy with our tea, baked goods, and decadent charcuterie boards.
You’ve probably seen the bear-shaped bottle of honey, and you may even know of local companies in your area that produce and sell honey.
There are many different kinds of honey you can find at your local supermarket, and it’s a very common food. But what is honey really, and how do bees make honey?
This article will take you through the whole process from start to finish of how bees make honey.
What Is Honey, Anyway?
Honey is mostly made up of water and several different forms of sugar. It also contains carbohydrates and some trace vitamins and minerals. There is usually a minuscule amount of pollen in honey as well, particularly if it’s raw or unprocessed.
Bees make honey out of nectar that comes from a huge variety of flowers. Honey bees can forage from nearly any flowering plant, although there are some flowers they avoid because the nectar is toxic to them.
The main difference between nectar and honey is the moisture content, which gets much lower as it becomes honey. This lower moisture level also keeps it from fermenting or spoiling.
Aside from fermenting due to high moisture content, honey doesn’t go bad as bacteria and mold aren’t able to grow in it. In fact, honey has been discovered in ancient Egyptian pyramids that was still edible!
It does typically crystallize if it gets too cold, but this has no effect on if it’s edible or not. Some people enjoy the little bit of crunch from the honey crystals. Many beekeepers will use it to make creamed honey, which is highly sought after by their customers.
Honey can take on a different color based on the area or the time of year. The color is influenced by what is in bloom that the bees are foraging from.
Often, early spring honey is very pale in color, and honey made later on can become darker and darker throughout the year. Some honey is easily distinguished by the color that indicates what flowers were in bloom when it was made. You might even know what was in bloom just by the smell!
Buying local honey is a great way to support pollinators and people in your community who keep bees. It can even help with seasonal allergies!
Commercial honey production often adds sugar to make their honey more profitable, and isn’t the same as pure honey. If you’ve ever tasted real local honey, the difference is obvious.
Bees That Make Honey
Less than 5% of bees make honey of some kind.
Only honey bees and stingless bees make honey that can be harvested, but bumble bees also make something similar to honey. There is a smaller community of beekeepers that keep stingless bees, though it’s much less common than keeping honey bees. They build a different kind of comb, so maintaining the hive and harvesting the honey are a bit different.
The honey that’s best known and most consumed by humans is made by honey bees (apis Mellifera), which of course is where they get their name.
These bees are actually the first domesticated insects in human history because of their honey production. Honey bees have been selectively bred over time to increase how much honey they can produce. There are several subspecies that are especially sought after for how much honey they’re able to make.
Why Bees Produce Honey
While we usually think of honey as something we eat, it’s first and foremost food for the bees themselves.
They will make as much honey as they can when resources are available and put it into storage. In winter when they’re unable to leave the hive, this is what they eat to get the nutrition they need until spring.
This is why beekeepers use honey supers on their hives. Anything in a “super” is considered extra that the bees don’t need to survive. This is what can be harvested for human consumption without negatively affecting the colony.
You can feed your bees sugar water and pollen patties, but the best and most natural food for them is their own honey.
Bees will usually store their honey in dedicated frames of comb or around a football-shaped cluster of brood cells. They typically prefer to store honey above brood.
How Do Bees Make Honey?
Making honey starts with the comb.
To make honeycomb, worker bees secrete flakes of wax from their abdomen and form it into perfect hexagonal cells. These cells serve several functions: the Queen lays eggs in them, nurse bees raise brood in them, and workers store pollen and nectar in them.
It’s within the honeycomb that honey is created.
What Goes Into Honey
Bees forage for nectar and pollen from flowers, then bring what they’ve gathered back to the hive to be stored by other worker bees.
Nectar is collected through a forager bee’s proboscis, which is similar to a tongue but functions as a straw. They drink the nectar from the flower, and it’s stored in the first chamber of their stomach. Bees can carry up to half their total body weight at a time.
As they continue to forage, the nectar combines with a digestive enzyme that begins the process of transforming nectar into honey.
When a forager returns to the hive, she will regurgitate the nectar from her stomach to another worker bee. It’s passed from one bee to another in a chain until it reaches a cell of comb.
This process is why humans can’t duplicate our own synthetic honey. True honey requires a combination of nectar, stomach enzymes from bees, and evaporation.
How Nectar Becomes Honey
Nectar straight out of the flower is around 70 to 80% water, which is too high for it to become honey.
With each handoff from one bee to the next, it loses a bit of moisture and is placed into a cell to be stored. The bees will also fan their wings inside the hive to help evaporate more moisture out of the honey.
When nectar reaches a moisture level of 18%, it won’t grow any mold or harbor bacteria and is spoil-proof. The bees will cap the cell with wax when the moisture content is right, and the cell is full. The wax capping keeps it clean and safe and prevents it from dripping out of the cell, especially on warmer days.
White-capped honey is when the caps have a white appearance, meaning there is a tiny bit of air trapped between the honey and the wax cap. Darker-looking caps mean the honey is making full contact with the capping.
When a beekeeper removes a frame to harvest the honey, they will first need to remove those wax cappings. From there, they can simply crush all the comb and strain the honey out, or use an extractor to spin the honey out of the cells.
Extraction preserves the comb the bees worked so hard to build so they can continue using it, but it’s a bit more involved and requires special equipment.
How Much Honey Do Bees Make?
You might be surprised to learn how productive honey bees are.
In her lifetime, each individual honey bee will only make about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey. That means it takes 12 bees to make just one teaspoon!
Foragers will have to visit about two million flowers to gather enough nectar to make a pound of honey. This adds up to several thousand flowers each day for every bee.
There are many factors that contribute to how much honey an entire colony can make in a year. A healthy hive with plentiful resources can usually make around 60 to 100 pounds of honey from spring to fall.
Some hives will make less honey, which likely means none can be harvested or they won’t have enough for themselves to overwinter on. Some hives can make even more and honey will need to be harvested several times through the season.
The queen and drones don’t make honey, but they do consume it. The queen is constantly fed by a dedicated group of worker bees.
Workers feed the drones as well, but once resources start to get scarce that stops. Not only do they stop feeding the drones, but they’ll even kick them out of the hive to die.
The Magic of Making Honey
Honey is delicious and beautiful, but it’s even more incredible when you understand how bees make honey.
It’s extremely hard work, and it takes a lot of energy for bees to produce honey from start to finish. Honey can only be made and harvested at certain times of the year anywhere that gets cold winter weather.
Honey is amazing, but it’s just one of many fascinating things you can learn about bees on our honey bee page!
- About the Author
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Hope Schwartz-Leeper is an avid reader, writer, and lover of all things nature with degrees in English and Philosophy.
Born and raised in the Northeast, Hope has always had an affinity for spending time outside. Growing up and attending college in New York, then living on Cape Cod and finally settling in Rhode Island has given her plenty of experience with the climate and environment of these areas.
She loves growing her own food and plants and is always trying to grow something new. She’s hoping her apple trees will one day bear fruit, but for now she’s excited about anything that comes from the garden.