Why and How Do Bees Make Honey?

Why do bees make honey?

Bees need honey as a resource to enable them to survive the winter. Unlike the majority of bee species, honey bees will overwinter.

By the time the cold months arrive, drones have been kicked out of the colony and the hive is entirely populated by workers and the queen. Few eggs are laid in order to reserve food for the existing bees, and the workers will huddle in a large mass to generate and retain heat for the entire winter. Other than the heat, honey bees need food in order to survive throughout the season, and honey is the perfect resource. Because it is so rich in nutrients and sugars, honey provides the bees with the energy they need to continue to live. The reduced water content and slight acidity also allow for an immensely long shelf life; honey buried in the tomb of King Tutankhamen has been deemed to still be edible, even after 3000 years. 


How do they make honey?

Foraging bees seek out flowers that produce lots of nectar, and will use their tongue—called a proboscis—to slurp up as much of the sweet liquid as they can. Bees have two separate stomachs: one that connects to their digestive system and one that does not. The latter is known as a “honey stomach”, and is essentially an internal pouch used for storing nectar. Once her honey stomach is full, the forager will return to the hive. Workers known as receiver bees wait for the arrival of foragers to take resources from them. The forager passes the nectar mouth-to-mouth to a receiver bee. In order to turn the nectar into honey, the water content must be dropped considerably. Nectar on its own can spoil after a while and would be of little help during the winter. 

The nectar is then passed mouth-to-mouth from worker to worker, reducing the water content along the way. Once it is thick enough, the honey is deposited into a wax cell and bees will fan the cells with their wings to further reduce the water content by evaporation. Once a cell is full of thick honey, it is capped off with wax to seal it in place. 

beekeeper uncapping honeycomb
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What’s the difference between nectar and pollen?

Nectar is a sugary substance produced by the plant to attract pollinators such as bees to a flower. The flower does this so that the pollinators will pick up pollen, often inadvertently, and transfer it to the female part of a flower. Bees, however, also gain vital nutrients from pollen as well as nectar so will collect both. Honey is made from nectar, not pollen.

Although it may sound strange to hear, some flowers contain ovaries, which contain female gametophytes that produce egg cells. Once fertilized, these egg cells give rise to seed-bearing fruits. Other flowers contain male stamens, on the end of which are pollen-heavy anthers. Lilies are great examples as the anthers are very prominent; you’ll know from touching them that a thick dusting of pollen will stick to your fingers. Some plants contain flowers that have both male and female parts on the same flower, which are known as “perfect” or “bisexual” flowers. 

If botany confuses you, don’t despair. All you need to know is that flowers have male and female parts, and the pollen from the male parts needs to get to the ovaries of the female parts in order to produce fruits, and therefore seeds. Pollinators are the best bet in getting the pollen where it needs to be, but the plants need to provide some sort of incentive for insects, birds, and bats to help them out. 

Pollen is not just a dusty mass of male gametophytes; it’s also a valuable protein source. Honey bees have specialized “baskets” on their hind legs that allow them to carry pollen back home to the hive. They mix pollen with saliva or nectar to stick it to their legs so the pollen won’t fall off. This is especially important as honey bees can travel several kilometres away from the hive in search of food, so they want to ensure it will come home with them. 

Although pollen is a great food source and is very important to the diet of bees and other pollinators, nectar is the primary incentive for plants to convince creatures to take their pollen and transport it to another one of their flowers. Flowers often have nectar glands called nectarines deep within their petals, ensuring that once a bee emerges from drinking their fill they will be sufficiently coated in pollen. Nectar itself is a sweet, sugary liquid, but both nectar and pollen offer varying nutrients important to the health and development of bees. These nutrients are different to each type of plant, so a variety of forage offers a well-balanced array of nutrition for pollinators. 


What are honeycombs?

Honeycomb is a collection of wax cells. Some beekeepers just refer to it as comb, as it does not necessarily contain honey all the time. Pollen and brood are stored in the cells as well, and once the food is removed or a bee hatches out, workers will entirely clean out the cell to be reused. If it is not perfectly clean, the queen will not lay an egg in it. Honeycomb is often sold as it is for consumption, either to be eaten raw or spread on toast.  

Honeycomb
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Why are honeycombs hexagonal?

The shape of the honeycomb is a remarkable design that maximizes the use of space while also being strong. Bees expend a large amount of energy creating comb, which is why they reuse cells as much as possible. It is also important for the honeycomb to maximize the use of space in the hive and to be structurally strong to hold the mass of food and larvae. In order to ensure that the size of the cells stays consistent and uses up all available space, bees make their comb in hexagonal prisms. The shape fits perfectly together without gaps between the spaces and can withstand the weight of tens of thousands of bees and their food stores. The cells are also sloped slightly upwards to prevent honey leaking out or brood from sliding outwards.


Do all bees make honey?

Although we tend to associate honey with bees, the production of the well-loved syrup is produced by only a handful of the 20’000 known bee species. The most widely used bees for honey production is that of the honey bee, of course. Containing about 11 species, bees in the Apis genus are industrious honey makers, but a few species outside of this genus also make similar substances. Australia and subtropical regions in Africa, South and Central America, and parts of Asia are home to stingless bees from the Meliponini tribe. Although it may sound comforting to know they are unable to sting, these bees have a bite that packs a punch, and should be approached with care. The honey that they produce is higher in water content and can spoil, but is used for medicinal purposes as well as a sweetener. Studies have even shown that some species of these bees produce honey containing trehalulose, which is a type of sugar that does not cause tooth decay and does not raise blood sugar levels as quickly as other sugars.  

Bumblebees also have their own form of honey, but they produce very little and it has high water content. This honey is not meant for preserving for the winter, as the queen bee will hibernate for the entirety of the cold months. Read more about bumblebees here.


Are bees harmed when people take their honey?

Bees are not harmed as long honey is only taken from a productive hive. Bees produce more honey than they need so taking excess honey is not harmful to bees.

Keeping as many bees alive as possible is the main goal for beekeepers; restoring weakened hives costs money and takes time. Several methods of extracting honey from the hive exist, but the most common one for modern beekeepers is the use of a honey box and a queen excluder. The beekeeper first assesses how well the hive is doing. If there’s lots of food being brought in to the point where the bees are building cells on the tops of frames and filling them with honey, it is a good indicator that the hive is making more than it needs.

At this point, the beekeeper will place a thin frame over the top of the uppermost super called a queen excluder. This frame allows the smaller workers to go up between the boxes but prevents the queen from moving through, keeping her the bottom boxes. A “honey box”, which can either be a full or half-size super, is placed on the queen excluder. Bees will naturally move honey higher to keep it away from the ground, and the excluder prevents the queen from going into the honey box to lay eggs. The excluder also works as a one-way road; bees can go in but cannot leave the way they came, so they must leave from the top of the box. Once the honey box is full the beekeeper has to act quickly by removing the box and giving it a good shake to dislodge any workers on the frames, and then place a queen excluder upside-down on top. This allows any remaining bees to leave the box but not return. If left unattended, honey bees will completely strip a honey box of honey and bring the liquid gold back to their hive. 

This method is effective and does not kill bees, with the exception of accidentally squishing a worker or two. Honey bees often make far more honey than they need; they are hoarders and will even attempt to steal from other hives. Taking the excess honey that they produce is not only beneficial for humans, it actually helps the bees too! Known as being “honey bound”, hives with an excessive amount of honey will store it in chambers meant to be for brood, giving the queen no place to lay. This can cause bees to split the hive and swarm. Swarms during the later season often spell death for the colony leaving, as they may not have enough time to build an adequate hive to prepare for the winter. Removing the excess allows for a good balance of brood and honey, and keeps a hive running smoothly.


Why isn’t all honey the same?

Different flowers produce slightly different nectar, and in turn different honey. Typically light-coloured honeys have a lighter flavour, such as clover honey. Darker honeys have deep, rich flavours, including buckwheat honey. Compare white sugar to brown sugar, for instance. Both are equally sweet but the brown sugar has a richer taste. Darker honey is also purported to contain more minerals and antioxidants.  

Perhaps the most famous honey of all is Manuka honey. It is made from bees that pollinate the Manuka bushes of Australia and New Zealand. The honey is exceptionally dark in colour and thought to be a “superfood”; it boasts anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, used to treat wounds and tackle ailments such as cancer, diabetes, and infections. 


Which animals eat honey?

With roughly 1.9 million tonnes of honey being produced every year, humans consume a lot of honey, but they aren’t the only ones with a taste for the sweet stuff. Honey badgers are notorious for their love of honey, and have no qualms with breaking open a hive to consume everything inside, bees and all. Kinkajous, native to Central and South America, have long thin tongues that they use to reach into the inside of bee hives to lap up honey. The sun bears of Southeast Asia also primarily feed on honey and bees, as well as other insects. Raccoons, possums, and skunks also have a taste for honey, but the most destructive of animals in North America and Europe are bears. Beekeepers will close their apiaries in with electric fences to keep them out, as bears will quickly demolish hive boxes and eat their fill in minutes. But when honey is as sweet and delicious as it is, who can blame them?