Bees are commonly called busy bees because they spend their time making honey. They visit flowers to feed on pollen and nectar, but how do bees make honey?
They make honey through a complex process, just as nature intended. This article explores four stages of honey production and why honey bees spend their lifetime producing honey. You will learn about the different classifications of honey and some facts about honey bees.
Related Read: Bee Facts.
Bees’ nutrition source is from flowers; they eat pollen and honey. Pollen is an excellent protein source, while honey is a source of carbohydrates. However, it can become difficult for them to get the adequate nutrition they need because of the variations in the availability of flowers.
The flowering plants available can vary between locations and harvest times, so they must find other nutrient sources. They either consume other plant tissues like pollen or make and store food for scarce periods. Bees produce honey to feed the colony. They make honey during the summer season and store enough honey for the winter period.
They also create honey for beeswax production. Beeswax is an essential part of the bee colony. They use it to make honeycombs used to store honey, larder, and maternity ward. Bees construct identical six-sided cells, forming an interlocking hexagonal array.
Each honeycomb cell slightly slopes downwards, preventing stored honey from falling out. Beekeepers speculate that bees build a honeycomb in a hexagonal shape because it uses the least amount of wax.
Fun Fact: Honey protects honey bees against microbial pathogens, toxins, and cold stress. It also regulates development and adult life span.
It is the responsibility of the worker bees to collect flower nectar. They forage within a 5-mile radius of their hive but always try to stay as close to the colony as possible. Forager bees determine their coordinates by making circles above the hive.
Worker bees are attracted to different flowers like the ones from apple, lavender, ivy, dandelion, and rosemary trees. The best flowers are ones with high-protein pollen and sugary juice.
They collect nectar from a flowering plant using their long tongue, a proboscis. The straw-like tongue can suck nectar out of the flowers. Worker bees then store the sweet nectar inside their second stomach.
Beekeepers refer to the second stomach as the honey stomach because it doesn’t digest the nectar. The honey stomach is before the bee’s digestive tract, acting as a nectar carrier. It can hold up to 70 mg of nectar, weighing almost as much as the worker bee.
The honey stomach mixes the nectar with enzymes on its way back to the hive. The mixing process reduces some of the water content in the nectar. In addition to collecting nectar, they collect pollen from flowering plants with the little hairs on their body.
Worker bees return to the hive once the honey stomach is full. Another group of worker bees, the house bees, are waiting to receive the nectar. The house bees are younger bees that suck the nectar out of the forager bee.
After the transfer, the house bee chews on the nectar for 30 minutes. As she chews, she adds enzymes that break the nectar down and form a simple syrup called bee bread. The added enzymes reduce the water content, making it easier to digest. It also reduces the likelihood of bacteria in the hive’s store shelves.
Invertase is the enzyme used to process nectar1; bees produce it from their hypopharyngeal glands. The nectar contains the main sugar, sucrose, and water. Invertase breaks it down into two simple sugars: glucose and fructose. The bees often pass the nectar around and regurgitate it to add enough enzymes.
The worker bee distributes the resultant syrup over the hive comb. She spits the chewed nectar into the honeycomb cell and spreads the top to maximize the top area of the comb. It gives more room for water to drain out of the honey, making it thicker.
Other bees in the colony also help reduce moisture content by creating a warm breeze with their wings. They fan the honeycomb cells with their wings until the moisture content is low and have low risks of developing bacteria.
The bees cover the honey cells with beeswax once the honey has the right consistency and the moisture content is at the required level. They produce beeswax with four pairs of special wax-secreting glands underneath their abdomen.
These glands produce liquified wax, which stiffens into a thin sheet once exposed to air. Younger honey bees work to create eight scales of beeswax every 12 hours. The wax glands' size depends on the age of the worker bee.
When a bee reaches the eighteenth day of its lifespan, the wax glands’ size begins to reduce. Bees must consume 8 kg of honey to produce 1 kg of wax. They create fresh beeswax using the hair on their hind legs to remove scales of wax and pass them to their middle legs.
Then, they pass it to their mouths and mix it with saliva as they chew on it until it reaches the right consistency. They spit it out and cover the honeycombs with it4.
We call these pollinators busy bees, but not all bees are busy making honey. The bee species that make honey are the honeybees Apis mellifera. Less than 4% of the bee population makes honey, leaving about 19,000 types of bees that cannot make honey.
The Apis honey bee genus is the face of the bee community, and there are three subspecies in the genus. They are cavity-nesting dwarf and giant honeybees. The most busy bee is the western honey bee.
The western honeybee is a main pollinator insect in western agriculture. Farmers breed them to pollinate flowers, while beekeepers breed them for honey production. You'd generally find cavity-nesting bees in tree trunks and other honey bee species with their nests suspended from branches and twigs.
You can also find some honey-making bee species nesting at high altitudes in the mountains. There are about 600 species of stingless bees, but they produce raw honey in a low quantity, making it rare.
You can classify honey into three groups:
Extracted honey refers to honey carefully removed from honeycombs. The majority of honey produced in the world uses the extraction method. Producers often use a centrifugal extractor, invented in 1865, to extract honey from bee hives.
They can also extract honey by crushing the comb2, heating it, and straining it through a cheese comb.
Honey producers make pressed honey by pressing broodless combs3, with or without heat application. Cold press is more acceptable because it maintains the honey's natural flavors, aroma, and colors.
It refers to the drainage of recapped broodless combs to obtain honey. Producers let the honey drip from the comb in a hot room of at least 80°.
Raw honey refers to honey in a liquid or crystalline state, or it could be both.
Comb honey is stored by bees in freshly built broodless cells and sold in sealed whole combs or sections.
Honey with more than two pieces of comb honey.
You can classify honey according to floral or plant source if it is mainly from a particular source. It should have organoleptic, physicochemical, and microscopic properties of the plant origin.
Lavender Honey has a light amber color with a warm and refreshing taste. It is flowery and well-rounded. Producers harvest it from bees that visit lavender flowers in North America, Asia, and temperate Europe.
Sunflower Honey has a weak vegetable taste profile, with a yellow to golden amber color. Honeybees make honey in South and North America, Asia, Oceania, and Africa. It contains all the properties attributed to sunflowers.
Manuka Honey is honey from a tea tree plant. It is a plant with many medicinal properties. Manuka honey has antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anti-proliferative capacities.
The honey-making process converts Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) found in nectar from plant trees into Methylglyoxal (MGO), which is effective against bacteria like Proteumirabilis and Enterobacter cloacae.
Related read: Check out our honey quotes for sayings and quips appreciating the bees' work.
Male honey bees are the largest bees in the colony. They have no stinger, pollen baskets, or wax glands. They cannot make honey. Their only function is to mate with the queen to produce bee larvae.
Male bees have a bigger head, and their compound eyes meet above the head. They have a voracious appetite and rely on workers for food.
All the female bees in the colony are workers. They are sexually underdeveloped and do not lay eggs. They have unique body organs like wax glands, pollen baskets, scent glands, and brood food glands.
These bees make honey, clean the comb cells, and care for the queen. They also look for nectar, handle incoming nectar, build beeswax combs, and guard the entrance. They live for six months before they die.
The bees must get nectar from 2 million flowers and fly over 55,000 miles to make a pound of honey.
As the bees make honey, one of the ways they communicate is through waggle dance. The bee shakes its abdomen as it runs straight across the comb at a certain angle. Then, it turns right and circles back to its starting point.
The number of waggle dances the bee does signifies the distance required to visit flowers, while the angle indicates the angle from the sun to locate the flowers.
The queen eats royal jelly, a pre-digested blend of nectar and honey. Workers produce it from the glands in their heads.
Bees making honey might seem simple, but it's more complex. They get nectar from many flowers and convert it to nectar by chewing it for about 30 minutes. They even use their wings to reduce the water content in the honey before storing it and sealing it with fresh beeswax.
Now that you know how bees make honey, take a moment to say thank you the next time you use honey.
Şahin, H., Kolaylı, S., & Beykaya, M. (2020). Investigation of Variations of Invertase and Glucose Oxidase Degrees Against Heating and Timing Options in Raw Honeys. Journal of Chemistry.
United States Department of Agriculture. (1985). Extracted Honey Grading Manual.
Food and Agriculture Organization. (1987). Codex Standard for Honey. Value-added Products From Beekeeping.
Bradbear , N. (2009). Bees and Their Role in Forest Livelihood. Food and Agriculture Organization.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
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Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.