Honey: It’s like the nectar of the gods. It tastes sublime and it’s very, very good for us. But did you know that, as much as humans (and bears!) love honey, bees work tirelessly to make it not for us, but for themselves?
A honeybee’s life is literally dedicated to helping support its colony, and every single bee has its own role to play to ensure the colony thrives. The production and storage of honey are among these specific roles.
Some Interesting Facts about Bees and Honey
Did you know?
- Honeybees forage flowering plants to collect nectar and pollen – these are used to make honey.
- Nectar is the primary energy source for bees during the warmer months.
- Pollen is the powder that flowering trees, grasses, and other plants make and which is spread (via wind and pollinators like bees) so that these plants can reproduce.
- A worker bee lives just 6 weeks – and each makes just a few drops of honey in her lifetime.
- There are only seven species of honeybee – other bees do not make honey.
- A bee will visit around 100 flowers on a single foraging excursion, usually within 6.5-8 kilometers from the hive.
Why do Bees Produce Honey?
Bees produce honey as a food source to survive the winter months, when flowers are not blooming and providing nectar for them to forage for as they do in spring and summer.
A large colony of bees will eat between 50-100kg of honey in a year. To make enough reserves of honey, bees must constantly forage to collect pollen and nectar during spring and summer. They make as much honey as they possibly can during these warmer months as their food sources are scarce in winter.
Honey is also used to feed baby bees.
How do Bees Make Honey?
- Foraging worker bees (always females) leave the hive and visit flowering plants to collect pollen and nectar. The bee uses her proboscis (long, straw-like tongue) to suck nectar droplets from the insides of flowers, and stores them with a little saliva in a sac (honey stomach). When this sac is full, she will return to the hive to deposit the load of nectar.
- Within the honey stomach, the complex sugars in the nectar begin the process of being broken down into simpler sugars that are less prone to crystallization.
- House bees collect the nectar from the returning worker bees. They chew the nectar as it is passed between the bees and enzymes are added to alter the acidity and other chemical properties of the nectar.
- The bees work to dry the water content out of the nectar/enzyme mix at this stage to create honey. This is achieved by spreading the mix over the honeycomb so that water can evaporate, as well as fanning their wings to increase the airflow within the hive. The honey is dehydrated from having a water content of 70% to below 20%.
- The honeycomb is packed into the hexagonal honey cells of the hive and capped with beeswax for storage. Here it will remain until the bees need to eat it. Capping the honey in the cells keeps the honey fresh.
Beeswax is the building block of the beehive.
It is a translucent white until it becomes stained with pollen or propolis (“bee glue”, a mixture of saliva and wax used as a sealant), at which time it takes on its characteristic golden amber color. Beeswax is made in wax secreting glands on the underside of the bee’s abdomen. A bee must eat at least three kilograms of honey to produce just half a kilogram of beeswax.
Will bees starve if you harvest too much honey? What happens if honey is not harvested?
Bees rely on their own honey to feed their young and to survive. If humans harvest too much honey, the colony will starve over winter, and also potentially freeze. After all, honey is created by bees for themselves – not for human harvesting.
Most hives will have excess honey at the end of summer, and this is what humans can harvest. When it is done mindfully and knowledgeably, ensuring that plenty is left for the colony, the bees will survive and thrive until spring.
Harvesting excess amounts of honey is cruel.
If honey is not harvested, the bees in the hive will consume it – but there are consequences for the bees. The risk of never harvesting honey is that the colony will soon outgrow its hive.
To support your bees if you never harvest honey, you must either keep adding more hive boxes for your colony to safely expand into; allow your colony to downsize naturally via swarming; or actively split the colony.
It takes experience to understand how much honey needs to be harvested and when. There may also be times when you need to support your bees by offering sugar water for them to drink. If you’re a novice beekeeper, seek guidance from a local expert so that your bees remain happy and healthy!