Date first published 18 Aug, 2020; revised 9 Sept, 2023
Bees produce honey through a 4-step process that is seemingly simple but amazing in the way that nature pieces it together to produce the ideal storable food for the hive.
At Manawa Honey, it never ceases to amaze us how bees make honey. We’re totally in awe of how Nature somehow directs bees to work together to deliver this delicious and health-giving food. Human beings across planet Earth from all cultures and places revere honey as food or as medicine. But why do bees make honey? And further, just how do bees make honey?
Bees would not survive outside of the hive in cold winter temperatures in most parts of the world, so they spend the cold season hive-bound in a cluster. And winter is also the season when sources of food for the hive – nectar and pollen – are also very scarce. So to survive through that time of the year, bees collect surplus nectar and pollen during the warmer months and store it for use later.
Pollen is stored directly in cells of comb in the hive. But nectar needs to be turned into honey before it is stored, because nectar as it is collected would not last for months – it would simply ferment.
In short then, bees make honey for their own food stores to sustain the hive during winter. And they make so much of it that in most years, we are able to take a share of that surplus, for us to enjoy, without depriving the hive.
This all becomes more fascinating when we find that whilst the collecting of nectar by honey bees gives them the benefit of food, it also gives the plants the benefit of polllination. Indeed, plants producing nectar for the purpose of attracting pollinators like the honeybee, because in these visits pollinators spread their pollen to the ovaries of flowers, which is the crucial first step in creating seeds for reproduction of flowering plants.
Bees make honey in a process that has some very clear steps – collecting nectar; passing and processing the nectar to make honey; drying the honey and finally, storing it. It sounds simple but there are fascinating details in this process that in sum create a super food – not just for bees but also for us as human beings.
Honey bees forage for the food supplies for their hive. Here a bee is collecting nectar produced in the nectaries of these flowers. Photo Credit: Canva
Honey-making begins with the bees that have the task of foraging for food supplies for the hive. These field or foraging bees are workers, which are females. Drones, the male bees which have the sole purpose of mating, do no foraging for the hive, nor does the queen bee – her job is to lay eggs!
The foraging bees will only leave the hive in warmer temperatures, so their activity begins to gain intensity in spring, and peaks during the warmer months of year, depending on the food supplies. When a field bee finds flowers of plants and trees that are secreting nectar, she uses her proboscis (a kind of tubular mouth) to suck up the nectar from where it sits inside the flowers. She then deposits the nectar in their honey stomach or crop, known also as the proventriculus. This honey stomach is one quite different to the stomach bees have for digesting their own food.
Foraging bees can travel some distances when they are collecting nectar. Good nectar sources close to the hive will can be preferred, but bees will often cover an area with radius of 3-5 kilometres for a good supply of nectar. In times of dearth, they have also been known to travel up to over 10 km to gather nectar. These are huge distances for such a tiny worker!
Nectar straight from a flower is like sugary water, not at all like the honey which we know to be quite thick or viscous. The process of converting nectar into honey begins as soon as a honey bee collects the nectar and deposits it in its honey stomach. Enzymes and proteins are secreted into its mouth from special glands and are added to the nectar as it passes into the honey stomach. The main enzyme is called invertase, or the ‘bee enzyme’. Invertase acts to transform the sucrose (a complex sugar) in the raw nectar into the simple sugars, glucose and fructose.
The floral source of nectar will determine the varietal of honey produced by the bees. So mānuka honey comes from the nectar collected from flowers of the mānuka tree and tāwari honey comes from tāwari flowers, and so on. Bees do not normally mix up different kinds of nectar when they are foraging. Just how they happen to collect one type pf nectar at a time is a fascinating subject which will be the subject of another article at some point. Suffice to say here that the scout bees for the hive are able to communicate with other foragers about the optimal source of food for the day and the whole hive follows their direction.
The honey stomach takes about 40mg of honey which is about half the weight of the bee. It takes her many flower visits – 100 or even many more – to fill her honey stomach and then loaded up, she returns to the hive to drop off the load, before starting out all over again. It’s definitely the life of a hard worker!
Bees begin the process of honey production by passing the nectar collected by the foragers from one to another, and then placing it into hexagonal cells made from wax. Photo Credit: Pinterest
Once back at the hive, the field bees pass their loads of nectar to other worker bees of the hive, known as house bees. This is the point at which the honey-making process really gets going. The house bees chew the nectar for up to half an hour, even making bubbles between their mandibles (extended jaws) to evaporate moisture out of the nectar. More enzymes are added as the nectar is ingested and regurgitated as it is passed from bee to bee, and these enzymes break down the sugars and proteins in the nectar, making it more acidic and gradually turning it into a kind of watery ‘honey’.
At this stage, the ‘honey’ is about 70% water, which is too ‘wet’ to be stored successfully for the hive’s food supplies, as it would ferment. The next stage is therefore designed to ‘dry’ the honey out.
Nectar turns to honey only after enzymes are added from the bees’ ‘honey stomach’ and it is painstakingly dried by buzzing bees flapping their wings in unison all night! Photo Credit: Manawa Honey NZ
The honey-in-making loses some moisture when it is being passed from bee to bee, but it then undergoes a more intense process of dehydration before it can be safely stored. Dehydration involves the bees spreading the honey out across wax comb in the hive that the bees build for this purpose.
Evaporation of water takes place more readily over the increased surface area formed in this way, especially as the bees keep the hive at quite a warm temperature – around 35°C or 95°F. At this point too, house bees increase the airflow in the hive by fanning their wings, that in turn increases the evaporation of water from the honey. The bees will flap their wings to create extra airflow around the cell, helping to dry the liquid even more until it finally reaches the sweet, sticky state of honey we are familiar with.
This process continues until the viscous sticky substance we know as honey is formed, with about 17-20% water content. This is no mean task and how the bees know when they should stop drying out the honey is still a mystery to us all!
The ’dry’ honey is collected up for storage, and dropped into the cells of the honeycomb, where it stays until the bees are ready to use it. Each cell full of mature ‘dry’ honey is sealed or ‘capped’ with beeswax. The capping process is an important aspect of storage of the honey as it keeps the honey clean, protected from the thousands of bees tracking across the face of the honey comb in a hive each day. Capping also critically seals the cell, stopping the honey from absorbing back from the hive any moisture that would cause it to ferment.
It’s all an arduous process that bees work away at relentlessly during the season. We’re always thankful for this great effort every time we harvest our honey or take a spoonful of honey from the jar…
Honey bees cap over cells of honey when the drying process is complete and the cells are full. it is are filling up the frame. Photo Credit: Scott Sinton
|Brenda Tahi draws on a range of areas in her diverse experience for her writing. She has an MBA in Strategic Management from Henley College (UK) and has had careers in public sector management and governance in New Zealand. Brenda has also published research in topics ranging from public sector management policy to Māori history and traditional knowledge. Brenda is a trustee for the Tuawhenua Trust of Ruatāhuna, and, drawing on her hobby beekeeping, she was part of founding Manawa Honey NZ, of which she is now CEO.|