At Manawa Honey, it never ceases to amaze us how our 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, how do bees actually make honey?
Bees would not survive outside of the hive in cold winter temperatures in most parts of the world, and sources of food are also very scarce during the winter months. So to survive through that time of the year, the bees collect surplus nectar and pollen during the warmer months for storing for use later. The nectar is 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. 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.
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.
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 in the hive, 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 their stomach for digesting her own food.
Foraging bees can travel some distances when they are collecting nectar. Good nectar sources close to the hive will usually be preferred, but bees will often cover an area with radius of 3-5 kilometres. 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!
When a bee collects nectar and deposits it in its honey stomach, it adds enzymes and proteins that are secreted into its mouth from special glands. This enzyme addition begins the process of turning the nectar into honey.
The floral source of nectar will determine the varietal of honey produced by the bees. So mānuka honey come from mānuka flowers and tāwari honey come from tāwari flowers, and so on. Bees do not normally mix up different kinds of nectar when they are foraging. Just how they know to collect one type pf nectar at a time is a fascinating subject and the topic for another article at some point, so watch this space.
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 will return to the hive to drop off the load, before starting out all over again.
Once back at the hive, the field bees pass the nectar to the other worker bees, known as house bees, so now the honey-making process really gets going. These 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 designed to ‘dry’ the honey out.
Whilst the honey loses some moisture when it is being passed from bee to bee, the process of dehydration intensifies when the bees spread 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. This process continues until the honey reduces to about 17-20% water content. This is no mean task and how the bees know when they should stop drying out the honey is 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…
Brenda Tahi, CEO of Manawa Honey
Now you know how bees make our honey you can go get some…