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How Do Bees Make Honey?

28 June 2020
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Honeybees are responsible for pollinating around 75% of the United Kingdom's fruit, vegetables and nuts. This essential service is in fact a secondary benefit of the honeybee's primary goal. Find out which fruits bees pollinate.

Honey provides a perfect source of food for long winters in the hive and has been a source of precious calories for other mammals for millions of years. This happy equilibrium is responsible for our continued existence. It poses the question 'How Do Bees Make Honey?'.

How Do Bees Make Honey?

Collected nectar is regurgitated from a female honeybee to a younger female 'house' bee. An enzyme in the bees 'honey stomach' slowly begins to convert the nectar into honey. Bess cap the syrup in wax until the honey has a 20% moisture content and is ready to be consumed or stored for years to come.

The search for nectar

Female worker honeybees travel up to 5 miles in a radius around the hive. They will search for nectar in flowers of all shapes and sizes. A healthy hive produces and consumes approximately 50kg of honey per year. The bees have quite the task ahead of them.

honeybee collecting nectar
honeybee covered in pollen collecting nectar

Getting the ingredient to make honey

Using odour and sight the bee will locate a flower appropriate for harvesting. It is believed that bees can detect the nectar in flowers by viewing the reflection of ultraviolet light from the flower. Honeybees can also smell previous foragers and will forgo a recently harvested site for a new untapped source.  When they locate a flower they believe contains the sweet liquid they require, they follow up with a taste test.

turning nectar into honey

A foraging bee inserts her proboscis into the heart of the flower to take small sips of the valuable resource inside. She will then continue until she is full of nectar and ready to return to the hive. This can mean trips to several flowers before returning home and she will carry out this activity up to 12 times a day. During the process to collect nectar the tiny hairs all over the bee's abdomen will naturally collect pollen.

Storage and transportation

Honeybees are equipped with a 'honey stomach' alongside their normal stomach. A  female honeybee can divert the contents she is consuming directly into her 'honey stomach'. A single bee may have to fly to up to 1000 flowers to fill her 'honey stomach' completely.

transporting the nectar

Once the reservoir has been filled it can literally double the weight of the foraging bee. Bees can carry up to 70m/g within their 'honey stomach'. The 'honey stomach' also has a second purpose, even on the flight back to the hive the enzymes within the bee will start to break down the nectar and begin the transformation to honey.

The return to the hive

Upon returning to the hive the female forager bee will find a younger counterpart to regurgitate the already transforming nectar. The younger bee known as a house bee will then chew the regurgitated contents for up to 30 minutes to help speed up the enzyme at work. This process is then continued from bee to bee, as more enzyme is added from each consecutive bee the nectar is slowly being broken down. Long chains of complex sugars within the nectar begin to turn in to monosaccharides like glucose and fructose.

processing the nectar

When the nectar arrives at the hive it will be made up of around 70% moisture. The aim of the process is to reduce this liquid to a syrupy 20% moisture content. This also helps to remove any bacteria from the nectar ensuring it will not spoil during the next steps of the process.

drizzling honey
jar of honey

Making the honey

After the solution has been laced with the appropriate amount of enzyme the real reduction process begins. Nectar is spread out across the honeycomb structure to gather in wells. Bees within the hive will vigorously beat and flap their wings to encourage evaporation. The interior of the hive sits at around 32.5 Degrees Celsius also aiding the reduction process. Once this step to reduce the moisture content is completed the final step is implemented.

nectar to honey

House bees will cap the honey in wax to complete the process. This last step will effectively leave the honey to marinate, allowing the sugar content to rise. It's worth noting that the acidic Ph and low water content mean that the honey is now ready to be stored for vast swathes of time.

The finished product

At the end of the process, you are left with the golden delicious syrup we all know and love. The use and storage of honey have been recorded as far back as Ancient Egyptian civilisations and has been consumed by humans well before that. Honey has also been a staple in the diet of many other species with the bear being particularly fond of honey.

It is however important to understand and marvel at the sheer scale and effectiveness of honey production. It takes 300 bees 3 weeks to gather just 450g of honey.

One female worker bee will live her whole life and only produce 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey. So next time you enjoy honey on toast or add some to your favourite hot drink, take a minute to say thank you to the industrious honeybee.

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