How do Bees make Honey?
Honey bees pollinate around three quarters of all the fruit, vegetables and nuts that we eat. But what bees are far more well known for is their ability to produce honey!
Despite being what they are most associated with, did you know that not all bees actually make honey? Only honeybees specifically produce honey, as honey is their primary source of energy; it’s their main food.
There are only seven species of ‘true’ honey bees, which produce large amounts of honey. Some other species of bee do also make honey, but in very small quantities. Part of a beekeepers' job is to help encourage their bees to make more honey than they actually need, so that we can enjoy the extra honey they produce without taking their important food. A healthy hive can produce a lot more honey then they need when beekeepers provide the extra space to store it.
But how does the honey get in the beehive in the first place?
It all starts with nectar
Honey is made from nectar found inside flowers, but it’s a little more complicated than that! It takes some important steps to get to the delicious honey we all enjoy.
Bees feed on tiny drops of nectar found in each flower, slurping it out with their long tongues. Flowers create nectar specifically to attract pollinators like the honeybee, as this ensures that pollinators will visit and help to spread their pollen to other flowers while they are busy getting the nectar.
The nectar isn’t just a sweet treat for bees, it is also rich in vitamins, oils, and other nutrients. Different types of nectar also have an affect on the produced honey, changing everything from the honey's taste to the colour! That's why there is such a variety of different honeys and specialist honeys like our Certified New Zealand Manuka Honey which is a monofloral (one type of flower only) honey produced from the nectar of the Manuka tree, which grows uncultivated throughout both south-eastern Australia and New Zealand. The honey produced from these tree flowers has a deliciously strong and uniquely aromatic flavour.
The bees "honey stomach"
The nectar that the bees slurp up isn’t eaten, it instead goes into their second stomach, which is also known as their "honey stomach". It can take a single bee the nectar from up to a thousand individual flowers to completely fill its honey stomach. It’s clear where the name ‘worker bees’ comes from! The female worker bees do all the hard work when it comes to making the honey. Once their honey stomach is full, the bees return to their hive.
Even before the honeybee reaches the hive, the enzymes inside of its honey stomach are already starting the process of turning the nectar into honey. Nectar when first extracted from the flower is like a sugary water, nothing at all like the thick honey we all know and love at this stage. The magic starts once the nectar reaches the honey stomach, as the nectar starts to get broken down by digestive enzymes. The main enzyme in this process is called invertase, sometimes known as the ‘bee enzyme’. The enzymes break the nectar down into more basic sugars, which is how it becomes honey. But the bee needs some help with this, as one worker can’t turn a full honey stomach of nectar into honey all by themselves.
Back at the bee hive
When the honeybee arrives back at the hive, the nectar is passed on to another worker bee, which is done by regurgitation. There's not a really nice way to put this, but here goes. The first bee vomits the contents of its honey stomach into the mouth of another bee, that bee vomits into the mouth of the next bee and so on around the hive!
This vomiting chain of bees might sound quite revolting but it's actually very clever and an essential part of the process. Every time the nectar passes from one bee to another, it mixes with more digestive enzymes which further break it down and thicken it, leading to it becoming closer and closer to honey.
Once the nectar has been passed around and it has been broken down and thickened more, it will then be moved into storage. The last bee will regurgitate the now much more sticky honey into a cell in the hive, a hexagonal wax storage area to keep the honey.
When the nectar is first added to the hive cells it is still a bit watery, but the worker bees use a smart way to remove the last of the water in 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.
Now the honey is ready, the cell is then sealed off by a bee with beeswax which keeps it safe until it is needed within the hive. The beeswax is also produced by the bees themselves and is secreted from special glands on the undersides of their abdomens. As a worker bee gets older, these glands decline in effectiveness and the task of making wax is left to younger bees.
This entire process is part of why honey lasts as long as it does, the enzymes and low moisture prevent bacteria and other microorganisms from surviving inside of it. This is especially true of our raw honey as it hasn’t been overheated at high temperatures which kills enzymes and even the nutrients and vitamins within it. In fact it's never heated above 38 degrees which is the natural temperature within the beehive.
As you can see honey is made in one of the most incredible processes in the natural world. From those first tiny drops of nectar in the flower to the finished product stored in the beehive it is untouched by human hands. At Just Bee we will always work with British beekeepers to support and promote bee welfare as part of our on going business program, because without these precious insects we wouldn't have any honey to enjoy at all.