It is believed that honey has been a staple of the human diet for many thousands of years. In fact, until sugar became widely available in the 16th century, honey was the world’s principal sweetener. Today, many add honey to their tea, spread it on toast and consider it an essential ingredient in many favorite recipes.
It's known that bees make honey, but why and how do they do it?
Do bees eat honey?
- Bees make honey to provide a reliable, year-round food source for their colonies.
- How much honey a colony needs to survive the winter depends on its location. In the southern United States, a colony can get by on as little as 40 pounds of honey. In colder, northern states, bees might need winter stores of honey weighing as much as 80 or 90 pounds.
How do bees make honey?
Making honey is a complicated process involving a lot of bees and even more flowering plants.
- First, female worker bees harvest nectar from a variety of flowers and plants, usually during the summer. This task is so strenuous that worker bees only live a total of six to eight weeks. Worker bees draw nectar up through their proboscis — a long, tube-like tongue — and store the nectar in a special organ separate from their regular stomach until they are ready to return to the hive. A worker bee typically gathers nectar from between 100 to 150 plants before reaching capacity. Amazingly, worker bees are still able to fly while carrying these payloads, which can equal their own body weight.
- Returning to the hive, the worker bees transfer the nectar to processor bees. The processor bees chew on the nectar for about a half hour. While chewing, the processor bees add an enzyme called "invertase" that breaks the nectar down into more easily digestible sugars. These simpler sugars are also less likely to be infected by bacteria and other microbes during the next phase of the honey-making process.
- The processed nectar is then deposited in the hive’s honeycomb for drying. The original nectar brought to the hive is about 70 percent water. To become honey, the nectar must lose a significant amount of moisture — more than 50 percent. To achieve this, the processor bees flap their wings over the honeycomb, creating an airflow that helps water evaporate from the nectar.
- With the drying and curing process completed, the bees cap each cell with a secretion from their stomachs that hardens into an airtight beeswax seal.
Other honey bee facts
- It takes over 550 foraging bees visiting 2 million flowers to produce just one pound of honey.
- The type of honey produced depends on the plants from which the nectar is drawn, and there are over 300 varieties of honey available in the U.S.
- The honey we consume is made only by honey bees. Bumble bees also gather nectar to make a honey-like substance, but it’s not a feasible agricultural product because they produce and store so little of it.
- When harvesting honey, responsible beekeepers are good stewards of their hives and leave behind enough honey to sustain their bee colonies.