How Do Bees Make Honey
How Do Honey Bees Make Honey?
by David Burns, certified master beekeeper
What is honey? We know that honey comes from a honey bee hive. But exactly what is involved in making that delicious sweetener from the hive?
Honey is largely nectar gathered from flowers and carried into the hive. However, there is much more that goes into making honey. It takes ten pounds of nectar to make one pound of honey. Similar to the way maple syrup is made, the moisture must be evaporated from nectar so that it can be become honey. It isn't called honey until the bees reduce the moisture content to around 18% and add some enzymes to it. To better help you understand the whole process, let's start with a drop of nectar on a flower and let's follow a bee as she gathers the nectar.
Around the age of 23 days old, a honey bee is old enough to begin flying out of the hive to gather nectar, pollen, water and propolis. Prior to day 23 she has been restricted to in house hive duties. First, she takes orientation flights around the hive so she can remember how to find her way back home from a long flight out. We refer to bees that fly and gather resources as foragers. Now that she knows her hive location, she works her way to the dance floor where an experienced forager is passing out samples of nectar that she has just gathered from a flower. And she is doing the waggle dance, a figure eight dance that directs other foragers to the location of the nectar source. For more information on the waggle dance (video) click here.
The waggle dance reveals the distance to the flower, a sample of the nectar and the direction of flight. Once a new forager has her flight path laid in, away she goes with one mission, to find the location, fill her honey stomach with nectar. When her honey crop is full she returns to the hive. While she is gathering nectar, the flower awards her with pollen which she will store on her back legs for the flight home. Both pollen and nectar are the colony's main food source. She will fly back to her hive fully loaded with 80% of her body weight in pollen and honey. That is the equivalent of a 200 pound man carrying 160 pounds, for miles!
Once our forager arrives back at her hive, she must unload her surplus. She is met by a house bee on transport duty. The forager will deflate her honey stomach just enough to dispense a droplet at a time through her tongue, giving the house bee a droplet of nectar. The house bee begins to work the droplet in her mouth pieces for about 20 minutes which helps in the drying process. She also will add enzymes to the nectar which helps break down the complex sugars into simple sugars as well as protecting it from bacteria. The transport house bee will carry the droplet of nectar up to the honey comb that is currently being filled by other transport bees. The droplet is then placed in an opened cell. Other house bees fan their wings at 11,400 times per minute to help evaporate the moisture from the nectar. Once the nectar reaches a moisture content of around 18%, more house bees will seal over the comb with wax. The reason honey is sealed with wax is the same reason we can our food. It will preserve the honey, keeping additional moisture from being absorbed into the honey.
Honey Gathering Bullet Facts:
- Drones (male bees) and queens do not gather nectar. Only the mature, female worker bees forage for resources.
- All raw honey will eventually crystallize.
- Crystallize honey is very good to eat, but it can be re-liquefied when heated to 104 (f) degrees. Heating over 104 (f) degrees can damage the taste and reduce healthy enzymes.
- Honey will crystallize fastest between 55 (f) 63 (f) degrees.
- Honey is not likely to crystallized if it is kept below 40 (f) or above 104 (f) as this is the temperature in which the crystals melt.