How Do Honey Bees Make Honey: The Sweet Science Revealed

Honey bees are fascinating creatures, and the process of making honey is an intricate and hard-working endeavor. These insects collect nectar from flowers as the main building block for honey production.

As worker bees venture out to collect nectar, they store it in their honey stomachs. Once they return to the hive, the magic begins. Bees work together to dehydrate the nectar and add gland secretions, breaking down some sugars and helping preserve the honey for long-term storage 1. This process ensures the hive has enough honey to last through the winter months, with large colonies storing over 100 lbs or 45 kgs of honey by the end of summer 2.

The Honey Making Process

From Nectar to Honey

Honey bees collect nectar from flowers using their proboscis and store it in their honey stomach. The nectar undergoes a transformation process in the honey stomach, aided by enzymes that break down complex sugars into simpler ones. Honey bees transport this nectar back to the hive, and one honey bee carries about [1/1000 of a teaspoon] of nectar in each trip.

In the hive, they pass the nectar to worker bees, who continue dehydrating the nectar and add more enzymes to further break down the sugars. Once the water content decreases and the honey is ready, the worker bees store it in the honeycomb cells. They use their wings to fan it and evaporate excess water, finally sealing the cell with beeswax to preserve the honey.

Nectar vs. Honey: Major Differences

Nectar Honey
High water content Lower water content
Complex sugars Simpler sugars (due to enzyme action)
Collected from flowers Produced, stored, and preserved in the hive

Role of Worker Bees

Worker bees play a crucial role in honey production. They are responsible for the following tasks:

  • Dehydrating nectar and adding enzymes
  • Transporting nectar within the hive
  • Storing honey in honeycomb cells
  • Fanning and evaporating excess water
  • Sealing honeycomb cells with beeswax

Examples of enzymes produced by worker bees include invertase and glucose oxidase. Invertase breaks down complex sugars like sucrose into simpler sugars like glucose and fructose. Glucose oxidase helps in preserving the honey by producing gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide, both of which have antibacterial properties.

To sum up, the honey making process involves the collection of nectar from flowers, its transformation into honey through enzyme action, and proper storage and preservation by worker bees within the hive.

The Importance of Bees and Pollination

How Bees Benefit the Environment

  • Biodiversity: Bees pollinate a wide variety of flowering plants, which helps maintain diverse plant species.
  • Ecosystem stability: Through pollination, bees indirectly support the growth of various fruits, nuts, and seeds, which are essential for the diet of many insects and animals.
  • Enhancing natural habitats: Bees contribute to plant fertilization, which in turn assists in the growth and spread of wildflowers, enhancing the natural landscape.

For example, bumble bees (Bombus spp.) are incredibly important pollinators of wild and managed plants, with 30 species found west of the Rocky Mountains in the US 1.

Bees and Agriculture

  • Crop pollination: Bees are essential in pollinating agricultural crops, significantly improving the yield and quality of fruits and nuts.
  • Economic contribution: The pollination services provided by bees are valued at billions of dollars annually.

The western honey bee (Apis mellifera L.) is the most frequent single species of pollinator for crops worldwide 2. In a typical Midwest landscape, estimates suggest that honey bees alone are responsible for 5 to 30% of all pollination 3.

Here’s a comparison table of common bee-pollinated agricultural crops:

Crop Importance of Bee Pollination
Almonds Essential
Apples High
Blueberries High
Cherries High
Cucumbers High
Pumpkins Moderate
Strawberries Moderate
Watermelons Moderate

In conclusion, bees play a vital role in both our environment and agriculture. Their pollination services not only maintain biodiversity and ecosystem stability but also contribute significantly to the global economy. As such, it is essential to protect and conserve bee populations for the sake of our planet and food security.

The Composition of Honey

Water Content and Acidity

Honey contains about 17% water and has a generally low acidity level. This plays a crucial role in preserving honey and preventing the growth of bacteria. For example, honey:

  • Has a low pH level (ranges from 3.4 to 6.1), which is essential in inhibiting microorganism growth
  • Can help prolong the shelf life of food items if mixed with them due to its water-absorbing properties

Glucose, Fructose, and Sucrose

The main sugars present in honey are glucose, fructose, and sucrose. Below is a comparison table of their unique features:

Sugar Type Feature
Glucose Provides quick energy
Fructose Has a lower glycemic index
Sucrose Combination of both sugars

Glucose and fructose make up a significant proportion of honey’s sweetness, while minor amounts of sucrose are present. Some examples of these sugars’ characteristics include:

  • Glucose and fructose are natural sugars, making honey a suitable sweetener for some recipes
  • Fructose is sweeter than glucose, contributing to honey’s distinct flavor profile

In addition to these primary sugars, honey also contains other components that provide numerous health benefits or influence flavor and color. Overall, honey’s unique composition makes it an ideal natural sweetener and a fascinating subject of study.

Varieties and Flavors of Honey

Examining Color, Taste, and Source

Honey’s flavor, color, and texture vary due to the specific flowers and plants from which bees collect nectar. Some factors that influence honey’s characteristics include:

  • Flower type: Bees collect nectar from different flowers which can affect honey’s flavor and color.
  • Climate: The region’s climate affects flower growth, eventually influencing honey’s properties.
  • Heat: Honey can lose its unique qualities when exposed to high temperatures.

Popular Types and Their Unique Properties

  1. Orange Blossom Honey:

    • Light, fruity, and citrusy flavor
    • Pale amber color
  2. Clover Honey:

    • Sweet, mild, and floral taste
    • Light golden hue
  3. Buckwheat Honey:

    • Rich, malty, and molasses-like flavor
    • Dark brown color
  4. Sage Honey:

    • Delicate, mildly sweet, and distinct taste
    • Light color and high clarity

Here’s a comparison table of some popular honey types:

Type of Honey Flavor Color
Orange Blossom Fruity and citrusy Pale amber
Clover Sweet and mild Light golden
Buckwheat Rich and molasses-like Dark brown
Sage Delicate and mildly sweet Light and clear

In conclusion, the varieties and flavors of honey are diverse, affected by factors such as flower types, climate, and heat. Understanding these differences can help you choose the perfect honey type for your needs.

The Role of Beekeepers

Responsibilities and Challenges

Beekeepers play a vital role in supporting honey bees and their essential work. Their responsibilities include:

  • Maintaining bee colonies
  • Ensuring a healthy environment for bees
  • Monitoring for diseases and pests
  • Providing supplemental food if needed

Beekeeping comes with a set of challenges, such as:

  • Maintaining colony health
  • Managing pests and diseases
  • Navigating weather conditions

From Hive to Market

Beekeepers oversee the entire process, from nurturing the bee colonies to bringing honey and other products to market. Here’s a brief overview of that journey:

  1. Forager bees collect pollen and nectar.
  2. Worker bees transform nectar into honey, which is stored in the honeycomb.
  3. Beekeepers harvest honey without harming the bees or the colony.
  4. Honey undergoes a crystallization process to ensure its consistency.
  5. Beeswax and other materials are separated from the honey.

Honey Varieties:

  • Tupelo Honey: sourced from the Tupelo tree
  • Western Honey Bee: a common honey variety
Honey Type Floral Source Taste
Tupelo Honey Tupelo tree blossoms Mild, fruity flavor
Western Honey Bee Various flowers and plants Rich, sweet flavor

Once the honey is collected, beekeepers label and bottle it for distribution to grocery stores. Customers can enjoy not only the honey but also products made from beeswax, a material often found in candles, cosmetics, and food wraps.

In conclusion, beekeepers play a crucial role in the honey-making process, overcoming challenges and ensuring honey arrives from the hive to your local grocery store.

Honey in the Modern World

Culinary Uses and Pairings

Honey is a versatile and natural sweetener, used in various dishes and beverages. One common use is in teas, where honey adds both sweetness and flavor. In cooking, honey pairs well with a variety of foods:

  • Bread: as a spread or drizzle on toast, muffins, scones
  • Breakfast: added to yogurt, oatmeal, or smoothies
  • Salads: in vinaigrettes and dressings, or drizzled over fruits
  • Main dishes: as a glaze on meats like chicken, salmon, and pork

Medicinal Properties and Health Benefits

Honey possesses several medicinal properties and health benefits. Rich in enzymes, antioxidants, and pollen, honey offers a natural energy boost to help fight fatigue. It has been used as a traditional remedy for various ailments:

  • Sore throat and cough relief: honey coats and soothes the throat, reducing irritation
  • Antioxidant support: honey contains a variety of antioxidants that help protect the body from cellular damage
  • Digestive aid: enzymes in honey can help break down food, promoting better digestion

Honey should be used in moderation to prevent excess sugar consumption. However, its natural sweetness and health-promoting properties make it a valuable addition to a healthy diet.

Comparison Table: Honey vs. Refined Sugar

Aspect Honey Refined Sugar
Sweetness Natural, richer taste Generic sweet taste
Origin Produced by honey bees from nectar Derived from sugarcane or sugar beets
Health Benefits Enzymes, antioxidants, pollen Lacks additional health benefits
Calories Slightly higher than refined sugar Slightly lower than honey

In summary, honey’s culinary versatility, health benefits, and natural sweetness make it a valuable ingredient in the modern world. Just remember to enjoy it in moderation and explore its various uses in your daily diet.

Footnotes

  1. Bee Pollination – US Forest Service 2

  2. The worldwide importance of honey bees as pollinators in natural 2

  3. Honey Bees as Pollinators, Their Habitats and Products

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Mystery: What is on the Honey Bee’s feet??? Milkweed Pollenia

 

What’s with this honeybees feet
July 1, 2010
Hi, I was photographing local honey bees and I was wondering what is on their feet. They look like yellow paddles. First image is the full photo and the second is a 100% crop to show the feet.
Thank you.
Terry L
Fond du Lac, WI United States

Honey Bee

Hi Terry,
First we must compliment you on the high quality and excellent detail and composition of your photograph.  We suspect the yellow paddles are parts of flowers that became dislodged as the Honey Bee gathered nectar and pollen, but we are getting a second opinion on this.  We hope to hear back with something conclusive from Eric Eaton.

Daniel,
Thank You.
They were feeding on milkweed flowers for the most part. I did notice at one point, one of the bees was stuck on a milkweed flower for about thirty seconds.
Terry

Eric Eaton confirms our suspicions:
Daniel:
Your hunch was dead on:  Those are milkweed “pollenia,” very sticky.  So sticky, in fact, that sometimes insects are unable to leave the flower and they die.  I’m not sure how this mechanism evolved for milkweed pollination.
Eric

Letter 2 – Keeping Honey Bees in Mount Washington

 

Hi Daniel,
We’ve had bees for a couple years now, no problems with raccoons. Skunks are a much larger problem with bees since they are a favorite snack, but there are ways to combat this. Chiefly by putting the bee boxes on stilts. This way when the skunks are trying to pick off the bees at their entry, they are standing, leaving their soft bellies to be exposed for stings and thus easily dettering them.
If you would like to come by, I’m sure we can arrange something. In the meantime, are you familiar with the Backwards Beekeepers? It’s a organic beekeeping group based out of Los Angeles which rescues feral swarms and rehomes them to members of the club. Our bees are feral Los Angeles bees that were once in some lady’s attic and are now part of our family.
There’s actually a meeting of the Backwards Beekeepers tomorrow in Silverlake. Their website has more information http://www.backwardsbeekeepers.com/
Best,
A.L.

Wild Mount Washington Honey Bees
Wild Mount Washington Honey Bees

Hi again A.L.,
We had hoped that this wild hive would have taken up residence in a hollow tree on the sideyard, but alas, it did not.  We try to provide wildlife habitat while keeping in compliance along with brush clearance requirements.  We may try to attend the Backwards Beekeepers meeting.

Letter 3 – Mystery Thing in a Date Palm

 

paper wasps and alien fungal spaceship?
Location: Ocean Beach, CA
July 27, 2011 6:18 pm
JULY 27, 2011
This is the 2nd year our yard is well-populated by old-bamboo-fiber-stripping lawn-level cruising maybe paper-wasps of some sort judging by looks and behavior.
Visually back-tracking them to their apparent home in a 30+ ft high mature date palm a half block away we discovered a very disconcerting structure.
We don’t know if the structure is related to the wasps or not because we can’t get up there (and frankly don’t want to without hazmat gear), but – well, you can see in the images that it’s highly coincidental.
So, omniscient entomologistas: Paper Wasps? European neo-bauhaus nest? Alien fungal growth?
ps: the city vector crew were nonplussed and apathetic, equally.
Signature: mrobertson

Thing with Bees

Hi again mrobertson,
We have already addressed the European Paper Wasp image you supplied, and we can say with assurance that this mysterious “alien fungal growth” is not related to the wasps, however, it does appear to have two insects flying toward it and though it is difficult to make out details, those insects have the same general appearance of Honey Bees.  Honey Bees do have a somewhat distinctive carriage while in flight, and the insects in the photo are consistent with that shape.  There also appears to be another insect that might be a Honey Bee crawling on the “thing”.  While this “thing” looks nothing like a honeycomb, it might somehow be related to a bee hive, but we are not sure how.  Perhaps the tree originally held the nest of a woodpecker, and dripping sap hardened and created the shape under the hole.  Bees might have moved into the vacant hole after the woodpecker left.  We will try to contact Eric Eaton to see if he has any thoughts on this matter.  For now, we will tag this as a mystery.  We have also taken the liberty of creating a composite of the two flying insects so that they appear closer together in the enlarged version than they are in the original photograph.

Honey Bees or UFOs????

Apis and Inherent Omniscience
Dear Daniel,
Thank you for your time and effort.
Re omniscient: Not flattery, but an expression of hope – and thinking more along the lines of “inherent omniscience”, i.e., “the ability to know anything you choose to know that can be known” (various) and hoping that you would find out and choose to tell me as well. However let us not delve into teleological nomenclature but instead hear me admit that – I was afraid those were bees and your observation largely honks hours of patient sleuthing. Dang.
In 25 years here in Ocean Beach my madly ornithological ladyfriend has never seen or heard a woodpecker. We do however know what makes the holes:

What’s That Parrot??

after which they nest in them of course.
Date Palm trunks don’t have sticky sap that would run, nor are their cellulose interiors in any way green or anything but white-ish.
I have read somewhere – LSU ento site? That some indwelling wasps may wet and soften the material of a wood enclosure (such as the studs in your walls or a tree cavity), chew the wood up and force it out of cracks or holes to allow the nest to expand – which may form strange extruded shapes.
But these are bees, right? Maybe they weren’t always bees…
Working at the limit of our prosumer cameras from a neighbors elevated driveway a hundred feet away we got a few more revealing images of the “weird thing”.

“Thing” might be expanding foam (see comments)

I feel the “thing” is associated with the hive – you can see damaged or melted comb cells or something like that. In one still inadequate image you can see what appears to be a bee on the lip of the “thing”. In another, darker image – the mass appears to have the glow of encaustic wax.
I don’t see any significant difference in the structural shape between the March and July images – and we had some serious rain which lends to a theory of water resistance.
I cut the “thing” image out, dragged it into a google image search box  – and that worthy AI returned images of cast busts of heads of Paul Tillich, John Gorton of Australia, an asian deity, assorted meteoric stone – and diving way down  – a Jurassic Termite Nest of sedimentary rock.
Oh well. Someday.
Finally, for the goosebumply thrill of it – an all time horrorshow yellowjacket nest image  – from upper Michigan I believe:
http://www.pestid.msu.edu/Portals/0/dnnPhotoGallery/955/626.jpg
one which makes me reflexively grab for my Epi-Pen.
Curiously yours,
/mrobertson
[edit note: Edit, Cut, Paste, Ignore. Download any image you might wish to use or save rather than linking, as things in that dropbox are not permalink. MSU EDU image not mine]

Yellow Jacket Nest in Car (from MSU)

Hi Again mrobertson,
Thanks for the wonderful update.  We believe the image of the Honey Bee on the “Thing” supports our theory that there is a bee hive there.  Perhaps you didn’t notice the comment provided by Aariq who wrote:  “To me it looks almost like someone tried to get rid of the wasps by sealing up their hole with expanding foam, and then they just ate holes through it. That’s awfully high up to go through that sort of effort though.

 

Letter 4 – Swarming Honey Bees

 

Pile of 2500 bees on the road
June 23, 2010
We found this CRAZY large pile of bees on the side of the road in SE Portland on June 22. There was also a group of them on a branch in a bush nearby, but not so large as the group on the ground. They were very busy, did not seem agitated or aggressive, and gave the impression that they had business to do there. Have you ever seen such a thing? What are they doing? It was our first warm, non rainy day in a long time… maybe they were basking in the sun like all the other Portlanders! PS – I have read your site for years and am excited to finally have something I think is worthy of posting!
Amanda G
Portland, OR

Honey Bee Swarm

Hi Amanda,
We are quite pleased with your submission.  It is the first new posting we are making since returning from our holiday in Ohio (though we believe, prior to leaving, we postdated two letters to go live today).  These Honey Bees are swarming.  When the hive gets too large, the workers will begin raising a new group of queens by feeding ordinary larvae on a special diet of royal jelly.  The reigning queen departs from the hive with half of the workers prior to the emergence of the heir apparent.  You witnessed a swarm of Honey Bees in search of a new location for their hive.  While we are uncertain why the Bees have congregated on the road, the small group in the tree are probably protecting the queen.

Honey Bee Swarm: Protecting the Queen

Letter 5 – Swarming Honeybees

 

Bee swarm in tree
Hi all! Just thought you might appreciate a break from all the questions, and enjoy a look at a bee swarm we found a few days ago in a front yard tree in LaFayette, NY. (I was there on a visit.) A local honey bee keeper collected the swarm and is hoping that the old queen (he says it’s always the old queen that leaves with 40-60% of the workers when a new queen is born) will produce a good quantity of honey for him next year. He estimates there are nearly 10000 bees in this swarm, which is about the size of two footballs. There are three pictures, one of the swarm protecting (surrounding) the queen after a rain storm, one of the keeper grabbing the swarm to sweep it into the hive box, and one of the box as he checks to be sure he has the queen (he didn’t and had to re-collect from the branch.) When the queen is inside, the bees line up at the entrance, deposit a lemon scent, and fan the entrance. Fascinating and fun to watch!
Diane
Chuluota, FL

Hi Diane,
Your letter and photos just fuels our desire to raise bees and eat our own garden honey.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

    View all posts
  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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6 thoughts on “How Do Honey Bees Make Honey: The Sweet Science Revealed”

  1. To me it looks almost like someone tried to get rid of the wasps by sealing up their hole with expanding foam, and then they just ate holes through it. That’s awfully high up to go through that sort of effort though.

    Reply
    • Hi Aariq,
      We like your theory, except we believe there is a honey bee hive in a hole in the date palm tree. The European Paper Wasps do not make such large nests and they are out in the open.

      Reply
  2. Aariq and Bugman, thanks for the thoughts.
    I agree about the bees, but can’t agree about the foam. I use it as an art material and it just doesn’t look like that. That shape looks more like something from a 3D printer. This has a cellulose look about it which is why I was thinking “bugs”. I’ve worked as a mycologist and am a 3rd kingdom fan, but this doesn’t look like anything known to us. I’ve contacted the County Ag Extension Service and will nag them until they offer an opinion. /mrobertson

    Reply
  3. Hi, I just had the same thing happen. I was just dislodging bees, I am running a sprinkler hoping to dilute goo. Very young bees

    Reply

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