So, how do bees make honey? I’m glad you asked. It’s really quite fascinating.
Honey is made of the sweet nectar from flowers. Nectar is a sugar-rich liquid made by flowering plants, which is produced in glands called nectaries. Nectar is designed to attract pollinating animals such as honeybees. It is a beautiful example of mutualism, in which two different species cooperate for mutual benefit – an abundant phenomenon in nature. The flower’s nectar encourages animals such as bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, and bats to visit them, and flowers are often designed to attract specific types of pollinators. As these animals visit different flowers of the same species, they spread pollen from flower to flower, ensuring that pollination will occur and the plant will be able to reproduce. In Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire, he calls bees the “flying penises” of plants. If this is the case, nectar is the perfume and invitation from the flower. Flowers are the sexual organs of plants, which is perhaps why they are so typically associated with courting and romance.
When a particularly delicious or abundant source of nectar is located by a foraging honeybee, she communicates this to her sisters in a dance. The dance is complete with directions to the nectar source, using the sun for navigation. The bee with the most provocative dance will gain the most followers – Matt likes to compare the dance to a break-dancing competition, and the bee with the best “pop lock and drop” gets the sister bees to get on board and follow the dancer to the nectar source. Scientists call this behavior “The Waggle Dance.”
The foraging honeybee collects nectar by flying from blossom to blossom and sipping nectar into her honey stomach, using her long proboscis. She drinks nectar until her stomach is filled to the brim, and then travels back to the hive with her heavy load.
Upon arriving back at her hive, the foraging bee is greeted by “house” bees, whose work is restricted to inside the hive. The nectar is exchanged from the foraging bee to the house bee via proboscis, in a “nectar kiss”. House bees will first taste and analyze her nectar, and eventually the entire contents of the honey stomach will be exchanged to house bees, and often exchanged from house bee to house bee. The foraging bee, now with an empty stomach, will take flight again to locate more nectar.
The house bee will now begin the process of drying the nectar. She mixes in a drop of her saliva, and begins blowing tiny nectar bubbles with her mandibles and her proboscis. This exposes the drop to the dry, warm air in the colony, and some of the moisture dehydrates. After holding the drop for a few minutes, she will add another nectar drop and continue this process. Eventually the dehydrated nectar is deposited into cells, and moved from cell to cell to facilitate drying. When enough nectar has been collected to fill multiple cells, the bees band together and fan their wings to create the final evaporation and complete the process of nectar becoming honey. Honey may be placed in empty cells, cells with eggs, or even with larvae. Cells near to the brood nest or nursery will be filled first, where the honey is also combined with pollen to feed the young. When these cells are filled, honey is kept in the surplus honey storage area, and when the drying process is complete a wax cap is applied to the cell, similar to putting a lid on a jar.
Chemically, the process of honey creation is a conversion of pure sucrose, a sugar, into other sugars, fructose and glucose. Sucrose cannot be used in its whole form by honey bees. So in order to convert this sucrose into a more usable form, honey bees transform it. This is accomplished by enzymes in the bees’ saliva, which contains invertase and glucose oxidase. Glucose is less sweet than sucrose, and fructose is sweeter. Fructose is the most stable, so honeys that have a high fructose content will not crystallize. When a honey does crystallize, it’s the glucose that you see forming crystals, and the remaining liquid is fructose.
Although the basic building blocks of honey are sugar molecules, honey also contains the essences of the plants from which the bees gathered nectar, as well as minerals from the soils where those flowers grew. Honey is a complex and unique blend of aromas, enzymes, vitamins, proteins, minerals, salts, acids, lipids, pigments and flavor compounds. It also contains fragments of all of the different pollens the bees have gathered. Honey’s hydrogen peroxide content is often attributed to it’s strong antimicrobial properties.
Honey is the food of all the adult bees, and it is also mixed with pollen and propolis to create “bee bread”, a fermented product that the bees feed to their larvae. Honeybees depend on honey, and a strong colony will store as much honey as they have the space for. A judicious beekeeper can take advantage of this hoarding instinct of the hive, and enjoy and share the excess of the bee’s painstaking labor.
Sources consulted for this blog:
Sacred and Healing Herbal Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhner.
The Backyard Beekeeper’s Honey Handbook by Kim Flottum.