Honey Bee collecting nectar.

How Do Bees Make Honey?

Excerpted from: How Honey Is Made?

  Why Do Bees Make And Store Honey?

Honey bees make honey as a way of storing food to eat over the cooler winter period, when they are unable to forage and there are fewer flowers from which to gather food. During the winter, workers and the queen form a tight cluster and metabolize the honey to generate heat. This keeps the bees warm and protects them from the cold. The colony will perish if the honey supply runs short and the bees are unable to produce adequate heat.

Graphic showing how honey is made.

  Do All Bees Make Honey?

Not all bees are created equal when it comes to producing honey. Many bees pollinate and collect pollen to store for the cold months, so they can survive. Honey Bees however, collect nectar and pollen to make their sweet survival food - honey.

There are only about 7 species within the Honey Bee family. The magnificent little creatures that give us such a wonderful sweet treat are heavy-duty worker bees. In addition to producing honey, Honey Bees also produce beeswax, propolis and royal jelly.

  What Do Honey Bees Need To Make Honey?

Honey Bees need nectar and water to make honey. They need a place to live, such as the hive. They also need pollen. Adult bees don’t need much pollen. However, bee larvae need lots of pollen because of the high protein content.

Honey Bees have other needs too. They need vitamins, carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and minerals. They require each of these to raise healthy new bees. This, in turn, means raising healthy young workers and eventually foragers. These requirements all play a key role in the continuation of a thriving colony.

  Foraging For Nectar

Honey Bee foraging on lavender.
Honey Bee foraging
on lavender.

Bees will forage within a 5-mile radius of their hive, though they will generally stay as close as possible. There are many flowers that attract bees out foraging. These flowers contain sugary nectar and high protein pollen. The sugar and protein components give the bee's young (larvae) a good start to life. When they become adult Honey Bees they need the energy to flap their wings so quickly.

Honey Bee workers forage for nectar for approximately 3 weeks. They may visit up to 100 flowers per trip and make up to 50 trips per day, although this varies depending on plant availability or quality, weather, and physical barriers. If a foraging bee discovers a good source of nectar she is able to communicate this information with other bees using a waggle dance when she returns to the hive.

Read more: What Is Nectar?
Read more: Honey Bee Communication: The Waggle Dance

  How Bees Collect Nectar And Pollen

When bees collect nectar, they use a long tongue called a proboscis that can slide down into the flower and suck nectar out like a straw. They store the nectar in a second stomach, sometimes called a honey stomach, that doesn’t digest nectar. It serves as a carrying purse and is in front of the digestive tract of the bee. The honey stomach can hold up to 70 mg of nectar and weigh almost as much as the bee itself.

Honey Bees have tiny hairs on their bodies allowing pollen to stick to them, so they can carry both nectar and pollen while flying. While the worker bees are flying and storing nectar, the honey stomach begins mixing the nectar with enzymes to start pulling some of the water out of the nectar.

  Returning To The Bee Hive

Honey Bee workers returning to bee hive.
Honey Bee workers
returning to bee hive.

When the worker returns to the hive with the nectar she has foraged, there will be a younger worker bee waiting. This waiting bee is often referred to as a house bee. Her job is to suck the nectar out of the honey stomach of the forager.

Once the nectar has been transferred, the house bee will chew it for about 30 minutes. While chewing, she adds enzymes to the nectar to break it down, forming simple syrup. The enzymes also reduce the water content in the nectar. This makes it easier to digest and less likely to be plagued by bacteria while stored inside the hive.

  Distribution Of The Simple Syrup

Once the syrup has been created, the worker bee will distribute the resultant syrup over the comb of the hive. This is accomplished by spitting up the nectar that she chewed for the past half hour. She will deposit this inside a cell in the honey comb. Then she spreads the tops out to maximize the surface area, so that water can continue to evaporate from the honey syrup and make it thicker over time.

Additionally, Honey Bees help reduce the water content by fanning the honey with their wings.

  Capping The Honey

Honey Bee workers capping honey cells.
Honey Bee workers
capping honey cells.

Once the honey is to the right consistency and the water content at the right level, a bee will cap the honey comb cell with beeswax making it ready for later consumption. Bees will excrete a substance from their abdomen to cap the honey. This comes from wax glands on their abdomen. The glands push out sheets of this substance, made up of scales, which dry to form beeswax.

  What Is In Honey?

Honey is made up of about 82% carbohydrates, mainly fructose and glucose. It also contains a variety of enzymes that help convert other enzymes into fructose and glucose. Honey also has 18 different amino acids. Honey also contains honey contains a variety of vitamins and minerals. These include Vitamin B, Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, magnesium, chromium, as well as antioxidants like flavonoids.

Read more: Types Of Honey
Bumble bee with nectar grains

Why Do Plants Produce Nectar?

Plants had to solve a problem: they needed to find ways to spread their genetic material. Flying pollinators were nature's solution. Nectar is made as a reward for pollinators.

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Bee Quiz

Take this quick quiz and see how much you know about bees—our favorite essential pollinators working around the world. This quiz is intended for fun, in a random-facts-can-be-cool kind of way.

Bumble Bee Flight

How Do Bees Fly?

Have you ever wondered how bees fly and why is there all that buzzing? Buzzing is the sound of a bee’s beating wings. Scientists first realized that bees seem to flout the laws of mathematics in the 1930s.

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