The ancient Greeks called honey the “food of the gods”. Even today, few can deny that honey is high in the hierarchy of foods. Even thinking of its rich, sweet, heavenly taste is enough to make your taste buds water.
Bees make honey, we all know that. But do you know how they do it? And have you ever wondered why they make it? What do they do with it?
How Bees Make Honey:
Worker Bees and the Search for Nectar
The typical beehive is home to approximately 60,000 honey bees. And in all hives everywhere the bee population is divided in three distinct groups: thousands of worker bees, some male drones, and one queen bee. While the worker bees are tireless foragers, the male drones and the queen bee do not do any foraging.
Everyone knows that before honey becomes the sweet, gooey substance we all know and love, it is nectar, a sweet liquid produced by flowers to attract insects. In most flowers, the substance called nectar is sweet-tasting.
It resembles sugar water, comprising a mixture of the disaccharide sucrose and water. It is produced in glands known as nectaries.
As in all things related to Mother Nature, there is a symbiotic relationship between the flowers and the insects they attract – the bees, wasps, butterflies, and so forth. The relationship is mutually beneficial, with neither party being shortchanged in any way.
As the bee gathers the nectar which it needs to make honey, it unintentionally pollinates the flowers. In moving from one flower to another, the bee inadvertently transfers pollen grains from flower to flower.
As a result, the flowers become fruitful, enabling the creation of the next generation of plants, and fittingly, ensuring that there will always be flowers available for the bees to gather nectar from.
The process of honey-creation is a teamwork endeavor. The older worker bees carry out the task of foraging while the younger hive bees take up the task of turning the nectar into honey.
The worker bee has a straw-like proboscis which it uses to suck up the sweet liquid from within the flower. The nectar all goes to and is stored in what is known as the honey stomach.
The bee forages, sucking nectar from hundreds of flowers until it fills its honey stomach. Once its stomach is full, the bee returns to the hive.
Enzymes within the honey stomach break down the complex sugars (sucrose) into simpler sugars (glucose and fructose) in a process known as inversion.
How Nectar is Turned into Honey
The transformation of nectar into honey occurs as a result of two processes:
- The bees produce certain enzymes that break down the disaccharide sucrose into two monosaccharides: glucose and fructose.
- The evaporation of most of the moisture, leaving only approximately 18% water in the honey.
There are two enzymes involved in the process: invertase and glucose oxidase. Invertase is responsible for converting most of the sucrose into glucose and fructose, both of which are six-carbon sugars and monosaccharides. Glucose and fructose are less prone to crystallization than sucrose.
The second enzyme glucose oxidase acts on some of the glucose, converting it into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. The acid gives honey its low PH level – thanks to which it is resistant to bacteria, mold, fungi, and microbes.
Hydrogen peroxide provides short-range protection against these organisms during the honey’s ripening period.
When it returns to the hive, the forager bee regurgitates the now altered nectar for a hive bee to take up the next stage of the process: evaporation.
By evaporating most of the moisture from the honey, the hive bees increase the substance’s osmotic pressure and its protection against microbes.
They do this by externally manipulating the nectar in their mouths, placing the droplets on the upper side of cells and fanning their wings furiously to evaporate the excess moisture. Consequently, the sugars thicken into honey.
As a result, honey is a highly stable substance, naturally resistant to molds, fungi, and bacteria. It is not by accident that honey is able to survive for years without refrigeration – thank the bees.
Before the evaporation occurs, nectar contains 80% water – the rest is complex sugars. If you leave nectar in its natural state, it will ferment. And that’s why the bees must convert it into honey. What they need are the sugars, and as it is, nectar is not a reliable storage place. Honey, on the other hand is long-lasting, usable, and efficient.
After the evaporation, honey contains 14-18% water. Honey is a more potent energy source than even the purest nectar.
After the process of making honey is complete, the hive bee caps the beeswax cell and seals the honey into the honeycomb. It will be consumed at some future time.
The most astonishing thing about bees and the honey-production process is that a single worker bee will only produce 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey during its lifetime (five to six weeks in active season and four to six months in winter). By working as a team, the thousands of worker bees can produce over 200 pounds of honey for their colony in a single year.
Why do Bees Make Honey?
1. It is Their Food
For us, honey is a delicacy, a complement to the rest of our food. But for bees, honey is their only food source. It is rich in carbohydrate energy and the pollen in honey is a source of protein for the bees.
2. To Store for the Coming Winter
The bee colony is home to thousands of bees. All these are mouths to feed, and nothing grows in winter. For that reason, the bees have to prepare for the coming winter and store as much food as possible.
Some people feel that it is cruel for human beings to rob the hives and thus deplete the bees’ winter food. However, it should be noted that wild animals and birds rob from the hives too. For that reason, bees always make more than they need.
Conscientious and prudent beekeepers take only what the bees have in excess supply. Some beekeepers take all the honey and provide sugar in return. This is a mistake – sugar does not cater for all the nutritional needs of honey bees.
The honey-making process is yet another testament of why bees are the most intelligent insects. Their level of organization is inspiring – for instance, the division of labor between forager bees and hive bees.
It is also amazing to learn that they make honey as a source of food for themselves, both during the times of plenty and the times of lack when winter comes. Hopefully, you will now look at bees with different lenses.