Honey is a sweet substance that starts as nectar in a flower. The process of how bees collect and produce honey in their beehives is extraordinary and vital for our ecosystems. For plants to reproduce, bees need to carry pollen from one plant to another. Bees are covered in 3 million hairs which are used to collect and trap pollen.
It is important to understand the difference between pollen and nectar. Pollen is a fine powder, whereas nectar is a sweet sticky-like substance. Bees collect both and use both to feed the hives with the nutrients and proteins needed for their survival. However, honey is made from the nectar of flowers.
Bees collect and transport nectar and pollen from plants in their stomachs and by using the 3 million hairs on their bodies. Honey is made from the nectar of plants by reducing the moisture to only 30% of its original content. The bees then store the honey in their honeycomb cells, and place a seal of wax over it, ready for the baby larvae to feed on.
The honey-making process is fascinating and important for you to know, as it is so important for the survival of many species on the planet. The population of bees started to deplete in the last 50 years and researchers began to understand how vital bees are. You need to adopt gentleness when interacting with this species, which only comes from understanding their role.
For you to understand just how important the bees are, or if you love your honey and are fascinated by the procedure in how it is made, then you will want to read until the end.
How is honey made?
There are over 20,000 species of bees in the world, with 4,000 of them being native to the US. However, although all bees pollinate, only one type of bee produces honey: the honeybee. Honeybees work and live in large families, also known as colonies. It is the female ‘worker’ bees that collect and then produce the honey.
Honey starts as the sweet nectar from flowers. Female honeybees collect the sweet nectar from a flower, and it is then stored inside their stomachs. Remember not to get the nectar confused with pollen. The bees then transport the nectar back to their hives, where the honey is made.
I will now create a step-by-step guide, starting from the bee’s collection of the nectar, its journey back to the hives, and finally the transformation process from nectar to honey.
1. The bees gather nectar and pollen from the flowers
Honeybees are the only species of bee that creates honey. The female worker bees travel out from the hives to the surrounding areas of plants and flowers. On average, honeybees can travel up to eight kilometers for food, however, they usually will only travel to around one or two kilometers around the hive.
A fun fact for you is that honeybee colonies can total up to 60,000 worker bees. Therefore, if you add up the distance that each worker bee flies in a day, this is the equivalent distance from Earth to the moon. Isn’t that impressive?
The bees then land on the inside of flowers as that is where the pollen and nectar are ready for collection. With the hairs all over their bodies, they collect the pollen and create small pollen stacks on the back of their two legs. These are called corbiculae.
How bees store the nectar, however, is in their ‘honey stomach’. This is different from the stomach where they store food and is designed purely to store the nectar they collect from flowers.
Bees collect the nectar through their proboscis’ which is similar to a tongue. The proboscis is extended to the middle of the flower where the nectar is, and the bee then uses this to extract it from the plant. Research suggests that bees possess the ability to detect nectar before landing on a flower, due to the scent and color.
2. The journey back to the hives
Once the worker bees have a full load of both pollen and nectar, they return to their hives. The bees will roll the pollen with saliva and some nectar to ensure the corbicula stick to their bodies, ready for the flight home. Bees can carry up to a third of their body weight in pollen.
The corbiculae or ‘saddle bags’ of pollen are so securely attached to the bees, that a force twenty times more than the force a bee experiences while flying, is needed to remove them. Therefore, there is no danger of the bees dropping these small balls of pollen on their journey home.
With each foraging trip, bees can also carry up to 80 milligrams of nectar in their honey stomachs. If a worker bee finds a flower with a lot of nectar, then she will do a signal dance to the other worker bees to come and help her collect more.
3. Returning to the hives
Back in the hive, other female bees are the house bees. The house bees’ job is to taste the nectar and help to unload the worker bees’ forage. Worker bees will pass the nectar to the other bees through their mouths, and all bees will replicate a ‘chewing’ method.
The chewing reduces the moisture of the nectar, turning it into honey. Once the bees have worked together long enough to reduce the moisture of the nectar to a honey-like consistency, they then store the substance in the small wax holes in their hives. These are better known as honeycomb.
4. What happens to the pollen
The pollen collected by the worker bees is turned into ‘bee bread’. This is a mixture of their saliva, some honey, and pollen. It is extremely high in protein and the bees use it as a source of food. They seal the ‘bread’ in the honeycomb holes, in the same place as where they store the honey, and they feed on it after their work is done.
The bees also bring some of this food source to their lava; bee young that have not yet hatched. The lava can feed on the breaded pollen, and it gives them all the nutrients they need to become strong and healthy young worker bees.
How a bee makes honey?
You now know the process of honey making. Honey comes from nectar, and the bees collect the nectar from flowers using their proboscis before storing it in their honey stomachs and returning with it back to the hives. I have touched on how the nectar is then transformed into a honey consistency by chewing the nectar from bee-to-bee.
I will now describe a much more in-depth process on how the bees turn the nectar into the honey that we like to consume.
Once the worker bees have returned to their hives with the nectar in their stomachs, the house bees help to stimulate the worker bees’ mouths where their proboscises are. The bees then engage in something that, in the insect world, is called trophallaxis. This is the mutual exchange of regurgitated liquids between two insects, in this case, bees.
It sounds gross, but it is an extremely common exchange within the insect world. It is the main way in which insects can gather nutrients from the forage that has taken place. It is the fastest and most efficient way for insects to also feed their young. It is similar to the regurgitation feeding process that takes place within many bird species.
Trophallaxis of the nectar takes place among a chain of bees within the hives. The proboscis is used for both the regurgitation and the sucking and is a major component in the entire honey-making process. Nectar contains a lot of moisture, and as you know with the thick consistency of honey, this moisture has to be removed.
The bees remove the moisture by about 70% which is what contributes to the thick consistency of honey. On occasions, the bees will store the nectar directly into the cells of the honeycomb before any trophallaxis has taken place. This is because the temperatures inside the hives average 91.4°F. These high temperatures help to reduce the moisture in nectar through evaporation.
Furthermore, some bee researchers have also claimed that the speed at which the bees’ wings move also contributes to the moisture removal process of nectar. Whether this is intentional on the bees’ part or not, is up for debate. However, with the intricacy of the bees working methods, and their unmatched drive and motivation, I would say that it is likely the bees are aware of this.
Once the nectar has turned into the substance that we know as honey, the bees then store it in the small cells in their honeycomb, and seal it with wax, like their own little jars of honey. Some people suggest that bees create honey without any need for it themselves. That is rather untrue, as bees do use the honey to feed on occasionally and to give to their lava.
However, bees indeed create more honey than they need. Therefore, beekeepers and the production of honey for consumption are not necessarily taking the bees’ food source, as some may believe. The bees do get the majority of their nutrients from the pollen bread that they create.
With this, there is still a risk of reducing the hives’ food source when beekeepers extract the honey from the hives. This is because there is no way of telling where the bee bread is stored alongside the stored honey, as the bees store both of these in the honeycomb. Therefore, when the beekeepers extract the honey, they may also be taking the bee bread.
How honey is extracted from the hives now is much more humane than it was in years gone by. Even though there is a risk of mixing the bee bread with the honey, beekeepers do their absolute best to ensure that minimal damage is done to the hives.
Local bee farmers will, more likely than not, have this as their priority. Bees, particularly honeybees, have gained major respect in the last decade. With modern biological research findings, the significance of bees has become increasingly apparent. Therefore, when farming their honey, the process has adopted a much more respectful approach.
These are things in which it is important to be aware of as a honey consumer. If you have a local bee farm or beekeeper on your doorstep, it is a much more humane approach to purchasing your honey. With that said, there are still many great companies that mass-produce honey.
There is also the question of whether you want your honey to be pasteurized or not. Buying honey from a local beekeeper means that you are likely to receive produce high in nutrients and enzymes. Honey has amazing healing qualities, and to reap the full benefits of this product it is recommended that you eat one spoonful in the morning and one in the evening.
However, honey from a supermarket is always pasteurized. This means that the honey has been heated to a high temperature, which strips it of its natural nutrients and benefits. There are no clear reasons as to why honey is actually pasteurized as the only risk it poses raw, is to infants with an underdeveloped gut.
With that, some people simply like to consume honey purely for its sweet and gooey consistency, without worrying too much about the actual health benefits it offers. If this applies to you, then buying honey from a supermarket is perfectly suitable. However, if you are looking to consume honey for its yummy taste plus its amazing health rewards, then buying from a local beekeeper is a much better option.
Local beekeepers will offer you raw, unpasteurized honey, straight from the hives themselves. Some bee farmers also sell their jars of honey with parts of the honeycomb still inside. This is when you know for sure that your honey has come untouched, straight from the natural source itself: the bees.
Is honey either bee vomit or bee poop?
Technically, honey is not either bee vomit or be poop. Honey comes from the nectar of a flower and is then turned into honey through trophallaxis. Although the nectar is stored in the honey stomach of the bee before being regurgitated, it is not accurate to say that honey is bee vomit.
Honeybees have two stomachs: one for digesting food and the other for storing honey. In order for something to be classed as vomit, the substance in question needs to have passed through the digestive system, being mixed with the acids in the intestines.
When the nectar is extracted from the flower, it is stored in this separate stomach they have. The bees are not consuming the nectar for food purposes, they are simply holding the nectar in a saddlebag, ready to be transported back to the hives.
Therefore, when the honey is regurgitated, it is improper to refer to this as what you would call ‘vomit.’ Furthermore, for sales purposes in the honey market, referring to honey as ‘bee vomit’ will put off a lot of people. Especially when this term is not accurate for the process of how the honey is made.
Although honey will contain elements of bee saliva, and can therefore be viewed more accurately as bee saliva, as opposed to being vomit. However, the proper term for honey is simply nectar that has been through the process of bee trophallaxis. It is a lot wordier but sums up the accuracy of the honey-making process with no honey-lovers being put off.
How much honey can a bee make in its lifetime?
A single honeybee can produce up to only 1/12th of a tablespoon in its lifetime. This means that it takes the lifespan of 12 bees to produce a single tablespoon. Amazingly, beehives can contain up to 60,000 bees and are therefore producing much more than this in a season.
The honeybee species are remarkably similar to ants, in that they work, live, and survive in a colony. They almost think as one, and their very purpose is to serve their hive. Their entire life’s work is to forage, store, and feed.
There are currently over 2.68 million beehive colonies in the US to date. The average production of honey from these hives is up to 1.47 million pounds of honey per year. That is a lot of tablespoons of honey. When you think only one honeybee produces 1/12th of a tablespoon of honey in its lifetime, you can understand the level of work that this much honey entails from the honeybees in these hives.
There are up to 220,000 working beekeepers in the US. The market for honey is truly incredible and reflects the amazing species that create it. This is the case for both locally produced honey and mass-produced honey. Furthermore, the plant from which the bee has taken the nectar has a massive impact on the value of the honey.
For example, nectar that is taken from plants such as tulips, sourwood, and basswood, has a much higher price. The idea of ‘premium honey’ is a modern revelation, even though humans have been consuming honey for over 2,000 years.
The honey industry is generally split into three segments: hobby, part-time, and commercial. My uncle, for example, was a hobbyist honeybee keeper. After he collected the honey from his hives, he jarred it and used to give it away to people in his local community in Southern Iowa. His honey had a citrus-like taste, which is down to the types of plants his bees would extract the nectar from.
In the US, part-time beekeepers are responsible for 40% of the honey production in the country, whereas the remaining 60% is taken care of by commercial honeybee keepers.
On average, a female worker honeybee will live only five to six weeks. Their main purpose is to forage, store and feed. Once they have completed a season of work, their life comes to an end. Therefore, you can see why so many beehives are needed in operation to keep up with the market’s demands for honey.
What do male bees do?
Male bees are called drones. Unlike the females, they have no stinger and they do not forage nectar or pollinate plants. They also need assistance in feeding, which the house bees take care of. There are usually a few hundred male drones in a honeybee colony, with over 20,000 female worker bees.
The purpose of the male honeybee, or drone, is to mate with the unfertilized queen in the hive. Drones typically survive a couple of months, and their only purpose is to contribute towards the reproduction of the hive. In harsher seasons when food is limited, male bees are ejected from the hives.
Honeybee colonies depend heavily on the diversity of the hive for survival. The strength in numbers here is their main survival method. Bees have been on the planet for over 130 million years. Their survival is the world’s survival.
Many of the world’s plants and flowers depend heavily on the pollination of bees to survive as well. The incredible systems, under which this species lives, are admirable and vital for such a small animal. Individually they are not much, but together they are keeping our planet fruitful, nourished, and alive.
What does the queen bee do?
The queen bee is essentially the most important bee in the hive. There is only one queen bee in the entire hive, and she can store up to millions of sperm inside her, before reproducing the hives’ lava. Singularly, she mates with the drones and can produce up to 2,000 eggs in a day.
Only the queen bee is able to produce fertilized eggs within the colony. That is a hell of a lot of pressure. The entire reproduction survival of the hive lies in her lap. She is purely responsible for the future of honeybees, and essentially the planet’s ability to thrive.
Her lifespan can reach up to five years, however, is more commonly only two. For a queen bee to be chosen, she is taken and fed by the worker bees from being only lava. The rest of the female bees in the colony protect her fiercely once she has matured and is ready to reproduce.
In some special cases, bee farmers can reintroduce a new queen to a hive whose previous queen has perished. This is an extraordinarily intricate process and is one that requires much patience, as bee colonies will reject a queen that they do not recognize.
Even though the queen does not forage the honey, her role is just as important as she produces those who will. Her role in the honey-making process is producing the future worker bees to produce the honey in the hives.
Bee’s larvae are only in their egg stage for three days, before the process of metamorphosis occurs. The process of how lava transforms into bees differs between the different roles in the hives.
What happens to honey after it is made?
After bees have made honey, they store it in their honeycomb pores. Bee farmers then extract the honey from the frames within the hives. These are removable, man-made frames where the bees make their honeycomb and then store the honey.
The extraction process takes a lot of work and is messy. Therefore, beekeepers will usually extract the honey only once a year. Towards the end of the summer season, the bee farmers will do this, as this is when there will be enough honey to make it worth their while.
The honey is collected in a large container, and then either jarred raw or sent to be pasteurized. With commercial honey-making, the honey is heated to a high temperature before being jarred and sold in supermarkets. Local honey is usually jarred raw.
The pasteurization process creates transparent, clear honey. You can also buy creamed honey, which is only normal honey that has been whipped up with air. Some kinds of honey are sold in a pourable consistency and are in squeezy containers to make them easier to pour.
Some other types of honey are more solidified and used as a condiment on breakfast foods and desserts. Either way, all honey is sweet and used in either food or drink to naturally sweeten the taste.
As mentioned above, the taste of honey can be influenced by the flowers from which the bees extracted the nectar. There are thousands of different types of honey to choose from, all varying in their taste. The market for this product is huge, and there is likely to be honey that suits everyone’s different needs.
You now know how honey is made, where it comes from, and the process in which it goes through to reach your kitchen cupboard. If you are interested in locally sourced honey, then you can research your local area and find one of the many bee farms in the US with their own unique honey flavors to offer.