Having worked in an apiary for a summer a few years ago, I have developed a different, stronger connection to bees than most have. I learned a lot about bee-farming, colony collapse disorder and bee communication. We harvested honey and beeswax, made candles, and took care of the bees, ensuring the hives were healthy and kept busy. But what I didn’t learn that much about was how the honey was actually made by the bees, so here I took it upon myself to learn and to share this with you all here. Also enjoy some photos of the candle-making, me in a bee keeper’s outfit and bees hard at work!
Honey, as we see it in grocery stores, is simply nectar that has been collected and processed by honey bees. Nectar is a sugary liquid secreted by flowers as an evolutionary mechanism. Insects consume it and use it for energy, meanwhile, the flowers’ pollen sticks to the insect bodies and is carried from flower to flower as the insects collect more food for themselves. This pollen exchange, fueled by the desire for nectar by the insects, is how different plants reproduce. This is referred to as the co-evolution of insects and plants, which you can learn more about here.
Bees will fly from flower to flower, collecting nectar and storing it into one of two stomachs. One stomach is called the honey stomach. It takes nectar from over 1000 flowers to fill this stomach, and once it is full, it can weigh as much as the bee itself.
The honey stomach contains special digestive enzymes that break down the nectar into the smaller sugar molecules that make up honey. However, one bee alone cannot produce honey. Honey bees are extremely social and complex creatures, and the making of honey is just one demonstration of this. Once a worker bee returns to the hive with a full honey stomach, it will vomit the nectar into another bee’s mouth, and that bee will vomit it into another bee’s mouth, and so on. As this is happening, each bee is adding more and more digestive enzymes to the nectar.
Once there are enough enzymes in the nectar, it is then deposited into a beeswax cell in the hive. The worker bees then beat their wings to create an air current to evaporate excess water from the nectar-enzyme mix to increase its viscosity. Once this is done, the cell is capped with beeswax so that the digestive enzymes can continue to complete the nectar’s transformation into honey.
So yes, honey is literally digested-bee-vomit, but it is also the hive’s source of food in the winter. Therefore, it is important for apiaries to ensure that they do not extract too much honey from each hive, as this can result in the mass die-out of colonies over the winter. However, these apiaries need to take some honey from the bees to keep them from swarming. When a hive runs out of space to store honey, they have officially run out of things to do, making them restless, unhappy and will eventually lead them to swarm in search of a new hive.
One hive will make and consume more than 50 kg of honey in a single year, but this takes much more work then you think. To make one pound of honey, 10 000 bees have to fly over 120 000 km and visit over 8 million flowers. So next time you eat honey, take a moment to appreciate the tremendous amount of work that went into producing this delicious substance.