How Do Bees Make Honey?

It’s the High Holy Days, and we’ve just finished celebrating Rosh Hashana/Feast of Trumpets. During this celebration of the Jewish new year, everyone wishes each other a good, sweet year as we eat apples and honey, as well as several dishes made with honey. Because of its sweetness, honey is a common symbol of Rosh Hashana. As I was making a honey cake for the holiday meal’s dessert (and using a pound of honey in the recipe), I started wondering about how honey is made. Just how DO bees create this syrupy goodness? Well, I decided to find out and share what I’ve found with you. (Above photo credit: http://www.beekeeping.wikia.com )

First, let me say that I am NOT a scientist, so my explanation is going to be very simple based on what I read at various educational websites. That said, the story of honey making is fascinating.

THE MAKEUP OF A BEEHIVE:

Within a beehive, there are tens of thousands of bees, most of which are females. Only one female, the queen, has fully productive ovaries and lays the eggs. (The minority of males are the drones and serve one purpose: to fertilize the queen.) The other females are infertile, so they are the worker bees. The older workers become the foragers who go out to collect flower nectar; the younger workers are the hive bees.

FORAGER BEES:

The forager bees will usually travel within a two-mile radius of the hive to search for nectar. Sometimes, they can travel as far as four miles from the hive, but flying longer distances shortens the bee’s lifespan considerably. These foragers will fly back and forth between the hive and flowers until they literally wear themselves out and die. The closer the nectar source, the more nectar they can collect before their lifespan ends.

The forager bees find flowers and suck up the nectar through their tube-like tongues. They do not eat the pollen, only the nectar. Pollen sticks to their bodies and is distributed flower to flower as they collect the nectar. So, pollination is actually a bi-product of nectar gathering.

The nectar is a sugar-water that contains other substances particular to the flower it’s from; these substances give the honey its particular taste, which is why tupelo honey tastes differently than clover honey. The nectar is stored in a special sac called the honey stomach (which is separate from the bee’s regular stomach), and is mixed with enzymes that begin to break down the complex sugars of the nectar into simple sugars.

The forager bee will visit anywhere from 100 to 1500 flowers to collect nectar until its honey stomach is full. A bee’s honey stomach can hold almost 70 mg of nectar weighing almost as much as the bee itself!

Bee on clover

Bee on clover

THE HIVE BEES:

When the forager’s honey stomach is full, she flies back to the hive. Near the entrance to the hive, she will regurgitate the nectar into mouths of hive bees, who will add more enzymes to the nectar to further break it down. This break down of the nectar increases its digestibility for the bees and gives honey its antibacterial properties.

THE HONEYCOMB:

Once the nectar is sufficiently broken down, it is spread into the honeycomb. Nectar is about 80% water, but honey is about 18% water. The honeycomb structure facilitates the evaporation of most of the water in the nectar. The bees will aid in the evaporation process by fanning their wings.

Once the honey is the correct consistency, the honeycomb cell is plugged with beeswax to be stored until needed.

HONEY MAKING FACTS:

  • One forager bee will collect enough nectar to make 1/12 teaspoon of honey in its lifetime!
  • A colony of bees will eat 120-200 pounds of honey each year. (That’s just how much they eat, not how much they make.)
  • It takes 556 forager bees, visiting two million flowers, to make one pound of honey.

When I sat down last night and ate a piece of my honey cake, I had no idea that over 500 bees and two million flowers were responsible for the honey in that recipe. Knowing this makes my Rosh Hashana honey cake an even more special symbol of a sweet new year!

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