Why do Bees make honey?

Honey is the energy source for bees and is used both for day to day tasks in the hive and for foraging.  Extra honey is stored in the hive to provide a food supply to sustain the colony during periods where no external food source is available, such as in the winter months in temperate climates.

How Bees make honey

There’s a lot more to honey than just dehydrated nectar!

Honey is a highly concentrated source of energy for the bees that provides efficiently stored energy for flight and other daily activities, and can be stored for long periods of time without spoiling.  Many of the compounds found in ripened/mature honey, such as oligosaccharides, are not found in the original nectar source.  There are a number of transformative processes occurring as the honey is ripened by the bees.

Step 1

Bees Collect Nectar

How Bees make honey – The Basics

Mature honeybees collect nectar from plant blossoms. Nectar is a sugar solution that the plant produces as a “reward” for the honeybee to visit the blossom.

. . . A little more detail

Bees use their long tongue (proboscis) to suck nectar out of the flower to fill up their “honey sac” for the flight back to the hive. The sugar concentration of nectar varies from 5 to 80% with a somewhat typical concentration being about 20% (ie. 80% water content). About 95% of the dry substance are sugars, the rest are amino acids, minerals, and small amounts of organic acids, vitamins and aroma compounds.

Step 2

Bees Carry Nectar back to Hive

How Bees make honey – The Basics

The honeybees visit many flowers each trip to fill their honey sac and then carry a full load of nectar back to the hive for “house” bees to take the nectar for processing into honey.

. . . A little more detail

During the flight back to the hive, the honeybee adds enzymes from their hypopharengeal glands to the nectar in their honey sac. The primary enzymes added are invertase, diatase, and glucose oxidase.

Step 3

House Bees Take over the Honey Ripening Task

How Bees make honey – The Basics

Upon returning to the hive, the forager bee passes the nectar in her honey sac to one or more house worker bees who place the nectar into uncapped honeycomb cells.

. . . A little more detail

Passing the nectar between worker bees helps to dehydrate the nectar down to 30-40% water content before being placed into the honeycomb. In addition to the enzymes added, the bees also add a considerable microbial population to the nectar, mainly Lactobacillus and Gluconobactor, to assist in the honey ripening process.

Step 4

Honey Ripens in the Honeycomb

How Bees make honey – The Basics

Inside of the honey, the enzyme invertase is responsible for transforming most of the sucrose from the nectar into two simple sugars, glucose and fructose, which are the main components of honey. The bees also set up air currents inside the hive to draw off moisture from the honey bringing the moisture content down to a level where the honey can be stored for long periods of time without spoiling.

. . . A little more detail

During the ripening process, the enzyme glucose oxidase, oxidates glucose to gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide, the latter acting as an antibacterial agent to prevent spoilage. There are many chemical reactions occurring during the ripening process of honey. The primary microorganisms associated with ripening honey are also found in the honeybee, the numbers of these organisms are very high when nectar is first placed in the honeycomb but disappear once the honey has fully ripened.

Step 5

Honeycomb is sealed with a wax capping

How Bees make honey – The Basics

Once the honey has fully ripened with the moisture content around 18%, the bees will seal the honeycomb with a wax capping. The honey may now be stored for months or years and used as required when no external food sources are available.

. . . A little more detail

Since honey is hygroscopic, it pulls moisture from the air, if left uncapped the moisture content could rise to a point where the yeasts in the honey could cause fermentation.