How Do Bees Produce Honey?
Until sugar was available back in the sixteenth century, honey was the main source of sweetener. Sicily and ancient Greece were the largest centers for the production of honey. Humans and animals such as bears or badgers have, throughout history, collected honey from the winter supplies of bees, as a result of a shared love for sweets. But what does honey represent for the bee?
Honey is used by the honeybees to get them through the cold months, or through the times when food resources are scarce. The honey is rich in energy and its existence in the colony helps the bees grow and survive through their less productive periods. Worker bees use the nectar that they collect from flowers to produce the honey that keeps all of the colony members alive, but how do bees actually produce the honey?
As with all of activities performed by a bee colony, the production of honey is the result of incredible teamwork. The rummaging and collection of nectar from the flowers is performed by the older worker bees, while the rest of the task is done by the younger bees.
Nectar is being used by flowers to attract insects such as bees, butterflies, or wasps. When an insect gathers nectar from a flower, it also transfers the pollen grains, from one flower to the next, and pollinates it. Nectar contains, aside from complex sugars and other beneficial substances, 80% water and, left on the flowers, it will end up fermenting. The bees need to turn this nectar into honey, in order to benefit from its properties, and make use of all the sugar. Once the honey is made by the bees, it will only contain about 15% to 18% water, and thus, represents a far better source of energy than the nectar itself.
The first step of the honey production process is performed by the worker bees that fly out of the colony, searching for flowers that are rich in nectar. The bees collect the nectar using their tube-shaped tongue, and store it in their stomach, or crop. While in the crop of the honey bee, the nectar will mix itself with enzymes, and become more suitable for storage. The process of breaking down the complex sugar is called inversion, and makes the sugar less likely to crystallize. The worker bees fly from flower to flower, and end up visiting hundreds before coming back to the hive, until their stomach is full with nectar.
Once they have gathered all the nectar their stomach can carry, the worker bees return to the hive and regurgitate the already converted nectar. The nectar is then ingested by the hive bee, which helps to further break down the sugars. Once deposited in the honeycomb, the nectar is still in a liquid form, so the honeybees proceed to the fanning of the honeycomb, in order to get all of the extra water out of the liquid that will soon be honey. After the water is eliminated, and the sugar has thickened into honey, the bees close the honeycomb with a liquid secreted from their stomachs, a liquid that will soon harden. This is what we call beeswax. Once the honey is away from water and air, it can be stored for indefinite periods, becoming a perfect source of food for all the honeybees of the colony, especially for the duration of the winter months.
A single bee can produce only 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey throughout its lifetime, which is why the production of honey is a teamwork effort. Working together, thousands of worker bees produce over 200 pounds of honey for their colony, for the duration of one year.