How Bees Turn Flower Nectar Into Honey

Honey Bees
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The sweet, viscous honey we take for granted as a sweetener or cooking ingredient is the product of industrious honeybees working as a highly organized colony, collecting flower nectar and converting it into a high-sugar food store. The production of honey by bees involves several chemical processes, including digestion, regurgitation, enzyme activity, and evaporation.

Bees create honey as a highly efficient food source to sustain themselves year-round, including the dormant months of winter—human beings are just along for the ride. In the commercial honey-gathering industry, the excess honey in the hive is what is harvested for packaging and sale, with enough honey left in the hive to sustain the bee population until it becomes active again the following spring. 

The Honeybee Colony

A honeybee colony generally consists of one queen bee—the only fertile female; a few thousand drone bees, which are fertile males; and tens of thousands of worker bees, which are sterile females. In the production of honey, these worker bees take on specialized roles as foragers and house bees.

Gathering and Processing Flower Nectar

The actual process of transforming the flower nectar into honey requires teamwork. First, older forager worker bees fly out from the hive in search of nectar-rich flowers. Using its straw-like proboscis, a forager bee drinks the liquid nectar from a flower and stores it in a special organ called the honey stomach. The bee continues to forage until its honey stomach is full, visiting 50 to 100 flowers per trip from the hive.

At the moment the nectars reach the honey stomach, enzymes begin to break down the complex sugars of the nectar into simpler sugars that are less prone to crystallization. This process is called inversion.

Handing Off the Nectar

With a full belly, the forager bee heads back to the hive and regurgitates the already modified nectar directly to a younger house bee. The house bee ingests the sugary offering from the forager bee, and its own enzymes further break down the sugars. Within the hive, house bees pass the nectar from individual to individual until the water content is reduced to about 20 percent. At this point, the last house bee regurgitates the fully inverted nectar into a cell of the honeycomb. 

Next, the hive bees beat their wings furiously, fanning the nectar to evaporate its remaining water content; evaporation is also helped by the temperature inside a hive being a constant 93 to 95 F. As the water evaporates, the sugars thicken into a substance recognizable as honey.

When an individual cell is full of honey, the house bee caps the beeswax cell, sealing the honey into the honeycomb for later consumption. The beeswax is produced by glands on the bee's abdomen.

Collecting Pollen

While most foraging bees are dedicated to collecting nectar for the production of honey, about 15 to 30 percent of the foragers are collecting pollen on their flights out from the hive. The pollen is used to make beebread, the bees' main source of dietary protein. The pollen also provides bees with fats, vitamins, and minerals. To keep pollen from spoiling, the bees add enzymes and acids to it from salivary gland secretions.

How Much Honey Is Produced?

A single worker bee lives only a few weeks and in that time produces only about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey. But working cooperatively, a hive's thousands of worker bees can produce more than 200 pounds of honey for the colony within a year. Of this amount, a beekeeper can harvest 30 to 60 pounds of honey without compromising the colony's ability to survive the winter

The Food Value of Honey

A tablespoon of honey contains 60 calories, 16 grams of sugar, and 17 grams of carbs. For humans, it's a "less bad" sweetener than refined sugar, because honey contains antioxidants and enzymes. Honey can vary in color, flavor, and antioxidant level, depending on where it is produced, because it can be made from so many different trees and flowers. For example, eucalyptus honey may seem to have a hint of menthol flavor. Honey made from nectar from fruit bushes may have more fruity undertones than honey made from nectars of flowering plants.

Honey produced and sold locally is often much more unique in taste than honey manufactured on a huge scale and appearing on grocery store shelves, because these widely distributed products are highly refined and pasteurized, and they may be blends of honey from many different regions. 

Honey can be purchased in several different forms. It is available as a traditional viscous liquid in glass or plastic bottles, or it can be purchased as slabs of honeycomb with honey still packed in the cells. You can also buy honey in granulated form or whipped or creamed to make it easier to spread. 

Bee Species

All honey consumed by people is produced by only seven different species of honeybees. Other types of bees, and a few other insects, also make honey, but these types are not used for commercial production and human consumption. Bumblebees, for example, make a similar honey-like substance to store their nectar, but it's not the sweet delicacy that honeybees make. Neither is it made in the same quantity because in a bumblebee colony, only the queen hibernates for the winter.

About Nectar 

Honey is not possible at all without nectar from flowering plants. Nectar is a sweet, liquidy substance produced by glands within plant flowers. Nectar is an evolutionary adaptation that attracts insects to the flowers by offering them nutrition. In return, the insects help fertilize the flowers by transmitting pollen particles clinging to their bodies from flower to flower during their foraging activities. In this synergetic relationship, both parties benefit: Bees and other insects gain food while simultaneously transmitting the pollen necessary to fertilization and seed production in the flowering plants.

In its natural state, nectar contains about 80 percent water, along with complex sugars. Left unattended, nectar eventually ferments and is useless as a food source for bees. It cannot be stored for any length of time by the insects. But by transforming the nectar into honey, the bees create an efficient and usable carbohydrate that is only 14 to 18 percent water and one that can be stored almost indefinitely without fermenting or spoiling. Pound for pound, honey provides bees with a much more concentrated energy source that can sustain them through cold winter months.