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How do Honeybees Make Honey

Updated on December 19, 2017
SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile image

I have been a college teacher and a journalist. As a freelance content writer, I research the subject to write without prejudice and malice.

A worker black bee eating honey
A worker black bee eating honey | Source

The Types of Bees in a Hive

The honey bees work hard to make honey.

A single worker bee can only produce about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey during its average lifespan of 35 days.

But there is enough honey for both the human consumption and feeding the colony in winter. There are about 60,000 bees in a beehive which consume nearly 200 pounds of honey in a year.

The bees are mute and deaf to the most of the sounds. So they communicate through a chemical called pheromone or through the vibration of the wings.

Three types of bees live in a hive.

Queen Bee

Generally, there is only one queen in a hive, and it is the largest bee in the hive. The queen bee takes 16 days to develop from an egg. Her life span is up to six years, but she usually lives for two years in a hive.

She produces pheromone or the queen substance, which is a special glandular secretion. This substance is used to stimulates the workers to maintain the hive and to hold the colony together. The queen daily eats up to 80 times her weight. She is fed by worker bees.

The queen mates only once in life.But she does so in the air, at the height of about 20 meters. She mates with 6 to 8 drones for 2 to 7 days at a stretch. The eggs she lays are equal to her own weight. She lay over 600,000 eggs in summer, that is about 1,500 to 2,400 eggs per day.

Drone Bee

There are from 2 to 300 drones in a hive. They are the male bees without sting and could be identified by very large eyes. The drone bee takes 24 days to become an adult from an egg. They only live to mate with the queen, but they die when they mate. They also die when they fail to mate by the beginning of winter because then the worker bees throw them out of the hive.

Worker Bee

According to the season, there are about 10,000 to 100,000 workers bees in a hive. They take 21 days to become an adult from an egg. Their weight is about half than that of the queen and they are the smallest in size. They attend the queen by keeping her warm in winter and perform many duties. They take care of the eggs and the larvae by feeding them from the royal jelly. They collect nectar and pollen, clean and guard the hive, secrete the wax and build honeycombs, and maintain the temperature of the hive by fanning their wings.

In winter their life span is 4 to 5 months. But in late spring or summer, they live for 6 weeks only. They develop a unique wax-producing gland inside their abdomen when the become ten days old.

To show the direction and distance of nectar and pollen sources, they alert other bees by performing a waggle dance. When the source is within the range of 100 meters of the hive, they dance is in a circular shape, and the dance takes the shape of 8, for further distances.

With their wings beating at 11,400 times per minute, and flight speeds up to 15 miles per hour, they leave the hive to collect the nectar. But they do not live longer and die after about 5 weeks due to exhaustion caused by overwork. As "busy as a bee” is aptly used for them.

The older workers perform foraging and collect nectar and pollen. The younger ones are the processor or house bees and turn the nectar it into honey.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Honey seeker depicted on 8000 year old cave painting. At Araña Caves in Spain.Every hive has three kinds of bees- the queen, the drones, and the labourers
Honey seeker depicted on 8000 year old cave painting. At Araña Caves in Spain.
Honey seeker depicted on 8000 year old cave painting. At Araña Caves in Spain. | Source
Every hive has three kinds of bees- the queen, the drones, and the labourers
Every hive has three kinds of bees- the queen, the drones, and the labourers | Source

Honeybee Collecting honey

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Honey bee on calyx of goldenrodAsiatic honeybeeBeatrice the honey bee on a Spanish needle blossomHoney bee collecting honey
Honey bee on calyx of goldenrod
Honey bee on calyx of goldenrod | Source
Asiatic honeybee
Asiatic honeybee | Source
Beatrice the honey bee on a Spanish needle blossom
Beatrice the honey bee on a Spanish needle blossom | Source
Honey bee collecting honey
Honey bee collecting honey | Source

The Honeybees

Honeybees make honey from the nectar. The nectar is a clear liquid in the blossom.It consists of sucrose mixed with water and other beneficial substances, that is some complex sugars and 80% water. But there is less than 18.6% water in honey.

The nectar is collected from the flowers. It is made by the plants to attract the insects like wasps, butterflies, and bees, so that the pollen grains may be transferred from one flower to another for pollination. When these insects collect the nectar, the pollen on their body gets rubbed off on the flower and helps in pollination. The bees are the main pollinators in nature.

The bees use their tongue called proboscis, to suck the nectar from the flowers. The long, tubelike tongue of the bee is similar to the straw. They collect forage by visiting hundreds of flowers. They store the nectar in their stomachs.

The bees have two stomachs, the first is the regular stomach, and the second is the honey stomach in which they store the nectar. A valve separates this stomach from the digestive stomach. The bee opens the valve when hungry and consumes the nectar for her own energy needs.

The honey stomach or the nectar backpack can hold about 70 mg of nectar, the weight of which is almost equal to the weight of a bee. To fill the honey stomachs with the nectar, the honeybee has to go from 100 to about 1500 flowers. The honeybees get nectar and pollen from the flowers.

The enzymes present in the honey stomach, break down the complex sugars called sucrose or disaccharide, of nectar into simpler sugars called monosaccharides, that is into glucose or blood sugar and fructose or fruit sugar. This modified nectar is less prone to crystallization, and the process is known as inversion.

The Worker or Forager Bees

The worker or the forager bees collect nectar or a sugary juice that is present in the head or center of flowers. Usually, they are 20 days old when they start collecting the nectar by traveling to hundreds of plants and thousands of flowers. They drink the nectar, store it in their crop or honey stomach, carry it to the hive, unload it and return back to collect more nectar.

In the peak season, they work to death. By the end of their days, they become useless because their wings get frayed and the colony rejects them.

They mix the collected nectar with enzymes secreted from the hypopharyngeal gland situated in their body. They then return to the hive and transfer this modified sugary substance to the house bees.

Two types of worker bees return to the hive, the ones laden with nectar and the others returning with pollen. Because they never do both the jobs in a single trip.

The pollen laden bees have hair like baskets on their hind legs, within which they carry the pollen grains. The pollen carrier bees are recognizable by the orange or yellow colored pollen in their baskets.

The pollen is then mixed with honey and becomes a bee-bread. It is used as a food source for next cycle of broods.

The image shows the proboscis of honeybee. A proboscis is a long, straw like  hairy tongue  used to absorb nutrients, honey, nectar, and water.
The image shows the proboscis of honeybee. A proboscis is a long, straw like hairy tongue used to absorb nutrients, honey, nectar, and water. | Source

Contents in Honey

Water
17%
Glucose
38%
Fructose
31%
Sucrose
1%
Organic acids/other substances
4%
Other sugars
9%

Processor or House Bees

About 6 to 18 days old house bees process the honey in the hive. At or near the entrance of the hive they greet the worker bees. A mouth to mouth transfer of nectar occurs between them through the extended tongue.

The nectar is largely composed of sucrose, water, and other substances and if left in its natural state, it would ferment.

Then house bees chew the nectar for about half an hour and mix the enzyme called invertase to again break the complex sugars. This makes the nectarless prone to bacterial attack and more digestible to bees.

They then regurgitate the inverted nectar and spread it within the hexagonal honeycomb cells.But it takes many loads of nectar to fill the cell. The small droplets of processed honey containing 80% water, gets deposited on the upper side of a cell wall and await its conversion into honey.

The conversion or ripening process of the nectar, occurs due to evaporation caused by the warm temperature of the hive, which remains constant between 32.5°C to 35°C. Further evaporation is caused by the movement of air across the honeycombs.

For faster drying of nectar the worker bees use the wings to fan the hive. They fan their wings in a coordinated effort to control the movement of air around the honeycomb. This forced evaporation is the reason behind the buzzing sound which comes from a hive even at night, when there is no flying. This reduces the moisture content up to 18% and gives high osmotic pressure and protection to honey against microbes. Thus a thick and viscous honey is formed. Then the hive bee seal the cell with airtight wax plug, and honey is preserved for future use. A colony of bees can eat up to 200 pounds of honey in a year.

If the seal is not airtight, the honey will absorb moisture from the air and the bacteria or fungus will grow in it. That is why it is necessary to keep the honey in airtight containers.

The Honey

The honey thus produced is stored in the beehive, to eaten during the winter. The excess store is removed by the beekeeper, after leaving sufficient honey for the bees.

The wax caps are cut off for the extraction of honey. Then the honey is placed in a centrifuge machine and honey is collected. The filtered honey is separated and stored in airtight containers.

Different processes are required for different forms of honey. The creamed honey is formed by soft beating while clear honey needs a gentle heating. The cut comb honey has several health benefits as it contains the mixture of wax and honey. It is formed when the sealed honeycombs are directly cut from the frame for extraction.

The type of plant or flower which is the source of nectar decides the color and type of honey. It is not certain whether the honey is organic or not.Because the bees go up to 3-4 miles to collect the nectar.

Filtering of honey
Filtering of honey | Source

Beehive

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Making the traditional beehives called skeps.The skeps on a tree.
Making the traditional beehives called skeps.
Making the traditional beehives called skeps. | Source
The skeps on a tree.
The skeps on a tree. | Source

The Beehive

The worker or scout bees decide the appropriate place for the hives and build the hives to store honey for winter. The six-sided hexagonal tubes of the hive require less wax and can hold more honey.

The broods also get developed in some hives which are dark in color, but other honey bee hives are of light color. The hives are also made in crevices of the rocks or in hollow tree trunks by the wild honey bees.

Like domestic bees, the wild ones construct the hives.They chew the wax to make it soft. Thereafter the large quantity of wax is bonded into the honeycomb cells. The bees huddle together and control the texture of the wax by maintaining the temperature of the hive.

Honeycomb

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The honey combBitruncated cubic honeycombHoneycomb under construction
The honey comb
The honey comb | Source
Bitruncated cubic honeycomb
Bitruncated cubic honeycomb | Source
Honeycomb under construction
Honeycomb under construction | Source

Honey Comb

The worker bee uses the glands to convert the honey sugar into wax. This wax oozes out through the small pores of the bee and tiny wax flakes are formed on the abdomen.

They chew these flakes till they become soft and moldable. Then the chewed wax is used to make the honeycomb. The larva and the brood live in hexagonal cells of the honeycomb. The honey, nectar, and pollen are also stored in the honeycomb. While extracting honey the honeycomb is left intact.

Caution

Don't put honey in microwave, as over-heating gives it an unpleasant taste.

The honey should not be heated over 60°C, to maintain its quality.

Don't heat the crystallized honey, rather put it in the hot, not in the boiling water bath.

Always plant native flowers in the garden which are rich in nectar and devoid of dangerous pesticides.

The honey may contain botulinum spores, so it should not be given to the children below one year. These spores fail to germinate inside the honey due to very low moisture. After consumption the water becomes available, and the immune systems of infants are weak.

Some Facts About Honey

  • Honey always remains fresh and never gets rotten or becomes rancid. The pure organic honey remains edible for more than 3000 years.
  • It removes a cough and phlegm from the chest. It is very helpful in asthma too. It helps in tuberculosis.
  • It keeps the mind fresh and healthy. It is beneficial for the people who do mental work.

© 2013 Sanjay Sharma

Comments

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    • SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile imageAUTHOR

      Sanjay Sharma 

      4 years ago from Mandi (HP) India

      Thanks CatherineGiordano for the visit and the compliment.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 

      4 years ago from Orlando Florida

      A very complete article about bees and honey. Well done!

      Voted up.

    • SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile imageAUTHOR

      Sanjay Sharma 

      4 years ago from Mandi (HP) India

      Thanks Michael Kismet for the visit and the comment. The honeybees are dying also due to radiations emanating from the mobile phones and their signal towers.

    • Michael Kismet profile image

      Michael Kismet 

      4 years ago from Northern California

      A very informative post Sanjay, honeybees are quite an important part of our Eco-system. Lately though, honeybees are dying by the hundreds of millions from a combination of climate change, pesticides, and bee related illness and scientists are still trying to get their heads around it.

      If we do lose honeybees, we will lose many crops that only honeybees can pollinate. Let's hope they make a comeback!

      M

    • SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile imageAUTHOR

      Sanjay Sharma 

      5 years ago from Mandi (HP) India

      Thanks , My cook book.

    • My Cook Book profile image

      Dil Vil 

      5 years ago from India

      Cool and interesting hub. Well written friend! I had a good read and i am VOTING it UP.... Great Work!

    • SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile imageAUTHOR

      Sanjay Sharma 

      5 years ago from Mandi (HP) India

      Thanks for the feedback, Mr.Paul Edmondson.

    • Paul Edmondson profile image

      Paul Edmondson 

      5 years ago from Burlingame, CA

      As an amateur beekeeper, this hub is very interesting to me....Lots of good info in this hub, but there is one issue with grammar. There aren't any spaces after each sentence. Fix that up and it will read much better. Nice job on all the info.

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