How Do Bees Make Honey And Other Bee Facts

Bees dry out the nectar to create honey (1)

When produced locally and eaten regularly, it can help reduce some types of allergies. It is sweet and has been called “golden nectar,” but it is made by an insect.

How Do Bees Make Honey? Bees make honey bee collecting pollen from millions of flowers. The nectar combines with enzymes and forms very runny honey. After a large coordinated work by the worker bees, the honey is thickened and saved for future use.

Sound simple?

Honey actually takes a large coordinated effort from millions of bees working together. On average it takes 40,000 bees 3 weeks to make 2 ¼ cups of honey. The average beehive has about 30,000 bees at any given time. The honey that a single hive will make in a week will take the work of millions of bees because bees only live a few weeks.

bees capping and making honey

It has been said that no other animal coordinates with the efficiency of the honeybee. Making honey is actually a pretty complex process. Let’s take a look!

Worker Bees Collect Pollen

The first step of making honey starts when the worker bees leave the hive in search of pollen. Pollen is the important food source of bees and they use it for several purposes.

Bees have a special, long tongue that is suited just for sipping up nectar from flowers. When bees eat the pollen, it goes into the “honey stomach.”

Credit: NPR

Did you know?

Bees have two stomachs! One stomach is for the bee’s own food and the other is used to make honey. The bee has a special valve in the honey stomach. If she gets hungry, she can release some of the pollen into her stomach for food.

That’s because a been needs a lot of energy to fly. Bees fly fast and carry a heavy load. Bees can fly as far as seven miles from the hive! Most bees stay within 2-3 miles though because they can carry more pollen faster to the hive.

And,

Bees have enough space in their honey stomach to carry so much pollen that it will weigh as much as the bee itself! That’s more than any airplane can do!

It takes a bee nearly 1,000 flowers before the bee can fill its honey stomach! The type of pollen a bee gathers will determine the flavor, smell, and sweetness of the honey.

Bee gathering pollen from a flower to make honey
Credit: stephenshellard

Usually, lighter honey is less sweet than darker honey. It can also have a slight smell or flavor that is based on the type of flowers used for the honey. Honey made from lavender will smell or taste a little like lavender.

Honey-Making Requires Special Enzymes

Once the pollen is swallowed by the bee, special enzymes start turning it into bee nectar. This nectar serves as food for the bee. The transformation of pollen and nectar is something that isn’t replicated anywhere else in the animal world.

Before the nectar can be turned into honey, it needs a lot of enzymes. Although the process starts with the field worker bee, it doesn’t stop with her.

Once her bee belly is full, she heads back to the hive, where there are thousands of more bees waiting for her to return.

She can then communicate with the other worker bees where she found the food so they can go out and get more pollen.

The first foraging bee will then spit the pollen from her honey belly into the mouth of another bee. That bee’s enzymes will mix with the pollen and she will spit it into another bee’s mouth. This happens over and over again with hundreds of bees.

Bees make honey by spitting it to other bees mouths
Credit: NPR

All of these enzymes from thousands of bees combine and speed the process of turning the pollen into nectar.

The nectar is used for bee food and is used to make beehives and beeswax. Without these enzymes, the pollen would never turn into something else suitable for humans.

 

Honey Must Be Dried Out

When the pollen has been mixed enough to turn into nectar, it is distributed into a hive cell. At that point, it is about 70% water. That’s much too liquid for honey.

Once again the hive works together to transform the nectar into honey. Younger worker bees use their wings to fan the nectar. This does two purposes.

First, it dries out the honey.

Second, it keeps the hive warm and humid.

Once the nectar has evaporated to rich thick honey, the hive cell is capped and sealed off. While nectar has about 70% water, honey only has about 20% water. Because honey is highly acidic and has healthy enzymes, bacteria can’t flourish.

That means that it can stay good for centuries!  

Check this out!

Honey has been found in Egyptian tombs still good!

Bees beat their wings to dry out the nectar into honey
Credit: NPR

Not All Honeybees Make The Honey

Did you know that honey bees have a complex society? Not all the bees help to make honey! There are several “classes” of bees in a hive and each bee has a specific job. Each beehive has at least three classes of bees: the queen bee, the worker bees, and male bees.

  • Queen Bee
  • Worker bees
  • Male bees or Drone bees

What Does A Queen Bee Do?

The queen bee runs the hive. In fact, if a queen bee is aggressive, then the entire hive will be aggressive. If the queen bee is mellow, then the hive will be mellow and less likely to attack unless they are threatened.

In some places, where bees have cross-bred with African bees, beekeepers replace the queen bee with a more mellow queen to calm the hive down. This can even be required by law in some areas!

The queen bee has one role: to reproduce and lay millions of eggs. She also eats, a lot. The queen bee is bigger than the worker bees. When she is still a young bee, only seven days old, she will fly out several times to mate with male bees from other hives. She will mate with as many as 40 male bees in a single outing.  

The queen bee flies in a specific pattern, or dance, to let the males know that she is ready to mate. When she is done, she comes back to the hive. The worker bees then start paying attention to her.

They care for her, clean up the leftover male parts of her, and feed her. The bees caring for the queen are worker bees and are called attendants.

After a few days, the sperm has made its way down the oviduct and into a chamber called the spermatheca. She is ready to start laying eggs!  

A queen bee will lay thousands of eggs each day. She can actually choose the gender of the eggs that she lays.

The queen will lay unfertilized male eggs in a larger cell than the smaller fertilized female eggs. The vast majority of her eggs will be female eggs. There are about 100 female eggs laid for every 1 male egg.

That’s because the female bees run the economy of the hive! The

Plus,

The queen bee lives and lays eggs for as long as five years! The rest of the bees only live 6-7 weeks at the most!

bee larvae in honeycomb

What Does A Drone (Male) Bee Do?

Male bees job is to mate with a queen. That’s their only job. They don’t contribute to food collection, raising the young bees, or protecting the hive.

A male bee is called a drone. Male bees leave the hive each day in search of a queen bee to mate with.

Male bees congregate together in a drone congregation area. These areas are used year after year. The males choose them because they are more optimal places for mating.

Even though the queen bee hasn’t been there before, she is able to find the place where the male bees have congregate together for mating.

But if you think that sounds fun, consider this:

Once a male bee has mated a single time, he dies. The very act of mating kills the male bee because part of him stays in the queen bee. He falls to the ground with his innards falling out and dies.

Dramatic huh?

Bees making honey

What Are Worker Bees’ Job?

Worker bees have many roles in a beehive.  The specific roles of the worker, or female bees vary, usually based on their age. Worker bees can have three main jobs: to feed and raise the baby bees, to protect the hive, and to collect pollen and make food.

  1. Feed and raise the baby bees
  2. Protect the hive
  3. Collect pollen

Feed and raise baby bees: As mentioned earlier the queen bee chooses whether the eggs will be male or female bees. She does this by choosing whether or not to release the sperm when she drops the eggs.

Did you know?

Female bees have two parents, but male bees only have one parent- the queen!

Male eggs are laid in a larger cell and female eggs are laid in a small cell.  

Baby bees make up the brood. The brood has eggs, larvae, and pupae. When the eggs hatch, larvae emerge. The larvae spin a cocoon and are known as pupae. When the pupae emerge from the cocoon, they are an adult bee.

House bees are the younger female bees that stay inside the hive. These worker bees have several assignments, that depend on how old they are.

The newly hatched adult bees clean the hive cells and keep the brood warm. These ladies are only 1-3 days old. After they get a little older, they are in charge of feeding the larvae honey and pollen.

Did you know?

The food that a baby girl bee eats will determine if she will become a worker bee or a queen bee! Queens are fed “royal jelly”, which is a highly nutritious food that fattens up the future queen.

The future worker bees get a little royal jelly but are then fed “bee bread”, which is a mixture of pollen and honey. This mixture also has a chemical in it that makes the worker bees infertile.

Between 7 and 12 days old, some of the worker bees will become “Queen attendants.” They will care for the needs of the queen bee.

Bee bread is fed to worker bees
Credit: NPR

Make Wax and Build the Hive: When a worker bee is 12 -17 days old, she is in charge of making and building the honeycomb. She has to tend to the honey and make wax. These worker bees help to dry the nectar into honey.

Protect the Hive: When bees are just under 2 weeks old, they become guard bees. They guard the beehive against intruders and help to keep the hive safe. These bees sound the alarm if it looks like danger is near.

Field Bees Forage for Pollen: Older bees become foragers. They go out and find pollen. When they find flowers and return, they tell the other bees where to go. A worker bee will make ¼ tsp of honey in her entire life.  

  • 1-3 days: warm the brood, clean hive sells
  • 4-11 days: take care of the larvae
  • 7-12 days: care for the queen
  • 12-17 days: build the honeycomb, make wax, care for the honey
  • 18-21 days: guard and ventilate the hive
  • 22+ days: forage for pollen

Bees guard a beehive

How Do Bees Make Wax?

Bees need honey to make wax. When the worker bee is about 10 days old, she grows special wax glands in her abdomen. They grow eight wax glands on them.

A bee eat honey. Then other special enzymes turn the sugars in the honey into a wax. The bee will excrete little wax flakes out on their stomachs.

Bees can get the wax off two different ways. First, a bee can use the furry part of her hind legs to scrape the wax flakes off. She transfers the wax to her front legs.

Another method is to have another worker bee in the colony to scrape the wax off of her.

Once the wax has been scraped off, the worker bees chew the wax. After it has been chewed enough, the wax becomes pliable.

Then, bees use their mouths to feel the thickness of the existing honeycomb. That’s how they know if more wax needs to be added or not.

Bees need wax to store the honey and keep the hive safe.

A bee has to eat about two tablespoons of honey to make one ounce of wax. Put another way, bees must consume 6-8 pounds of honey to make 1 pound of wax!

At the beginning, the wax is a bright yellow color from the flower pollen. After a time, however, the wax turns into a deeper golden color. In areas where the brood of baby bees are being raised, the wax turns even darker from the food and wast of the baby bees.

Did you know?

Honey bees are very clean. Even in the winter, they will excrete their waste in a part of the hive away from the honey.

Bees make wax from honey

How Do Bees Make Honeycomb?

Bees make honeycomb by turning honey into the wax. The wax is “sweated” out through special wax glands on their stomachs. After chewing the wax into soft and malleable pieces, bees pat it down into the honeycomb. Honeycomb is made in the most ideal shape, a hexagon.

Hexagons are perfect for bees because it provides the greatest storage space for honey and the greatest stability. This keeps the honeycomb from collapsing from the weight of the honey. It also makes it possible for bees to use less wax to store the honey.

Since bees have to turn honey into wax, using less wax means a lot less work for the bees.

Why Do Bees Make Honey?

The only reason bees make honey is to provide food for the hive. This includes the queen bee, who doesn’t go out and forage for pollen. It also includes the brood, which includes the larvae, pupa, and newly hatched adult bees.

Honey provides food for the hive during times of cold or drought. During the winter and fall, bees aren’t able to forage for pollen. It keeps the hive from starving to death in the winter.

Honey is an ideal food for bees because it has lots of nutrients. Plus, the high levels of fructose provide very condensed energy in a small amount of food. Imagine if you had to store 100% of your food for the winter and then lock yourself up in the house!

Bees make nectar and then honey

Do Bees Make Honey In The Winter?

Bees can’t make honey in the winter. They also have a difficult time making honey in the fall. Bees need pollen to make honey and many of the late-summer flowers stop blooming as the cooler weather sets in.

What Do Bees Do In The Winter?

This cooler weather signals to the bees that they should start preparing the hive for winter.

Bees use a sticky glue-like substance to seal the hive against drafts and chill. They will seal the opening of the beehive in preparation for the winter chill.

A beehive must maintain a temperature of about 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This can be a difficult task when the weather turns very cold. Bees thrive in temperatures as cold as negative zero, but how? Bees are cold-blooded, which means that they don’t have a way to stay warm in the winter.

First, the hive kicks out any drones (male bees) still alive. They don’t serve any purpose to the hive and will deplete the food supply.

Then, the bees seal off their hive as much as possible. They then gather in a cluster during the winter months. The queen bee stays in the center of the cluster and the tens of thousands of worker bees gather around her.

The inside worker bees rotate to the outside of the cluster. This helps to keep the bees warm so the bees in the outside of the cluster don’t get too cold. It also gives all the bees a chance to be on the outside and close to the honey to eat.

Amazingly, the bees are able to keep the hive warm during the winter.

Beehive in a cone shape

When does honey go bad?

Honey stays good for thousands of years. The oldest honey ever found is 5,500 years old! It was found in an Egyptian tomb. The amazing part? The honey was still good. The reason that honey doesn’t go bad is for two reasons.

First, honey has a high ph level. Its’s academy is about 4.5. That makes it very unfriendly toward bacteria. The second reason is because honey has such a low water content. Bacteria grow in environments with higher levels of water. When bacteria encounter honey, the high acid starts to kill it, and the low water content starts to suck the water out of the bacteria so it dies.

That’s because water moves from an area of high concentration to an area of lower concentration. It’s the same reason people can’t drink salt water without dehydrating.

How Do Bees Communicate?

Bees communicate through two types of dance. The waggle dance and the round dance tell the other worker bees where the food sources are. They also relay how far away the pollen is and how great of a food supply it is. In this manner worker bees inside the hive can see where to find the flowers.

Karl Von Frisch won the Nobel Prize in 1973 for deciphering the language of bees. He discovered that the circle dance and the waggle dance varies based on the information the bees are communicating.

The round dance tell the other bees that food is very close to the hive. It is used when a food source is within about 270 feet, or 80 meters, of the hive. It doesn’t tell the bees where to find the flowers. It basically says, “There is food close by, go find it.”  

The waggle dance is even more amazing. It tells the other bees how far to the food source, what direction, and how plentiful the food is. The waggle dance is in a circle 8. If the food source is very good, then the bee wiggles frantically as she dances. She may also release pheromones to let them know the food is better.

Bee waggle dance tells where the food is
Credit NPR

The greater her bottom waggles, the more exciting the food.

When the food is closer, she makes the circle 8 a smaller circle. When it’s farther away, she makes it a longer circle 8. Bees measure distance by the amount of energy it takes to get to the food. That means that if the worker bee had to fly into the wind and exert more energy, she will tell the other workers that it is farther away.

In addition, the worker bee will communicate what direction the food is in. The direction of the food is always relative to the sun. Bees don’t communicate on a horizontal surface, the hive cells are hanging. Thus, bees use the up direction and down direction to correlate to the sun. Up is the direction of the sun. When the bee dances at an angle relative to the direction up, the other bees know what direction relative to the sun to fly.

This makes it possible for the other bees to find the food when they go outside. As the sun changes directions in the sky, the waggle dance will also change directions.

Bees don’t fly or gather pollen during the night. Even on a cloudy day, bees have a special sense of sight that helps them to discern the ultraviolet rays in the sky. This keen sense of sight helps bees to determine the location of the sun in the sky, even on a cloudy day. 

Worker bee collects pollen

Why Honey Helps Allergies

Did you know that honey can help to reduce some types of allergies? That’s because honey is gathered from the pollen of plants. Bees aren’t particular, they will gather pollen from weeds, flowers, grasses, and trees. Many of those same pollens are in the air and contribute to seasonal allergies. When your nose encounters the pollens, your allergies flare up.

That’s because allergies are a response of your immune system. Your immune system is designed to identify small intruders that may cause problems in your body. It can identify bad bacteria and viruses that make you sick.

It attacks those small intruders and keeps you healthy. When Pollen enters your body and you get allergies, your immune system is identifying the pollen as dangerous.

However, introducing your body to those same pollens in a different format can help to teach your immune system that the pollens aren’t a danger to your body. When you eat honey, you eat a form of the pollen that is less invasive to your body. It can help your immune system to recognize the pollen as a friend instead of as an enemy.

If you are trying to reduce allergies, you need to make sure to eat locally produced honey. Local honey will have many of the same pollens that you will encounter in your area. If you purchase honey from the store, then that honey can have pollen from anywhere and may not help your allergies.

Is Raw Honey the Same as Organic Honey?

Raw honey and organic honey can be different. Raw honey comes straight from the hive and isn’t processed in any way. It can be filtered through a mesh to get out any contaminants like dead bees or beeswax but that’s all.

Organic honey can be heated and filtered. Filtering the honey gets contaminates out of the honey. Heating the honey kills any yeast and bacteria within the honey so that it will stay fresh longer.

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Learn how bees make honey (1) Bees make honey (1) How bees make honey (1)

Annemaria Duran

Hi, I’m Annemaria Duran. I moved out to the country 6 years ago, mainly so I could have more land. I love all aspects of country living. First, we got chickens, then ducks. Now we have sheep, goats, and rabbits. I'm always learning and love sharing it!

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