How Do Bees Make Honey

From our point of view, beekeepers who just enjoy the bees for themselves, there is only one word for the way bees make honey. Magic! That isn’t really what happens.

How do bees make honey? Forager bees collect nectar from flowers, storing it in the honey stomach where it’s mixed with the enzyme invertase. They return to the hive where a worker bee takes the nectar by a regurgitation process called trophallaxis. The worker chews the nectar, adding enzymes, then deposits it into a honeycomb cell. Bees fan their wings, reducing the water content to 17 – 20%, then cap the cell with wax to maintain the low moisture content.

That’s a quick explanation of how honey is made. Read on for more interesting facts about bees and honey.

How Do Bees Actually Make Honey?

Here’s the full description of what happens from flower to honey.

What is honey made from? It is made of plant nectar, enzymes that the bees produce, and the process of evaporation.

There are four necessary steps:

  • forager bee collects nectar
  • worker bee takes nectar
  • enzymes change the nectar
  • water evaporates from the nectar

Forager Bee

A forager bee, the only worker bees who leave the hive, gathers pollen and nectar from flowers to bring back to the colony. These bees will fly as far as five miles away to find forage, though they will stay close to home if enough flowers are available.

Inside the forager, the nectar goes into a pouch, the “honey stomach”, in the esophagus before the stomach. If the bee has used all its own energy reserves, it may digest some of the nectar instead of returning it all to the hive.

Worker Bee

The forager bee flies back to the hive, where it hands off the nectar in a mouth-to-mouth transfer called trophallaxis, to a worker bee. No, this isn’t vomiting, which most of us know is an uncomfortable and nasty process. This is a regurgitation called trophallaxis, which several types of insects use. It’s similar to a parent bird feeding its young.

It is said that the worker bee then chews on the nectar for a half hour or so. A honey bee has no teeth, so don’t think of that kind of chewing. But it is similar in that when we chew, our saliva adds enzymes to what we’re eating to begin the digestion process. While the bee is “chewing”, it adds more enzymes to the mixture passed to it by the forager bee. 

After the nectar has been thoroughly dosed with enzymes, it is put into a cell in the honeycomb, where it is spread out for evaporation. We may not think that an individual honey cell is a very large area but considering that a whole bee can fit into a honeycomb cell, it is, relatively, a big area.

Enzymatic Action

Here comes the science part.

First the nectar is mixed with the enzyme invertase in the forager bee’s honey stomach. The sugar in nectar is sucrose. Invertase converts the sucrose into dextrose and levulose, which are forms of glucose and fructose.

The worker bee adds additional enzymes.

The enzymes are acting on the nectar. Invertase converts sucrose to glucose and levulose. Another enzyme, glucose oxidase, changes some of the glucose to hydrogen peroxide and gluconic acid. 

This is where part of the magic takes place.

Hydrogen peroxide helps keep micro-organisms from living in the nectar while it’s processing into honey.

What does the gluconic acid do? The honey becomes acidic, ranging from around 3.4 to around 6.1, averaging about 3.9. For comparison, neutral pH is 7. Most water is pH 7. Grapefruit is from 3.0 – 3.75 pH. 

Because of the acidity, fungi, mold and bacteria won’t grow in honey. If someone asks how long is honey good for, there are two answers. 

In the hive, honey will be good for a year or so.  That’s around six generations of bees (not calculating for winter).

On your shelf, strained and in a jar, honey will last indefinitely. It may form crystals but heating it gently will dissolve them.

Water Evaporates

In the hive, honey will have a moisture content of between 17 and 20%. Then the bees will cap it with wax.

Honey can ferment if it has too much moisture. The USDA set the standards for Grade A and Grade B honey at a maximum of 18.6% moisture if it is to be sold. Grade C has a maximum of 20% moisture.

Beekeepers will use a honey refractometer to measure the moisture of their honey harvest.

The lack of moisture and the high sugar content make it a fatal medium for bacteria. This was used to advantage long ago, when honey was used to dress wounds.  

How Many Bees Does It Take To Make A Teaspoon Of Honey?

An average bee will make only 1/12 teaspoon of honey. Total. Twelve bees will make one teaspoon of honey.

Even though bees are not very big, they can carry almost their own body weight in nectar.

This still doesn’t amount to much. Nectar is about 70% water. Honey is about 20% water. A forager bee, flying back to the hive with nectar, is carrying mostly water.

It has been said that a bee will visit up to a hundred flowers on one trip foraging trip from the hive. No, I don’t know who studied that, nor how many bees they followed to get that number. 

How many flowers does a bee visit for honey? Golden Blossom Honey estimates that bees need to visit 2,000,000 flowers to make a pound of honey.  This will take up to 55,000 miles of bee flying for foragers.

How many bees do you think it takes to make the pound of honey that you have sitting on your kitchen shelf? There are 66.6 teaspoons in a pound of honey.  That is the life’s work of about 800 bees.

Do Bees Eat Their Own Honey?

Yes. The only reason bees collect nectar and make honey is because it is their primary source of food.

A hive will consume around ½ pound of honey per day (ScientificBeekeeping.com). Adults eat honey and they use it to make bee bread to feed the larval baby bees. Bee bread is made up of pollen – about 70%, honey – about 25%, and bee saliva.

The queen bees do not eat honey or bee bread. For their entire lives, they are fed royal jelly, which is made from secretions from the hypopharynx gland in the throats of nurse bees. 

Bees eat their own honey as they go about raising the colony population, tending brood, foraging and storing honey from spring through fall. In winter, when it is too cold for flowers to bloom and too cold for bees to fly, the bees live off the stored honey.

What Do Bees Eat If We Take Their Honey?

If someone or something takes all the honey from a beehive late in the year when there are few flowers to forage from, the bees will starve.

It isn’t just humans who will take the honey from a hive.

Bears will destroy a hive to get to the honey.

The time from August through fall is considered robbing season. Yellow jackets, hornets, and bees from other hives will attack a weak colony, stealing honey, destroying wax comb and killing bees. It is very exciting, in a bad way, when robbing takes place. Angry bees are flying everywhere around a hive. It’s easy to tell that this is different than normal bee traffic because there are large numbers of bees mobbing the entrances and checking out any seams, holes or cracks in the hive boxes.

Bees may eat all their own honey long before winter. There was a severe August dearth the second year of our beekeeping. A dearth is a time when there are few blooms and those have little nectar.  It can be because of the time of year or because of a drought. During this time, there was so little to forage, that our bees cleaned out all the honeycomb and we had to supplement with sugar syrup until there was a resurgence of blossoming in mid-September.

Related Questions

Are bees killed to make honey?

Good beekeepers only take surplus honey stores from their bees, not the honey frames the bees need for the colony. There are bee boxes called honey supers that are put on top of the brood boxes. After the bees fill the bottom boxes, they move up to the supers.  It’s considered safe for colony health to take the honey in the supers while leaving the honey in the brood chambers below.

How do bees make wax?

Honey bees have eight glands on their abdomens that secrete flakes of wax.

Can you harvest uncapped honey?

Uncapped honey is still considered to be nectar by both bees and beekeepers, not honey, so it isn’t harvested. If you shake a frame of uncapped nectar, it will shake out of the honeycomb.