How Do Bees Make Honey? Complete Guide

Bees on honeycomb making honey

Honey bees make honey during spring and summer at a frenetic pace. Their colony needs a food source to survive through winter, and honey does an excellent job. But how does flower nectar become that sweet condiment you see see on the table at home? In this guide, we’ll look at how bees make honey and answer some commonly asked questions about the process.

What are the steps to making honey?

To make honey, worker bees collect nectar from flowers and transport it back to the hive. Drone bees then push the nectar into their stomachs, combining it with enzymes, spit it up, then repeat the process. When the nectar reaches 20% moisture content, it will have turned into honey.

Step 1: Nectar collection

The process of honey-making begins with worker bees collecting nectar or pollen. They will scope out a good source of flowers that are from a single floral source, such as clover. Other popular flower varieties for the honeybee are lavender, dandelion, apple, rosemary, ivy, golden rod, and blackberry. Be sure to check out our guide to the best clover for honey bees to learn more.

Although bees look for nearby flowers, they may need to travel up 5 miles from the hive. Worker bees will visit up to 100 flowers in one foraging flight, using their proboscis to suck nectar out of the flower’s stamen.

A healthy mix of nectar and bee saliva gets stored in the bee’s honey stomach, which is separate from the food stomach. This sac has an innovative valve that can be opened and closed as needed. Hungry honey bees can open the valve and transfer a little nectar to their food stomach which is then converted to energy.

In the bee’s honey stomach, the complex sugars in the nectar begin to break down into simple sugars. This inversion process means the sugars are less likely to solidify or crystallize. 

The honey bee can carry 70mg of nectar which is close to her own body weight. Once reaching her payload, the bee will head back to the hive and release the load to the indoor bees.

A honey bee foraging for nectar on a flower
A bee sucking nectar from the flower’s stamen.

Step 2: Nectar transfer to house bees

When the forager bees arrive back at the hive, they will be greeted by house bees. These gatekeepers will use their tongue to sample the nectar and then approve or deny the load.

Approved nectar is transferred from one bee’s crop to the other. The house bee will then deposit it into hexagon-shaped beeswax cells which are sorted by floral source

Disapproved nectar means the forager will retire to the inside of the hive or help collect nectar at the entrance until it is needed.

House bees are younger than foragers, usually 12-17 days of age.

Step 3: Nectar processing

Inside the hive, worker bees will begin the honey-making process. To process nectar into honey, they will chew it for about 30 minutes. The mixture gets passed around to different bees where they continue chewing it.

The nectar’s chemical properties and pH change as it mixes with enzymes. The water content in the mixture is too high for storing over winter, so it needs to be dried.

Step 4: Honey dehydration

At the start of the drying process, the honey contains 70% water. Although a little water is removed when the bees pass it between themselves, it’s nowhere near enough.

To dry out the honey, bees smear it over the inside cell of the honeycomb. This will increase the liquid’s surface area, encouraging evaporation.

Honey bees can also fan their wings to create airflow and further evaporate the honey. Once the honey reaches 17-20% water content, the honey is ready to be stored.

Step 5: Honey storage      

Honey needs to be stored in honeycomb cells for later use. Worker bees deposit the honey into cells, which are then capped with wax. Covering the cell is an important step for keeping the honey fresh.

To cap the cell, a bee will use its wax glands to excrete a substance from the abdomen. The wax comes out as sheets that have scales and form into beeswax.

Top down view of cells filled with honey
Cells filled with honey.

Commonly asked questions

Do bees collect pollen and nectar at the same time?

Forager bees usually carry either nectar or pollen on a single trip, instead of both. Nectar is stored in their honey stomach while pollen is stuffed into their corbiculae; these are the hairy receptacles located on the bee’s hind legs. In some cases, a honey bee will carry pollen and nectar.

Why do honey bees only collect pollen from one flower type?

Bees only collect pollen from one variety of flowers to assure cross-pollination of plants. 

What do bees need to make honey?

To make honey, bees need a hive, water, pollen, and nectar. They also need carbohydrates, vitamins, proteins, minerals, and lipids to function effectively.

Why do bees collect pollen?

Pollen is an important part of the colony life, providing a vital component for the general health of bees. It offers a protein-packed meal for adult bees and is essential for transforming larvae into adult bees. 

How long does it take nectar to turn into honey?

It generally takes two days for bees to make honey, from the collection of nectar to capping the final honey in honeycomb cells.

At what age does the worker bee collect nectar?

Forager bees will start collecting nectar from the age of 14-21 days.

How do bees know which flowers contain nectar?

Bees detect an electrical charge from flowers with nectar. Flowers also reflect ultraviolet light when nectar is on offer. Honey bees also use their odor-sensing skills to find suitable flowers.

Is honey just bee vomit?

The honey bee has separate stomachs for food and nectar. So, when a bee transfers its load at the hive, it isn’t vomiting up nectar and food as the two are not connected. It is simply transferring the raw materials for making honey to the house bees.

Is honey a bee poop?

Honey bees do not poop out honey. Instead, they have a honey stomach that mixes nectar with enzymes until complex sugars are reduced to simple sugars. The final honey is released out of the bee’s mouth and deposited into the honeycomb.

Summing up

The process of honey-making is fascinating. It starts with the collection of nectar before it is processed in the hive by house bees. After the inversion process is complete, the bees will dry it out before storing the final honey in honeycomb cells.

Although the process of making honey may sound gross to some, it’s actually quite sanitary. With a special area for collecting and processing honey inside the bee, it’s comparable to drinking milk from a cow.

If you enjoyed this article, you should check out our guide that answers how much honey does a bee make? You may be surprised at how little one bee makes in its lifetime!

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