Bees make honey during spring and summer to help them survive through winter. But how does flower nectar transform into a delicious and nutritious source of food? This guide looks at how bees make honey and answers 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. They begin chewing the nectar, regurgitating it, then repeating the process until its chemical properties alter. The substance is then deposited into honeycomb cells which are capped once the honey’s moisture content reduces sufficiently.
Step 1: Nectar collection
The process of honey-making begins with worker bees collecting nectar or pollen. They will scope out flowers 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. To learn more, check out our guide to the best clover for honey bees.
Although bees look for nearby flowers, they may travel up to five miles from the hive. Worker bees will visit up to 100 flowers in one foraging flight, using their proboscis to suck nectar from the flower’s stamen.
A healthy mix of nectar and bee saliva is stored in the bee’s honey stomach, which is separate from the food stomach. This sac has an innovative valve that opens and closes as needed. Hungry honey bees can open the valve and transfer nectar to their food stomach.
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 body weight. Once reaching her payload, the worker will return home and deliver the resources.
Step 2: Nectar transfer to house bees
Pollen-laden foragers are greeted by house bees on their return. 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 (honey sack) to another. The house bee then deposits it into hexagon-shaped beeswax cells, sorted by floral source.
Disapproved nectar means the forager will retire inside the hive or help collect nectar at the entrance until needed.
House bees are younger than foragers, usually 12-17 days of age.
Step 3: Nectar processing
Worker bees begin transforming nectar into honey by chewing it for around 30 minutes. The mixture gets passed to different bees, who also chew 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. Some moisture is removed as it gets passed around, but it is not enough.
Bees smear honey over the honeycomb cell walls. This technique increases the liquid’s surface area, encouraging evaporation.
As a final step, honey bees fan their wings to create airflow and evaporate the honey moisture. Once the honey reaches 17-20% water content, it is ready.
Quick tip: Beekeepers shouldn’t extract frames prematurely, as the contents may ferment if moisture levels are high. Check out our guide which answers the question what is a honey refractometer. You’ll learn how this simple tool takes the guesswork out of when to harvest.
Step 5: Honey storage
Honey is stored in honeycomb cells capped with wax. Covering the cell with a protective coating is vital for keeping the valuable contents fresh.
Bees use their wax glands to excrete a substance from the abdomen. The wax comes out as sheets that have scales and form beeswax.
Do all bees make honey?
Seven species of bees make honey:
- Western (European) honey bee (Apis mellifera)
- Eastern (Asiatic) honey bee (Apis cerana)
- Giant honey bee (Apis dorsata)
- Philippine honey bee (Apis nigrocincta)
- Red dwarf honey bee (Apis florea)
- Black dwarf honey bee (Apis andreniformis)
- Koschevnikov’s honey bee (Apis koschevnikovi)
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 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 ensure the cross-pollination of plants.
What do bees need to make honey?
Bees need a hive, water, pollen, and nectar to make honey. They also need carbohydrates, vitamins, proteins, minerals, and lipids to function effectively.
Why do bees collect pollen?
Pollen is an essential part of colony life, providing a vital component for the general health of bees. It offers a protein-packed meal for adult bees and is vital for transforming larvae into adult bees.
How long does it take nectar to turn into honey?
Bees generally take two days to make honey, from collecting nectar to capping the final honey in honeycomb cells.
At what age does the worker bee collect nectar?
Forager bees will start collecting nectar at 14-21 days of age.
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. When bees transfer a load, they aren’t vomiting up nectar and food as they are disconnected.
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 reduce to simple sugars. Moisture-laden honey is released from the bee’s mouth and deposited into honeycomb cells.
What do bees do with honey?
Bees store honey in their hive and use it as a food source in the colder months when foraging is difficult. The sugar content is too high for bacteria to grow, so the honey doesn’t expire.
The process of honey-making is fascinating. It starts with collecting nectar, which house bees process in the hive. After the inversion process, the bees dry it before storing the final product in honeycomb.
Although making honey will sound disgusting to some, it’s extremely sanitary. With a specific 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!