So, How Is Honey Made?

Everyone knows that bees make honey. And although they don’t make it for us, they’re so good at it they’ll typically have quite a surplus on hand, a surplus that a beekeeper can harvest responsibly without hurting the bees.

holding a super with honey and bees
holding a super with honey and bees

This golden treasure has been relished since antiquity, and remains ubiquitously popular around the world today. But, have you ever wanted to know how honey is made?

Bees make honey by collecting nectar which is processed in their stomach before being dehydrated back at the hive to remove water and make it suitable for long-term storage.

It really is a fascinating process, but this is something that bees have down to absolute science, and even though an individual bee only produces a tiny amount of honey in its short life, beehives contain many thousands of bees and that honey can add up quickly.

But there’s a lot more you’ll want to know, so keep reading…

Is Honey Bee Poop?!

Before we go on, I need to clear this up: no, honey is not bee poop. The waste excretions of bees are completely separate and distinct from honey.

But, honey is indeed an excretion from an adult bee. It isn’t poop, but it does come out of the bee. I’ll get to that in a minute.

The First Step to Making Honey is Finding Nectar

To make honey, bees need nectar from flowers. Nectar is a sweet secretion that flowers produce in order to attract bees and other pollinators like butterflies.

Bees can detect the presence of nectar and also home in on flowers specifically because of their color or shape; once they do they extend their specialized mouth parts to suck up the nectar.

A typical worker bee will visit many flowers on a single outing until they have a stomach full of that sweet, delicious nectar.

This nectar is destined to become honey, and to that end, special enzymes in the bee’s stomach called invertase break down the sugars in the nectar so that it can become honey.

But, once the foraging bee is full of nectar, it heads back home to the hive.

Bees Responsible for Honey Production Take the Nectar from Forager Bees

Once back at the hive, the foraging bee will meet up with another worker bee, usually a younger one, that is on honey-making duty.

These bees are sometimes called house or processor bees, but they are still workers all the same.

These are the bees that are responsible for depositing and finishing the honey at the hive.

Oh, So Honey is Just Bee Vomit, Then?!

No, honey isn’t bee vomit, per se, but you might say it’s got a little bit of bee vomit in it because it does come back up out of the bees’ stomachs, and there are bound to be residues in there…

Oh, forget it. You know what, yes. Yes it is. Bees regurgitate nectar into honey so you can call it bee vomit if you want to.

I don’t care and neither should you because it is delicious and basically cannot spoil, so I don’t care where it comes from.

The Collected Nectar is Placed in a Cell

Upon meeting a free processor bee at the hive, the foraging bee will regurgitate the collected nectar which is already beginning to break down into the stomach of the processor.

The processor which will then regurgitate it once more into an open wax cell in the hive. At this instant, even more invertase is added to the nectar which is soon to become honey.

But even at this point, the nectar isn’t really honey yet. It contains all the ingredients to make honey, including the enzymes from the bees, the sugars, the water and more, but there is more to be done before it turns into that golden deliciousness.

Bees Fan the Honey to Dehydrate It

The last step in making honey is dehydration. To achieve this, the house bees will sit near the cells that have been filled with the newly collected nectar and fan it with their wings.

In conjunction with the hot, dry air present inside a hive, this will slowly and surely dry out the honey, reducing the moisture content until it is about 18.5 percent.

Considering that the typical nectar a bee will collect on its adventures is anywhere from 70% to 75% water, they have to do a lot of drying before it officially turns into honey!

But this step is really the most important one in the whole process, because by removing that much water content it guarantees that no harmful germs can grow inside the honey.

Hey, bees care about food safety too! There are plenty of germs that can affect and kill them, potentially even wiping out an entire hive, so they take this seriously.

Once the attendant house bees figure out that the honey is dry enough, it is officially finished. They’ve got honey, and soon so will we!

Finished Honey is Capped Off and Saved

Once the honey production is complete, other workers will chew up some wax and mold it into a cap forming a natural airtight seal over the cell.

This prevents the honey from reabsorbing moisture from the air which would then once again make it susceptible to germs.

The Hive Will Use Stored Honey as a Food Source in Times of Scarcity

Finished honey, once it is properly stored in the hive, will serve as an extremely stable long-term food source for a beehive in times of food scarcity, meaning when there is no more nectar to be collected.

Typically this happens during winter when nothing is blooming, but bees will also break into their honey stash if something happens to their usual food sources during the peak season.

How Much Honey Can a Beehive Produce?

The amount of honey that a beehive can make can vary dramatically.

It depends on if it is a wild hive or a hive of domesticated bees, how much food they have nearby, the size of the colony, the health and wellness of the bees, and many other factors.

Broadly, a typical hive will produce anywhere from 10 to 120 pounds of honey in a single season, though in some areas bees experience multiple productive seasons in a single year.

A healthy and well-adapted hive can produce a tremendous amount of honey in a relatively short amount of time!

Can a Hive Fail to Make Honey?

Yes. Not every bee hive will produce honey during every season. The reasons for this are likewise varied…

Sometimes there are just not enough bees to produce a significant surplus of honey. Other times low food levels mean that the bees are basically starving and have no honey to spare.

Competing hives can also raid a hive and steal their honey, to say nothing of what larger predators like mammals can do.

And then, sometimes, a hive is stressed or suffering from disease or some other problem that prevents them from behaving normally.

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