So, Why Do Bees Make Honey?

I think everyone knows by now that bees make honey, and that more importantly, it is absolutely delicious.

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

For plenty of beekeepers, this is the number one reason why they got into the practice in the first place! But on the topic, have you ever stopped to consider why bees make honey in the first place?

Sure, I like to think they make it because they want to be friends with us, but that cannot be why! We constantly see bees gobbling up nectar from flowers, so what’s the honey for? Just why do bees make honey?

Honey bees make honey as a storable food that won’t spoil during wintertime. Bees need this energy source during the winter when most plants aren’t blooming and therefore there is no nectar available to them as food.

It’s easy to understand why people gather food for the wintertime, just in case, and as it turns out bees do the exact same thing.

Bees must have plenty of honey to eat during the winter or else the colony can starve and all the bees will die. No wonder they work so hard to make it!

Honey is an amazing food source, and it’s made by an even more amazing process. Keep reading and I’ll tell you more about it.

Do All Bees Make Honey?

Before we go on, it is important to address the fact that not all bees make honey. Yes, there are different kinds of honeybees, but that’s what they have in common: they produce honey and lots of it.

Other common kinds of bees, like bumble bees and carpenter bees, do not make honey and that’s because they do not overwinter in the same way that a honey bee colony does.

Sadly, carpenter and bumble bees will die in the wintertime with only queens surviving in hibernation to emerge and find new colonies in the springtime…

Conversely, at least some of the honeybees occupying a hive in the wintertime, if not most, will make it through the winter assuming they have a sufficient stash of honey… honey that’s crucially important for that purpose, as we will learn!

Honey Bees Need Honey to Survive the Winter

Yes, a beehive must have honey if it is going to survive the winter. This is because it is the only food source they can depend on in the wintertime.

Without a sufficient stash of honey, too many bees will die and be unable to maintain the hive when it is cold outside. But what does this mean: to “maintain” the hive?

You might be surprised to learn that bees are actually capable of heating their own hives, assuming they are properly constructed, undamaged, and well-insulated.

They do this by forming a sort of ball around all the other members of the colony with the queen herself somewhere in the middle.

Then the bees that are on the outside vibrate and fan their wings in order to heat the air. They can heat it quite a lot, upwards of 50° F (10° C), and so the inside of a beehive is always toasty warm even when it is bitterly cold out!

Pretty amazing stuff, but as you might imagine this is quite a workout and the bees need lots of energy in order to do that. That’s where the honey comes in: honey is basically a condensed, shelf-stable energy source for bees that serves as a winter ration for the whole colony.

Knowing that they need it in order to survive is why bees work so hard to produce it!

Don’t Bees Eat Nectar?

Yes, they do. Nectar is a fundamental food for bees, along with bits of pollen and a few other things. And they will readily eat nectar, but nectar has a major shortcoming in terms of colony survival…

Nectar Will Spoil in Time!

Nectar will not last the same way that honey does! Nectar, in actuality, can evaporate or spoil over time. This is why bees spend extra time, effort, and resources to convert nectar into honey.

You might be surprised to learn that some bees, like the bumblebees mentioned above, do store nectar for the short term using similar methods that honey bees do to store honey.

They create a cell akin to a hexagonal cell in a beehive and store surplus nectar in it for short-term consumption.

But the reason bumblebees don’t spend time turning it into honey is because they know the hive is not going to survive the winter, regardless. It’s sad, but the survival “programming” of different bee species is instinctual.

Honey is Basically Nectar Converted for a Long Shelf Life

But honey, on the other hand, won’t spoil in the same way that nectar will because the moisture content is significantly reduced. That’s why honey is so thick and sticky, by the way!

Because there is less moisture and much higher concentrations of sugar by volume, this also prevents spoilage because it creates a micro-environment that is hostile to bacteria. This won’t allow bacteria to grow inside it and multiply.

If you’ve ever heard the old factoid that honey doesn’t spoil, I can tell you that it is totally true (assuming ideal storage conditions) and now you know why.

Anyway, bees convert nectar into honey by mixing it with a special secretion they make, called invertase, and then storing the resulting slurry in a cell before fanning it with their wings.

In the right environment and with a little bit of care, enough moisture will evaporate out of the nectar-invertase mixture to turn it properly into honey. Once the water content of the mixture is about 18%, it is perfect!

So long as it is kept from contamination or absorbing moisture, it will stay this way, unspoiled, for an incredibly long time!

And it is this honey that bees eat in the wintertime to keep themselves alive.

If all goes well, the queen will begin laying the next generation as springtime approaches and the existing, longer-lived workers will depart to collect more pollen and make more honey to get things going when it warms up.

Is it Okay to Harvest Honey, Then?

Yes, but with a major caveat! If reading all this you thought that perhaps a beekeeper harvesting honey from his hives would be dooming the bees inside you are quite right, and that’s quite considerate of you.

However, it turns out that a successful and prosperous beehive will yield way more honey than it actually needs to survive the winter. They are industrious little insects, after all!

Accordingly, a skilled and careful beekeeper can harvest but a portion of that honey without endangering the welfare of the bees in the least. This amount varies based on several factors, but is usually about a quarter to a third of total production for safety’s sake.

In colder regions, a beehive might need around 100 pounds of stored honey to make it, whereas in warmer, balmy climates as little as 25 pounds might get them by.

On the other hand, careless and irresponsible keepers can truly doom their hives by harvesting too much honey. If the bees run out of honey and there are no blooming plants nearby for them to gather from, or if conditions are just too cold for them to fly, they won’t make it…

What Else Do Bees Use Honey For?

Bees also use honey for feeding their young, and indirectly for many other things. As mentioned, a beehive is still experiencing a very high level of activity to ensure survival during the winter.

Specifically the beating of their wings to produce heat that is performed in shifts by all of the workers. This requires tons of energy, and accordingly, tons of honey to sustain.

Other than that, honey is used to make up for food deficits during any other times, including natural disasters and blight that might affect typical food sources, and instances where extra wax must be produced.

Worker bees can secrete wax from special glands, but the production of wax requires calories in the combination of many enzymes and compounds, sometimes needing honey to facilitate it.

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