Honey is one of the most commonly made associations with bees. Bees cultivate it, produce it, and use it for their own survival. For humans, honey not only tastes good, but it has health benefits that make it desirable for human consumption. Understanding how bees make honey can underscore its importance to this insect. While the method of cultivation and production seems unappetizing, it is how bees make honey. This is nature's way of allowing the nectar collected by bees to manifest into a product that tastes good, and is good for you.
Understanding how bees make honey is essential, but the reason they do it is imperative. Consider that bees flap their wings over 11,000 times in 60 seconds. This requires a great deal of energy. Storing honey means that bees have as much as they need to nourish the hive throughout the year even if the foragers are unsuccessful.
Honey has many vitamins and is also full of sugar, both of which combine to give the bees the sustenance they need to remain as busy as they are. Bees innately understand their own energy needs, and will store enough honey in the hive to last for years. This allows them to feed themselves even if there are entire seasons where foragers are unsuccessful.
A good example of this is beehives in areas of drought, or in areas where there are few plants and flowers for foraging. The honey stores bees have can support up to 60,000 bees for two to three years.
Bees and Honey
Bees foraging for nectar fly roughly 50,000 miles to produce just 1 lb of honey. Every honey bee that produces honey will only produce approximately 1/12 of a teaspoon in its lifespan. Bees must visit up to 100 flowers to collect enough nectar to produce that 1/12 of a teaspoon.
That equates to roughly two million flowers visited, and nectar collected to make that full pound of honey. Honey is the only food created by insects and then consumed by that insect and by honey.
Bees have cultivated honey using the nectar from flowers for over 10 million years. In fact, honey is relevant as far back as the days of cuneiform. Ancient peoples used it in ancient kingdoms as an offering to the gods. It was also currency.
Honey also has an economic value in modern society. It adds more than $19 billion in revenue to the economy. Beekeeping businesses that cultivate honey are often family-owned and operated, passed down through generations.
Bees are biologically designed to pollinate, thus perpetuating the relationship that bees and flowers have with one another. Bees need the flowers for food and flowers to need the bees for pollination. In fact, the nectar and pollen are bees' only food source; in fact, the nectar is also responsible for the energy that bees generate to flit from flower to flower.
Not all bees make honey for human consumption, just as not all bee species make honey. Some bees collect pollen and store that in the hive for the colder months so that the hive can survive. Bees make more than just honey. Honey bees, for instance, also make royal jelly and beeswax. There are seven species found among honey bees; however, within those seven species, there are 40 subspecies that contribute to the process of making honey.
Because of how bees make and process honey, it never spoils.
The process of crenation ensures that because of the high sugar content of the substance and the lower water content, it is a non-perishable food. It comprises over 80% carbohydrates, including fructose and glucose. There are also 18 amino acids found in honey, Vitamin B, Vitamin C, calcium, iron, potassium, chromium, zinc, magnesium, and flavonoids.
Bees are on a day-long sugar high as they flit from flower to flower. This consistent injection of sugar means that bees maintain high levels of energy. This is necessary considering they pollinate so many plants.
We Want the Honey, But We Need the Bees
How bees make, honey is important to humans because of the taste, use of this food product and the health benefits it offers. However, bees are important to the larger ecosystem. The pollination that bees spread around the different flowers and plants is essential to the cultivation of many human food crops.
Roughly one-third of the food crops on which humans consume require the pollination of bees (and other insects) to grow effectively.
In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one out of every three bites of food a human takes it thanks to a plant that has been pollinated by a bee. This includes fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Some crops entirely depend on the pollination by bees, including almonds. Others are mainly reliant on this pollination, including avocados, melons, cucumbers, cherries, apples, and kiwi.
Avid gardeners rely on bees and their pollination process to ensure that plants flower when they should. In fact, one colony can pollinate roughly 300 million flowers in one day. This not only creates healthier gardens but also ensures that plants that nourish other animals are available. In fact, the role that bees play in helping plant foods for other animals is one of the more under-appreciated aspects of what bees offer to the larger ecosystem. Since many birds and animals rely on seeds, berries, nuts, and fruits, the process of bee pollination is essential to the health of those plants. Even domesticated cows enjoy alfalfa also pollinated by bees.
Even the trees need bees. Bees pollinate trees, which provide other support to the entire planet acting as its lungs.
So How do Bees Make Honey?
The process of how bees make honey starts when the bees engage in pollination. As they visit each flower, they suck the nectar out with their tongues. There are flowers and fruit trees that are better than others with collecting pollen, including blackberry, rosemary, clover, goldenrod, lavender, and ivy.
These are plants that have a very sugary nectar and pollen with high protein.
Instead of processing the nectar through to their food stomach, bees store honey in the “honey stomach.” When this stomach is full, the bees take the nectar back to the hive and pass it to other bees from mouth to mouth.
The worker bees that receive the nectar from the forager bees chew on the nectar for almost 30 minutes. This process adds the enzymes necessary to create the simple syrup that forms the basis for honey in the consistency in which it is most commonly known. The honey then continues to pass between the bees until it forms a honey-like consistency.
The worker bees then transfer the honey to a honeycomb, which is a wax-like structure. The honey is still fairly wet, so the bees flap their wings repeatedly until the honey dries out. This causes the honey to become stickier. This also filters out any of the remaining water content left in the honey. The bees then seal the honeycomb with a waxy lid to keep it dry and clean.
Because bees make such small amounts per bee over the course of their lifetime, this is why the large numbers of bees in a hive are so essential.
The honey cultivated by a hive depends on the flowers that the foragers visited while pollinating. Flower type determines many aspects of the honey's taste and quality, including taste, texture, color, and smell. Honey that is light tends is mild and less sweet than honey that is darker and thus, richer and more significant in taste.
Geographic location also plays a role in how bees make honey. For example, it is more common to access clover and goldenrod honey in the southern regions of the United States.
Bees may also gather nectar from lavender flowers to make honey, which gives the final product a lavender smell. Clover flowers create a thinner texture than other types of honey, with a lighter color. Bees can also make honey from blueberry plants, buckwheat, wildflowers and even poisonous plants, like poison ivy. Point of floral origin is key for human consumption to assure safety.
The difference in flowers contributes to the varying price of honey types. Wildflower honey, for example, is less expensive than honey cultivated from more desirable plants and flowers. Raw honey is more expensive than processed honey. There is also a lasting trend in getting honey directly from beekeepers and farms versus grocery stores, nodding to the real food movement. Roadside honey stands are a favorite in the south, with vendors selling honey to bypassers in a farm-to-table approach.
Bees are important from an ecological perspective for more than just how bees make honey, and the benefits to humans through consumption. The pollination they undergo among the many plants and flowers, is essential to the cultivation of many aspects of nature. However, the honey also has a significant impact from an economic and food perspective for humans.