Many people assume every bee they see makes honey. But which bees make honey? Because this is not the case as there are about 20,000 different species of bees-and only a few make honey. There are even fewer yet that produce enough honey to harvest as a product for human consumption.
Even within the species that make honey, not all the bees in the hive take part in the production of honey. The female worker bees take on the busy work of gathering nectar to start the honey making process. These hard-working female bees will travel to between 100 and 150 plants to collect their weight in nectar before returning to the hive. Each worker bee will produce about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in their lifetime.
The life of the worker bee is stressful enough they only live about six weeks. While the females are out gathering nectar, male bees called drones set out with the sole purpose to procreate. They are on a mission to mate with bees from other hives to share the DNA of their queen.
Female workers make a quick return to the hive to pass the raw nectar into the next step in the honey process. Workers transfer nectar to processor bees. It is their job to change the nectar from the natural product into simple sugar. This is done by chewing on the nectar and adding an enzyme called invertase.
What is Bee Honey?
Bees make bee honey. There are a few types of other insects that can produce a similar substance. The purpose of the production from the bee standpoint is to feed the colony, but humans have very different ideas on this. Collecting and selling bee honey has become a booming industry worldwide.
In 2016, 1.8 billion tons of bee honey was collected worldwide. One ton equals about 2,204.6 pounds. China is the leading producer worldwide with 27% of all the world's honey coming out of China. Turkey is the next big producer with the United States a close third. Russia and India round out the top five honey producing countries worldwide.
The honey coming out of each of these areas vary significantly. They can classify them into several groups based on the floral source of the nectar and the processing involved.
Floral sources can have a significant impact on the color, taste, and density of the honey product. Many places produce what is often called wild honey, which is polyfloral. This means the bees gather nectar from a wide range of flower types and the honey varies from year to year. In any area, the flowers blooming can change, and this will impact the honey flavor, thickness, color, intensity, and scent.
Monofloral honey is produced when beekeepers can limit the flowers the bees access for nectar. They do this by keeping the bees in a controlled area with particular and remarkably cultivated flowering plants. Examples of the flowers used in monofloral honey include clover, orange blossom, thistle, honeysuckle, sunflower, and lavender.
A pure, commercial monofloral honey is relatively rare. Mostly, the honey that is widely sold is blended honey. This means the maker mixes honey from several floral sources to get the desired color, flavor and density.
For a small section of the bee population, they take a different route to gather the base of their honey. These bees gather secretions of other insects like the aphid to start the honey making process. This becomes a honeydew, honey. This honey is famous in parts of Germany, Serbia, Bulgaria, and parts of Northern California in the United States.
After looking at the flora involved in the honey production, we sort, process and package it. Most people envision honey coming in a jar or plastic bear, but there are many more options available.
They can sell honey in its raw form, on the honeycomb, with crystals and even pasteurized. They can also run it through a strainer to remove debris or filter with heat to remove things like pollen grains and air bubbles. Some honey even comes with crystals spun to make it spreadable while being sold as creamed honey.
Honey also comes in a variety of grades, with a lower grade being labeled as baking honey. This happens as a batch of honey is not up to par for sale as a stand-alone product but can stand in as an ingredient in other foods.
Why Do Bees Make Honey?
Bees depend on honey for food during the months they cannot find reliable nutrition. The purpose of making and storing honey is to feed the hive in colder months.
When worker bees bring nectar back to the processor bees, they change it into a substance that needs to be dried and cured to make honey. After addition of invertase, they place the new material into the honeycomb.
This placement prepares the liquid to dry out. It starts out about 70% water and the processor bees go to work getting much of the moisture out. This is done by flapping their wings to create airflow that aids in evaporating about half of the water. The average honey bee flaps their wings 11,000 times each minute.
After much of the water is flapped away, the bees use their bodies to produce a wax type substance to seal the honeycomb. This is where the honey is stored until they need it or beekeepers remove it.
When commercial beekeepers take out the honeycomb, they take special care to leave enough honey in the hive to feed the colony over the colder months. It is a mistake to remove all or even most of the honey they make since the bees will die without honey.
The average hive needs about 40 pounds of stored honey to make it through the colder months. This amount can push upwards of 90 pounds in freezing areas. To make one pound of honey, 550 worker bees will visit over 2 million flowers. The amount of energy it takes to produce honey to keep the hive alive is enormous.
Which Bees Make Honey?
When we look at which bees make honey, it comes down to species and gender. Worldwide there are about seven species of bees that produce honey. There are 44 subspecies recognized globally as producing honey. In the commercial honey industry in the United States, most bees fall into one of these species types. Those are the apis mellifera.
Apis mellifera translated means “honey carrying bee.” This is a little misguided since they carry nectar but that is the name none the less. This group of bees includes many races of bees, or subspecies like the apis mellifera lingustica, apis mellifera caucasca and apis mellifera carnica.
The USDA has also produced several hybrid bees by combining subspecies via their bee breeding and genetics program. This included a Russian hybrid known for being resistant to mites and cold winters. Other popular hybrids include the Buckfast and Minnesota hybrids.
Aside from the species of bees that make honey, the gender of the bees also comes into play. As mentioned earlier, the worker bees are all female. Each hive is also run by a mighty queen bee, who is by far the alpha female.
When we fully understand which bees make honey and what it takes to make even small amounts of honey, a new level of respect for the worker bees emerges. These tiny insects not only carry a big punch with their defensive stingers but also are among the hardest working species on the planet. Knowing only a tiny portion of bees can make honey only adds to the value of the worker bees' contributions.
Not only are the worker bees out there making food to feed their colonies in the colder months, but also creating a significant impact on the world around them. The select group of honey bees deserve to be both protected and respected. Taking a few moments to explore the sheer strength needed to do the tough job of gathering nectar makes the female bees even more amazing.
It is one thing to appreciate the amazing life of the honey bee, but it is a whole other issue to ignore the vanishing numbers. There is a lot at risk if we ignore the needs of the honey bee. They impact the human existence as they play a significant role in putting food on our tables. Even though there are over 20,000 species of bees on the planet, only a handful can fill the shoes of the worker honey bees. It is not as simple as allowing one species of honey bees to vanish because there are many more to take their place.
Beyond making honey to feed the hive, bees also bring many countries in the world profit in the form of the booming honey trade. Keeping bee habitats safe seems to be a small trade to stay in the honey business. It is also a small way to have a large overall impact. Next time someone asks “which bees make honey,” you can be sure to tell them that not all bees make honey, but all bees are equally important to our ecosystem.