The process of honey making is something many people think about. After all, how can bees make something so delicious? It might be worth asking why bees make honey before I get into how they make it.
Why Do Bees Make Honey?
Although honey is nutritious and tasty, bees do not make it for human consumption. In fact, honey is made by bees to feed themselves. Honey is their food source, and it is what they give to their young to help them grow. The reason bees produce honey in abundance is so that they can feed themselves during the colder winter months when it is difficult to leave the hive due to inclement weather and when there is a limited supply of flowers from which to collect the nectar they need.
By over-producing honey in the spring and summer, bees can store it and use it to feed the entire colony during the winter. This is why it is important for beekeepers to leave enough honey in the hives for the bees to survive the winter.
How is Honey Made?
Now you know why bees make honey, we can talk about how they actually make it. And make no mistake, this is truly remarkable.
Something you might not know is that not every bee is capable of making honey. It is only the honeybee that can produce this sweet food source. Another interesting fact is that one single worker bee will ‘only’ make around a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey throughout its entire life (which is, incidentally, around six weeks). This is why it takes an entire colony of bees to produce the large amounts of honey that can be harvested by beekeepers.
There are a number of steps involved in the honey-making process:
- Worker bees leave the hive in search of flowers, from which they can collect nectar. They will usually travel around four to five miles from the hive in search of nectar and pollen. Bees use their proboscis (tubular mouth part) to suck nectar from the inside of the flower. The honeybee will typically visit over one hundred flowers on each trip. The collected nectar is stored in the bee’s honey stomach, ready to be taken back to the hive.
- In the hive, other worker bees (also called house bees) are waiting to begin making honey. When the foraging bees return, they pass the nectar from their honey stomachs to the house bees, who then chew it up before passing it along to another bee. This process continues until the nectar turns to a watery honey.
- Before the honey can be stored for the winter, it must be dehydrated. Although some water is removed during the chewing process, it still contains too much at this stage. Bees will spread the honey out across the honeycomb, allowing water to evaporate from it. To speed up the process, the bees will set about flapping their wings near to the honey. This increases airflow and ensures that more water evaporates.
- When the water content is down to just under twenty percent, the bees can begin the final stage, which is capping the honey with beeswax. When the honey is ready and the water content is at the right level, the bees will place it in a honeycomb cell and then cap it with wax that they have secreted from glands at the rear of their abdomen. The capping of honeycomb cells helps to keep the honey fresh.
Do Bees Starve if We Take Their Honey?
Because we know that bees make honey primarily as a food source for themselves, the question of whether they would starve when humans take their honey is a legitimate one to ask.
Yes, a colony of honeybees could starve to death if too much honey is taken from their hive before the winter. Unfortunately, it is a mistake that novice beekeepers often make, especially when the new hive has not had time to build up enough stores.
Experienced beekeepers know that a new hive will need time to establish its honey stores and so will very rarely take honey from the hive in the first year. It may even be necessary to supply sugar syrup as an additional food source for the bees over the winter.
Can Bees Have Too Much Honey?
Taking too much honey from beehives can leave the colony starving, but what happens if you harvest too little honey – or none at all?
If excess honey is not harvested, a colony will soon outgrow its hive. Honeybees spend their lives working for the good of the colony, and this means producing honey in abundance. They will make more than they need for food so that they can store it for use when they are unable to collect nectar. However, they do tend to over-produce, so unless the excess honey is harvested, the bees will eventually run out of room to store it.
If the bees run out of room in the hive, they will have no choice but to swarm.
How Often Should Honey be Harvested?
Those new to beekeeping often make the mistake of taking too much honey and leaving the colony with insufficient food stores for the winter. With that in mind, it is worthwhile knowing how often honey should be harvested from a hive.
There is no set rule as to how many times you can harvest, and experience will give you the most definitive answer. How much honey that you take will really depend on how much your bees are producing, which will in turn depend on a number of factors such as time of year, weather conditions, and the number of flowering plants near to the hive.
Most beekeepers will harvest honey either once or twice per year, with very little (or none at all) taken in the first year. It is important to only take cured, capped honey from the hive and as a rule, only harvest when the frame is more than three-quarters full.
Only honeybees make honey and they do so to feed the colony. However, bees tend to over-produce to ensure they have enough food to survive the winter, a time at which they cannot forage for nectar.
Bees follow a step-by-step process when making honey. Worker bees will leave the hive to collect nectar. When they return to the hive, they pass the nectar that has been stored in their honey stomachs to waiting bees, who then chew it and pass it along to other bees until it has turned to honey.
The honey must then be dehydrated before it is stored in honeycomb cells and capped with beeswax for freshness.
Because bees use honey as a food source for themselves, it is important that beekeepers do not take too much as they could leave the colony starving during the winter. Taking too little could mean the colony outgrows the hive and swarms.