The word ‘honey’ holds a mystical, positive place in our language. Some people believe that the term ‘honey moon’ comes from the Old Norse tradition of newlyweds consuming mead (fermented honey) for a month after their nuptials. And the land of milk and honey refers to a longed-for place of comfort and plenty. Honey has even marked a place in history as one of the first sweeteners used by humans. But where exactly does this highly praised substance come from? It’s a simple, yet remarkable, natural feat of the honeybee.
The reason behind it all
Bees have a cooperative structure designed to help the colony grow and reproduce into more colonies. This structure consists of a queen bee (egg layer), several drones (males whose only function is to mate with the queen), and non-fertile female worker bees that fulfill many different jobs. Of primary importance to maintaining the health of the bee hive and expanding the size of the colony is a good source of food. Worker bees collect what is needed and create the bee food we know as honey.
Gathering the ingredients
Scout bees look for good sources of nectar and return to the hive to tell the forager bees where they need to travel from the hive to get these food sources. Worker bees that forage outside the hive spend their life–a span of about 33 days in summer–gathering pollen and nectar for the hive. These worker bees are designed with a special stomach (crop) for nectar storage that allows them to carry a hefty load of the sweet liquid. When these bees gather the nectar in their crops, it is mixed with enzymes that help to break it down into simple sugars and give it some of its preservative qualities. The pollen they collect acts as a protein and is blended with honey to feed the developing brood. The nectar is gathered specifically to make honey for immediate feeding, brood feeding, and to store as food when needed after the honey flow ends for the season.
The nectar that is brought to the hive is transferred by mouth to the hive workers. As the nectar is passed from bee to bee in this manner, more enzymes are added and the water content is reduced. The reduced nectar is then placed in honey comb where more workers fan their wings to reduce the water content to about 17%. It is then consolidated into fresh honey comb and sealed with bees wax. This process is repeated throughout the summer months of foraging. As long as there is nectar to collect, the bees will continue to make honey and store it in their comb.
Hives and honey
The average bee colony will need over 40 pounds of honey to survive the winter months. In northern climates, the need for stored honey will more than double. Bees beat their wings to maintain an adequate temperature in the hive. From late winter to late autumn, the hive is kept around 95F (35C) to provide the best conditions for raising brood. Bees are not dormant in the winter and use their cooperative nature to keep the hive warm enough to survive. Gathered in a ball-like group in a sealed part of the brood area, the vibrating wings keep the temperature no less than 50F (10C) at the outer edges of the group. This requires a lot of energy which requires a lot of food!
Give a little, take a little
Some people have expressed concern that taking the bees honey will harm the colony. This isn’t the case. As mentioned before, bees will continue to make honey as long as the honey flow is in progress. Once a bee keeper sees that a large portion of honey is stored in the deep hive bodies closer to the brood, a queen divider is used between the brood area and the honey supers, so no eggs will be laid in the new honey comb. These special honey supers are the next place the bees will start to store honey. This is what would be considered excess honey that won’t be needed for overwintering. A good beekeeper will be checking the brood hive in the fall to make sure there are adequate stores of honey and discontinue placing honey supers if it looks like a hive will be short. Most beekeepers will also feed their bees during the long winter months to provide assistance if the weather has been very cold, wet, or inconsistent.
Supporting your honeybees
Honey is a remarkable product that has been used throughout the world for thousands of years. Unfortunately, honeybees in some countries are experiencing viruses and diseases that make it difficult to maintain colonies in the wild. The honeybee not only produces a wonderful sweetener, but helps to pollinate many food crops worldwide. One way to protect these remarkable pollinators is to buy honey from local beekeepers that care for and manage domestic bees.