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How do bees make honey?

Updated: Apr 28

Have you ever wondered how bees make honey? It takes some chemistry, a little physics and a lot of teamwork. This blog explains the how of honey production.


A honeybee extending her proboscis to gather nectar from a blue Phacelia flower - as part of how do bees make honey - image is courtesy of Gilles San Martin
A honeybee feeding on a Phacelia flower - courtesy of Giles San Martin

Today we take sugar for granted but long before there was Tate and Lyle, there was honey. Humans have valued honey's sweetness for centuries. But exactly how do honeybees make honey?


HOW DOES HONEY START OUT

Honey starts out as nectar - which comes from flowers. Nectar is sugar - mainly a sugar called sucrose - dissolved in water. Perhaps surprisingly, this is the same sugar we get from sugar cane and beet today. It's the same sugar people put in tea, fizzy drinks and jam.


Sugar is full of energy. Flowers produce energy rich nectar as a reward for visiting pollinators like the honeybee.



At its summer peak, a honeybee colony is a vast force of foragers working to gather nectar. They can visit thousands of flowers in a day.


Bees are built for nectar collection. Each bee sucks up nectar with its straw-like mouthparts called the proboscis (No.1 in the diagram). If they don't want to digest it for their own use - to power their flight - they store the nectar in their honey stomach (No. 29 in the diagram). The honey stomach is like a holding tank.


MAKING HONEY - A BIT OF CHEMISTRY

The amount of sugar in nectar varies from species to species. Some can have as much as 70% sugar.


Even at 30% water, there’s too much water in nectar for it to keep. Just like a sugary drink, it will ferment if kept for too long.


Honeybees have evolved a way to process nectar so that it can keep for ever (almost).


As the bee sucks up the nectar, she adds an enzyme. The enzyme breaks down the sugar into the two simplest sugars - glucose and fructose. This happens in the bee’s honey stomach as she flies back to the hive.


At the hive, the returning bee passes the nectar to one of her sisters - who does some more chemistry. She adds another enzyme. This enzyme reacts with some of the nectar’s glucose to produce hydrogen peroxide.


Just like we use an antiseptic, the hydrogen peroxide helps to destroy bacteria in the nectar - one step on the way to helping it keep.


THE HIVE IS HUMMING - SOME PHYSICS

The bees inside the hive work to evaporate water from the nectar. They do this in two ways.


Individual bees strop the nectar. They draw up a drop of nectar on their mouthparts and expose it to the air in the hive - before swallowing it again. They do this many times – evaporating water each time - making the nectar more and more concentrated.


When it’s concentrated enough, the bees put the liquid into individual honeycomb cells. Whole areas of comb will be filled with this sugary mixture.


The bees now fan the combs with their wings to encourage more evaporation. They work night and day. If you stand next to a hive in the dark of a summer's evening, the hive literally hums with their activity.


A worker bee with her head inside a honeycomb cell - surrounded by more honeycomb cells containing capped honey
A worker be inside a cell - surrounded by cells of capped honey

When the water content is about18% the nectar has become honey.


The honey is now concentrated sugar but it is still liquid. This is possible because of something the bees did right at the start of the process – they added an enzyme to break down sucrose into glucose and fructose.


The bees make use of the physical interaction of glucose and fructose, at hive temperature, to produce a concentrated mixture. Through their work, the bees have produced a supersaturated sugar solution - honey.


With so much sugar (82%) things like yeast can't grow - the honey will store without fermenting.


Once they've made their honey, the bees will stop fanning the comb. They cap each honey filled cell with a beeswax lid. Just like a lid on a jar, this little cap will keep out any moisture. It protects the honey from honeybee feet too.


Honey can last for years like this because:

  • the high concentration of sugar stops yeast growing

  • hydrogen peroxide has an antimicrobial action - bacteria can't grow

  • dirt, air and water are kept out


CONCLUSION

So, “How do bees make honey” - with an incredible mix of chemistry and physics – plus some tailor-made biology and a hive full of honeybees working together.


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References:

Diagram of the internal anatomy of a honeybee - Bee Anatomy at Ask a Biologist Arizona State University

Information about the chemistry of honey - The Honeybee Around and About by Celia F. Davis (2019) Beecraft Ltd

Information about the composition of nectar - Nectar composition and concentration of 26 species from the temperate forests of South America by Chalcoff, Aizen and Galetto in the Annals of Botany


Thanks to:

Photograph of a honeybee courtesy of Gilles San Martin on Flickr under a Creative Commons Licence 


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