We get a lot of questions from our community about honey! One of the more popular is exactly how is honey made? Most people have a general idea, but aren't aware of all the miraculous little details that occur. Our goal with this post is take you on a quick tour of the basics of honey production and give you a little more of a connection to the honey bee!
Where does honey come from?
It all starts with forager honey bees. These are the bees that you see out visiting flowers or drinking water around your swimming pool. Forager bees visit flowers to collect two items - pollen and nectar. In this post we are most interested in nectar because that is the basic building block of honey. Honey is flower nectar that has been dried out to the right consistency with a bit of "bee magic" added. As foragers visit flowers they use their proboscis (a fancy word for their tongue) to gather nectar. They can carry up to half their body weight in collected nectar and still fly which is a pretty amazing feat in and of itself! Foragers will continue to go from flower to flower until they can't carry any more nectar and pollen.
Where do they store the nectar? Is honey really bee vomit?
Ok so we now have a forager bee that has visited many flowers and is filled up with nectar. Honey bees actually have two different "stomachs". One stomach is used for digestion, the other is used for storing honey. No digestion takes place in the honey stomach so in this case the word "stomach" can be a little misleading a better term might be "honey tank"! If a bee needs energy there is a valve that will divert nectar into its actual stomach for digestion. This nectar then cannot be used to make honey. Any nectar not needed for fuel will be routed to the honey stomach for storage.
So our bee has a full honey stomach. Now what?
Once our forager has the nectar she needs it's back to the hive on a beeline. While the nectar is stored in the honey stomach the bee adds an enzyme called invertase. This enzyme starts to break down the sucrose in nectar into glucose and fructose. By breaking down a complex sugar (sucrose) into simple sugars (glucose and fructose) it changes the flavor and makes it more digestible for the bees (and us).
We arrive at the hive
Our forager has made it back to the hive, nectar intact! As she enters the hive, younger bees called house bees meet the incoming foragers. Once our forager is met by a house bee she begins transferring the nectar to her. The challenge the bees face now is that nectar is 80% water. In order for it to become honey and a food that will last indefinitely the bees need to reduce the water content down to around 18%. Our house bee will "process" the nectar for about the next 30 minutes or so to reduce water content and add more invertase to further break down the sugars. This processing involves the house bee chewing and re-swallowing the nectar into it's honey stomach. After about 30 minutes the nectar is now reduced down to about 20% moisture content. The house bee will then find a space on the honeycomb to place the honey for further drying. Air circulation inside the hive which is created by bees fanning their wings will then remove the rest of the moisture to get the water content down to 18%. During the Spring and Fall when bees are making honey you can walk by the hives and smell the honey curing. It's one of the more delicious scents in nature! House bees will then move this honey to cells for storage. Once the honey cell is full, bees will put a wax seal on top to keep out moisture and contaminants until it's need by the hive for food.
So what happened to our forager?
Well once she dropped off her nectar and groomed herself, she is back out on another foraging flight! She will continue to do this as long as the weather and temperature are good for flying and the sun is shining.
So we hope you enjoyed this tour of honey production! Honey is quite an amazing food packed with Vitamins, Minerals and Antioxidants. If you found this article useful please feel free to share. And as always if you have a Lil' Keeper or there is one close by take a few minutes to explain to them how honey is made! Kids love to learn about the natural world!