Once, my kids asked me: Mom, can you explain how do bees make honey? Well, bees make it. Okay, I know, bees… but how do bees make honey?
I had no idea and this question was confusing, so I went to my friend the beekeeper. It was a long conversation, but I finally found out everything. If you are wondering about this too, keep reading, I’ll tell you everything soon.
Bees live in close-knit communities. One bee would not survive without her own family and community. The whole life of the bee family is organized to provide food and ensure family continuity. A lonely bee wouldn’t be able to produce enough heat to stay warm and survive, so it would die without having any offspring. Bees are born in families and raised by family members. Once a bee grows up, it has to raise and look after other family members.
Bee antenas and hair
Bees have antennae – it’s their sensory receptor. They have about 170 odor receptors in their antennas to detect odors. When flying, bees can easily find pollen-bearing rings because their sense of smell is super sensitive.
Bees can also measure dimensions with their antennae. By touching something with the antennae, bees measure depth and width. This way, they produce honeycomb cells with very precise dimensions. Bees use them to touch and communicate with each other while dancing.
Every hair of a bee contains nerves. They are sensitive to vibration or physical contact. Therefore, when an unknown frequency is detected, a bee is immediately alarmed. If you touch a bee, its nerves will send a signal to the brain, warning that it is being touched.
The taste receptors
Bees and humans have similar taste perceptions. They have small tongues that can identify sweet, sour, and bitter.
Pollen is one of bees’ main sources of protein. With quality protein, bee colonies grow faster. Protein has a stimulating effect. Without quality protein or pollen, bees stop breeding, the workers bees die earlier, reducing their resistance to disease. The pollen structure contains up to 61% protein. One bee brings about 8 mg of pollen. The bee family collects 10 – 26 kg per year. People eat pollen to improve their diet. You can use it to flavor porridge, add to cocktails or salad.
When all the plants bloom, bees start collecting nectar. If a worker bee finds nectar, it flies back to the hive’s nest and „dances” a special dance to inform the other bees about it. During the dance, the bee performs special movements and emits sounds that reveal to other bees the distance and direction to the nectar-containing flower. The bee’s „dance” is a means of communication between bees.
How do bees make honey?
Bees make honey from flower nectar. They suck nectar from the flowers through their straw-shaped tongues, mix it with the enzymes in saliva, which change the chemical composition and pH of the honey and makes it ready for long-term storage. The bee returns to the hive, regurgitates the collected nectar and gives it to another bee. The process is repeated until the nectar is fermented and pushed into the honeycomb.
About 70% of the nectar that is placed in the honeycomb is made up of water. When water evaporates from the nectar, it becomes honey. To remove water from honeycombs, the bees blow air with their wings into them, and it speeds up evaporation. Within 1 to 3 days, the water concentration drops to 17 percent and the nectar turns into honey.
Once the honey is mature, the bees seal the honeycomb cells with liquid from their stomachs. Eventually this liquid thickens and turns into beeswax. A family of bees brings 198 lb/90 kg of honey to the hive every year. Honey is protected from humidity and temperature changes, so it stays fresh for the whole winter season.
Young worker bees produce honeycombs. They are used in many different ways: for raising bees, for storing food and for growing drones. The bees attach the honeycomb to the frame of the hive. The size of their cells depends on the purpose. Drone honeycombs have larger cells. In nature, bees attach honeycombs to their nest ceilings, in the hollows of trees – to their vaults.
Honeycombs are built simultaneously on both sides. Their cells are tilted upwards by several degrees. Fresh honeycombs have a light color. The cocoons of the hatched broods darken the honeycombs, so after a few years they are no longer suitable for the broods’ growth. The hexagonal structure of the honeycomb is optimal for the required volume, so the bees consume less wax.
Propolis is a sticky, thick-textured substance that worker bees collect from plants. It has a bitter taste and a pleasant scent. Chemical structure is difficult and not fully understood. Propolis is a mixture of vegetable resins, essential oils and waxes. It contains more than 11 chemical elements (copper, manganese, zinc, cobalt, barium, titanium, nickel, chromium, etc.). The bees use propolis to cover the walls of the hive, to plug the cracks and sterilize the cells. In order to remove all foreign organisms from the hive, bees cover it with propolis. It’s air and waterproof, so perishable foreign organisms are embalmed, thus protecting the nest from various diseases and infections.
The bees carry the pollen to the hives and throw it into the honeycombs’ cells. The younger bees crush the pollen balls with their front jaws and compress them well with their heads. This is how the bees work until they cover two-thirds of the cell volume with pollen. Pollen from different plants is placed together. Bees do not sort it. As soon as the cells have been filled, the bees fill them with honey and cover them with wax, allowing the honey to mature.
Bee bread forms in two weeks under the influence of a number of microorganisms, enzymes, high humidity, and a temperature of 34-36 °C/93-96 °F. For bees, it is a storehouse of nutrients and a major source of protein, fat, carbohydrates, trace elements and vitamins. The average bee family consumes about 25 kg / 55 lb of bees bread per year. Each honeycomb contains 140-180 mg of bee bread. Bee broods, young bees and drones are fed with this bread. Bees consume a lot of bread to produce royal jelly and wax.
Structure of the bee family
A bee family is made up of a queen bee, worker bees, and drones. A single bee can’t start a new family on her own and live alone. Depending on the time of year, the size of the bee colony varies from 0.5 to 1.5 kg in spring, at least 3 kg in summer and around 2 kg in autumn. In mid-summer there is a maximum expansion, the bee family weighs 5-6 kg and more. On average, there are about 10,000 individuals in 1 kg of bees.
The queen bee
The queen bee is the biggest insect in the bee family. They live for 3 years or more. The young queen bee matures in 2 weeks and after mating with drones, becomes fertile. Mating takes place in the air at an altitude of 30–50 m, with 7 to 20 drones participating in fertilization.
The queen bee leaves the hive for mating a few times and can be up to 12 km away. After mating, the queen bee collects sperm from several different drones in the fallopian tubes, then lays eggs in the honeycomb where the bees develop. A queen bee mates just once. The family is doomed to extinction without the queen bee. Therefore, the bees in each family take great care of the queen bee. If the queen bee disappears in the family, they feel it very quickly and the entire life of the beehive is destroyed. The bees quit all their activities and fly out to look for the queen bee.
Worker bees do all the work in the hive: collect nectar and pollen, process nectar into honey, pollen into bee bread, make honeycombs, feed the queen b and drones, take care of the brood, clean the nest, etc. Honeybee workers die faster as a result of difficult work. Their life expectancy varies between 28 days to 6-7 months. Those who work harder die faster.
After losing their mother, the worker bees try to escape the situation. They start laying their own infertile eggs, and only drones hatch from them. Drones don’t collect honey, they don’t feed broods and mothers. As the number of worker bees decreases and drones increase, such a family weakens. Eventually, the family dies from enemies or lack of food.
A drone is a male bee. Its main function is to fertilize the queen bee. Being in the hive nest, they help to maintain the required temperature in the area where honey bee larvae hatch from eggs – about +34 ° C/ 93F. There are several tens to several thousand drones in a beehive. Drone dies right after fertilizing the queen bee.
In the fall, the worker bees stop feeding the drones and push the weak ones out of the nest. The queen lays eggs according to how the worker bees carry the nectar. If there is a lot of nectar, then the queen lays a lot of eggs, otherwise she lays fewer eggs.
The bee family acts as one organism. The worker bees guide the queen by letting her know how many eggs to lay, although it looks the other way around. Usually, the queen cannot fly when she lays eggs.
Enemies of bees
The enemies of bees are wasps, moths and ants. In this video, bees kill a giant hornet using heat. Bees can protect themselves from this Asian giant hornet working as a team. Giant Hornets are the largest hornets in the world, and their body can be up to 5cm long. They feed on larger insects, tree sap and honey from bee colonies. They are called bee killers and a group of such hornets kill the bee family within 3 hours.
In France and other countries with warmer climates, they do significant damage to bees. People are using drones to find and destroy their nests. However, it is obvious that bees can defend themselves against individual intruders. The giant hornet has one terrible weakness – it cannot stand heat. After facing their enemy for millions of years, the bees use this as their advantage. They wait for the hornet to attack, then surround it in a circle and heat the air to the point that the hornet just bakes. Being small doesn’t mean you can’t defend yourself. The victory is guaranteed if everyone joins together and becomes a powerful force.
Let’s celebrate world bee day
Let’s all celebrate World Bee Day on May 20th. The aim of this day is to draw attention to the slow extinction of bees and other insect pollinators around the globe. They are the most significant to nature and biodiversity, agriculture, and human health. Bees pollinate as much as 85 percent of world plants and about 80 percent of plant species for human consumption.
We encourage beekeepers to treat their bees with respect and not to remove all honey stocks before winter, so that bees can have their own food. Bee families fed sugar syrup have trouble fighting ticks and other diseases. As a result beekeepers have to use chemicals and medicines in the hive. These chemicals are later found in honey, bee bread, propolis and wax. Research has shown that bee nectar contains significant amounts of heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and others. It’s best to keep bees far away from highways and farms that use chemicals.
Ways to save the bees
Each of us can support organic beekeeping by choosing to buy local organic products and of course planting a garden full of flowers and trees. Give up on synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, and neonicotinoids. They are harmful to bees, wreaking havoc on their sensitive systems. Avoid treating your garden and green spaces with synthetics. Instead, use organic products and natural solutions such as compost to aid soil health and adding beneficial insects that keep pests away like ladybugs and praying mantises. Create a water source for bees in your garden, and of course build a bug hotel.
It is amazing how unique our nature is. Remember, you are part of this. Take care of yourself and all nature’s creatures.