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How do bees make honey? From the hive to the pot

How do bees make honey?
(Image credit: Getty Images)

How do bees make honey? Unlike many other bees, honeybee species don't hibernate in winter. Instead, they stay active in their hives. During the coldest months, honeybees cluster together to keep warm and survive on the sweet substance that they have been hoarding for weeks in advance. That substance is honey. 

All of the bees in a hive benefit from the honey haul, but the job of honey production lies with the female worker bees, according to biologists at Arizona State University (opens in new tab). These forager bees fill their stomachs with nectar from flowers before returning to the hive to convert it into honey. Male honeybees, which make up about ten per cent of the hive population, spend their lives eating this honey, before leaving the hive to mate. 

There are many factors that determine how much honey a single bee colony will need to produce for a winter period. It depends on the climate where the bees live, how much ventilation the hive has, the number and kind of bees in the hive, according to the Italian Journal of Animal Science (opens in new tab). Honeybees will continue to make honey until every cell in their hive is full. 

When produced, honey is very long–lasting. Honeybees reduce the water content in honey and add sugar, which greatly limits the ability of bacteria and other microorganisms to grow in it and spoil it, according to the Saudi Journal of Biological Sciences (opens in new tab). Before nectar becomes honey, it enters a bee's stomach. An enzyme in bees' stomachs, called glucose oxidase, breaks down the nectar and helps produce the honey.

Honeybee anatomy

A honeybee's anatomy is adapted to collect and transfer honey. Click the labels of the interactive image below to discover how the bee's body assists honey production. 

In–hive production

A bee may need to visit over 1,000 flowers before its honey stomach is completely full, according to Montana Public Radio (MTPR) (opens in new tab). When this is achieved it will return to the hive to begin the honey–making process. 

The bee then regurgitates the nectar from the honey stomach, and it is passed from mouth–to–mouth between the hive's bees to reduce its moisture content. Each bee chews the nectar for about half an hour, according to RSPB (opens in new tab).

Sometimes, the nectar can be placed into an empty cell, before it is passed to another bee. A hive can be over 91 degrees Fahrenheit (33 degrees Celsius), according to the Journal of Comparative Physiology (opens in new tab), helping some of the moisture evaporate from the nectar while it is stored.

When the nectar's moisture content is reduced from 70 percent to about 20 percent, it becomes honey, according to the Journal of Global Biosciences (opens in new tab). The honey is stored in cells within the hive until it is needed.

As new bee larvae grow in separate brood cells, honey cells are filled with honey in preparation for the new bees' arrival. When bee larvae have grown and hatch from their cells, honeybees feed them with the energy–rich honey they have collected. The honey is mixed with pollen to form "bee bread" for extra nutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fat, minerals and antioxidants). 

bee hive

Honeybees store honey in the cells of their hives.  (Image credit: Getty Images)

Should we harvest honey?

To produce the honey found in supermarkets, beekeepers harvest the honey made from bees in artificial hives. This process is a widely debated topic. How does keeping bees impact honey production, the environment and the bees themselves? 

Bees can produce more honey than they need to sustain their colony over the winter period, according to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Information (opens in new tab). So, many beekeepers believe that using the excess for human benefit causes little harm to the bees' welfare. Others claim that the bees are overworked as they have to make up extra volumes of honey to replace what's taken, according to the Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation (opens in new tab). In addition, when bees' honey is taken and replaced with a sugar alternative, bees aren't getting the same nutrition as wild honeybees. 

As bees search for nectar, hairs on their bodies brush flowers and pick up pollen. When flying between plants, the bees transfer the pollen and help flower species to reproduce. This is why it is beneficial to protect bee populations. 

Harvesting honeybees increases the number of bees in an area, but because these domesticated bees compete with other native bee species, flower resources become limited and can eventually cause other bee species to die out, according to the University of Cambridge (opens in new tab). Different bee species target specific flowers, and so a balance of honeybees and other species is essential in the long–term survival of plant and insect species.   

Additional resources

You can read more about the different roles of honeybees and the history of honeybee production at the University of Arkansas System (Division of Agriculture) website (opens in new tab). Additionally, for nutritional values of honey, go to the European Food Information Council (EUFIC) website (opens in new tab).

Bibliography

Ailsa is a staff writer for How It Works (opens in new tab) magazine, where she writes science, technology, history, space and environment features. Based in the U.K., she graduated from the University of Stirling (opens in new tab) with a BA (Hons) journalism degree. Previously, Ailsa has written for Cardiff Times magazine, Psychology Now and numerous science bookazines. Ailsa's interest in the environment also lies outside of writing, as she has worked alongside Operation Wallacea (opens in new tab) conducting rainforest and ocean conservation research.