Have you ever thought about how bees make honey? The thought crossed my mind a while back and I didn’t have an accurate answer. I figured that since I was going to become a beekeeper, than I’d better become educated in this process.
Step #1 The Need For Pollen and Nectar
Bees and blossoming plants need each other in order to survive. Bees seek out flowers for their nectar and pollen and in return end up pollinating (fertilizing) the flower as they transfer pollen grains from within each flower or from one flower to another.
In order for pollination to occur, pollen must be transferred from the stamen (male part of a plant) to the stigma (female part of the plant). When pollen from a plant’s stamen is transferred to that same plant’s stigma, it is called self-pollination. When pollen from a plant’s stamen is transferred to a different plant’s stigma, it is called cross-pollination. Anybody else feel like they just got teleported back to grade 5 science class?
But, this doesn’t tell us how the bees actually transfer the pollen grains from one part of the plant to the other? Well…bees are pretty hairy and the pollen grains stick to the 100s of hairs on their bodies. Some have even argued that bees actually carry an electrostatic charge which helps the pollen grains to stick to the hairs on their bodies. These grains attach and then come loose as the bee moves within each flower or from flower to flower. Thus, pollination (reproduction) is completed.
But, the bees also intentionally collect pollen from flowering plants. It is this protein packed food which is used to nourish their larvae. Believe it or not, they actually transport the pollen back to the hive by way of tiny baskets (scopas) that are attached to their rear legs. No…I’m not joking! Take a look at the picture below from one of my bees. Do you see the yellow stuff on her back legs? That’s pollen! It’s a great sign for beekeepers because it signifies that the Queen is laying eggs which are developing into larvae who need to be fed.
So, how do the bees get the nectar back to the hive? Well, first they have to draw it up into their body by way of a giant tongue (proboscis) which remains rolled up (kinda like one of those party favors that you blew on as a kid) until it is need to extract nectar. This tongue, when fully extended, is around 1/4″ long. Considering that a honey bee is between 1/2″- 3/4″ long that makes for a freakishly long longue! To make a comparison, a 6 foot human would have to have a tongue somewhere in the 2-3ft. range . These bees make Gene Simmons trade mark tongue look like a joke!
Below is a picture of my bees drawing up some honey that I accidentally spilt while inspecting my hive. Check out the length of the tongue on the bee who is hanging upside down in the rear of the picture. And still, that tongue is not fully extended!
Once the bee begins drawing up nectar via its tongue, it is deposited into her “honey stomach”. In fact, bees have two stomachs; their honey stomach which is like a nectar backpack and their regular stomach. The honey stomach holds almost 70 mg of nectar. When it is full, it weighs almost as much as the bee, herself. Now……That’s impressive! Imagine picking up and carrying a load which is equal to your body weight? But to make it even more outstanding……..we want you to fly to between 100 and 1500 flowers in order to gather that weight. I don’t know about you, but I am TOTALLY impressed.
Step 2: Back At The Hive
Once the honeybees return to the hive, they pass the nectar on to other worker bees. These bees actually suck the nectar from the foraging bee’s honey stomach! This is definitely one bit of info. I’m not sharing with my kids. If they ever found this one out, our honey consumption would drop to near zero!
The “transfer” bees then “chew” on the nectar which helps to break down the complex sugars into a digestible food source which can be stored indefinitely within the hive. Incidentally, did you know that the honey which was found in King Tut’s tomb is still considered edible after 2000 years. Talk about a natural preservative!
The bees then deposit the nectar into the honeycombs where it continues to evaporates into a thicker syrup. The bees make the nectar dry even faster by fanning it with their wings. Once the honey reaches a moisture content of around 18%, the bees seal off each cell of the honeycomb with some wax. The honey is then stored until it is consumed by the colony. Incidentally, did you know that honey bees need to store around 100 pounds of honey in order to survive the winter? Talk about the ultimate Prepper! As for the honey that you and I eat????? Well….that will have to wait for another post when I will show you how I took off some honey from my own hive.
Honey Bee Trivia:
Did you know that one honey bee will only make about 1/12 teaspoon of honey in her entire six weeks of life? Maybe I’ve been taking that teaspoon of honey for granted that goes into my tea each morning. Considering the above calculation, I consume the entire life’s work of 12 bees in a few gulps of tea.