Bees are incredibly important pollinators, playing a vital role in our diet by pollinating three-quarters of the fruits, vegetables, and nuts we consume daily. But bees are not just pollinators; they are also the source of delicious honey. However, how is this sweet nectar produced? A fascinating exploration of this topic has been presented by Dr. Joe Hanson on the BeSmart channel.
How honey is made
The honey production process begins with bees collecting nectar. The primary source of nectar is the flowers of plants. Bees dive headfirst into the flower and use their long, specially adapted tongues to sip small droplets of nectar. A bee has two stomachs – one for storing and transporting nectar, and the other for digestion. A single bee must visit over a thousand flowers to fill its special stomachs with nectar, and it can weigh as much as the bee itself.
After collecting nectar, the bee returns to the hive. At this stage, digestive enzymes are added to the nectar, which work to transform the complex sugars in raw nectar into simple sugars like fructose and glucose. This fermentation process takes place inside the hive, where bees transfer nectar to each other through… mutual regurgitation of nectar.
Nectar, which is still quite watery at this stage, needs to be evaporated and thickened. Bees use their wings to create a special air circulation inside the hive, causing the water to evaporate from the nectar and gradually thicken it. Finally, the honeycomb cell is sealed with a wax cap, allowing enzymatic changes in the nectar to continue until it transforms into honey.
Honey has a low water content and acidic pH, making it inhospitable to bacteria and yeast, giving it remarkable longevity in the hive or our pantry. Honey found in Egyptian tombs, dating back thousands of years, is still in good condition, demonstrating its incredible durability.
The roles of bees in the hive
Bee communities are highly organized and complex. Within the hive, three main groups of bees can be distinguished: drones, worker bees, and queens. The queen plays a crucial role in colony reproduction. After birth, a new queen immediately eliminates her sisters, as there can be only one queen in the hive. During the mating period, the queen flies to a distant hive, where she mates multiple times with male bees to store sperm for the future. She then returns to her hive, where she lays over a thousand eggs daily for the rest of her life. Unfertilized eggs develop into drones, which are males with only one set of chromosomes. Fertilized eggs develop into females destined to become either worker bees or queens. What determines the role of individual bees? It turns out that the key factor is the diet of bee larvae. Initially, bee larvae are fed with nutritious royal jelly, but after a few days, worker bee larvae are switched to a mixture of pollen and honey called “bee bread.” In contrast, the queen consumes royal jelly throughout her life. Scientists have discovered that it is the composition of bee bread, which queens do not consume, that makes worker bees infertile. Thus, the role of the queen depends on both what she eats and what the worker bees do not eat.
The production of honey by bees is an extraordinary process that requires immense effort and cooperation within the bee community. Bees collect nectar, transform it into honey through fermentation and evaporation, and then communicate with other bees to share information about food sources. The social organization of bees and the key roles they play inside the hive add a fascinating dimension to this remarkable process. All of this makes honey not only a treat for our taste buds but also of great importance to the ecosystem. During its creation, bees pollinate most of the flowering plants worldwide. Honey production by bees is true large-scale agriculture that benefits not only our palates but also the entire environment.