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How Do Bees Make Honey?

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A worker bee gathers nectar from flowers.

A worker bee gathers nectar from flowers.

Photo: © Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org
Question: How Do Bees Make Honey?
Honey bees use their stores of energy-rich honey to get them through lean times, including winter. Worker bees gather nectar from flowers and convert it into enough honey to keep the colony alive. How do bees make honey from nectar?
Answer:

Nectar contains about 80% water, along with complex sugars. Left in its natural state, nectar would ferment. In order to store the sugars in a usable and efficient state, bees convert the nectar into honey. Honey contains only 14-18% water. Pound for pound, honey provides a much greater energy source than pure nectar.

The actual process of transforming the flower nectar into honey requires teamwork. Older workers do the foraging and bring the nectar back to the hive. There, younger hive bees complete the task of turning it into honey.

First, worker bees fly out from the hive in search of nectar-rich flowers. Using its straw-like proboscis, a worker bees drinks the liquid nectar and stores it in a special stomach called the honey stomach. The bee continues to forage, visiting hundreds of flowers, until its honey stomach is full.

Within the honey stomach, enzymes break down the complex sugars of the nectar into simpler sugars, which are less prone to crystallization. This process is called inversion.

With a full belly, the worker bee heads back to the hive and regurgitates the already modified nectar for a hive bee. The hive bee ingests the sugary offering and further breaks down the sugars. It then regurgitates the inverted nectar into a cell of the honeycomb.

Now, the hive bees beat their wings furiously, fanning the nectar to evaporate its remaining water content. As the water evaporates, the sugars thicken into honey. Once the honey is finished, the hive bee caps the beeswax cell, sealing the honey into the honeycomb for later consumption.

A single worker bee produces only 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. Working cooperatively, thousands of worker bees can produce over 200 pounds of honey for the colony within a year.

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