How Do Bees Make Honey?

First of all what is honey?

The legal definition contained in the Honey (England) Regulations 2015 is as follows:

2.—(1) In these Regulations “honey” means the natural sweet substance produced by Apis
mellifera bees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of
plant-sucking insects on the living parts of plants which the bees collect, transform by combining
with specific substances of their own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in honeycombs to ripen
and mature.

So as you can see honey can only legally be made by bees – so how do they do it?

Just for the record honey is not “bee spit” or even worse “bee vomit” as you may read. It is simply nectar that has been processed by the bees into one of nature’s wonder substances.

When she is out foraging the worker bee will collect the nectar by sucking it into her honey stomach.

A bee collecting nectar from borage

Nectar consists mostly of the sugars sucrose, glucose and fructose. By mixing the nectar with an enzyme called invertase the bees are able to change the sucrose into glucose and fructose. They produce this enzyme from glands known as hypopharyngeal glands. This means that by the time it becomes honey nearly all the sucrose has been changed in to glucose and fructose.

When the foraging bee gets back to the hive she will “pass” her load to one of the younger worker bees who are ready to do the final processing in the hive. In order to “pass” the nectar she regurgitates it onto her proboscis. A  younger house bee will take the drop from her and will then begin the process of reducing the water content by rolling the nectar up and down her proboscis allowing water to begin to evaporate from the droplet. She will then  take it away and put it into a cell ready for further processing. In a managed hive these cells will have been built in the supers or top boxes of the hive to make any surplus easy to harvest. The house worker bees will take the nectar out of the cell many times depending on the temperature and carry out the evaporation process.

Once the bees get the moisture content as low as 18% they are then happy that the honey will not spoil and can cap it over with beeswax. They produce this wax from glands on the side of their bodies and having chewed it they cover over the honey.

A completed frame of honey

Once the bees have completed their work the only thing that will happen to the honey is that eventually it will crystalise. We know from honey taken from the tombs of the pharaohs that it will still be perfectly edible in several thousand years time.

Honey is a truly amazing product.