Why And How Do Bees Make Honey? (What You Need To Know)

EDUCATION

13 minutes

Essential Takeaways

Bees make honey by collecting nectar, breaking it down in their stomachs, dehydrating it, and storing the honey in their own honeycomb cells. The colour, flavour, and chemical composition of the honey is determined by the plant nectar collected.

Honey is an important food source for bees, protecting them against disease and pathogens. Harvesting honey responsibly doesn’t harm the bees, and many beekeepers keep a close watch over supplies to ensure the bees have enough nutrients.

Like with any industry, some honey producers are more ethical and responsible than others. By paying attention to the processes and labels on honey jars, you can ensure that you support the best beekeepers with the most sustainable practices.

Most people know the basic principle of how honey is made: bees collect nectar, they produce honey, and they store it in a honeycomb.

But to go from flower nectar to a powerful substance with a 6,000+ year reputation for health and wellness¹ is a big leap.

There must be more to the story.

Why and how do bees make honey? Do all bees make honey? What happens when we take the honey, and is that bad for bees?

We’ll be discussing all that and more in this guide.

In this guide to how bees make honey:

  • A step-by-step exploration of how bees make honey

  • Why bees make honey

  • How bees make different kinds of honey

  • What happens to bees when honey is harvested

  • What happens to honey after it’s harvested

  • How (and where) to buy honey responsibly

  • FAQs about how honey is made

How Bees Make Honey (Step by Step)

Let’s explore exactly what happens when bees make and store honey.

1. Female worker bees collect nectar

Flowers produce nectar to attract pollinators like bees². When these pollinators clamber inside the flowers to collect the sweet, viscous secretion, they cover themselves in pollen which fertilises other plants.

Honeybees have a hollow proboscis which is like a long tongue, and they use this to suck the nectar. It can take over 1,000 flowers to fill the bee’s honey stomach³.

2. The nectar is broken down in the stomach

Sweet liquid nectar is first stored in the proventriculus, or the first stomach chamber. The special enzyme invertase breaks down the nectar’s complex sugars into glucose and fructose.

Other enzymes tackle any bacteria in the nectar⁴ so this isn’t carried into the honey.

3. The nectar substance is regurgitated

When the worker bee returns to the hive, a pass-the-parcel chewing sequence takes place. It passes the honey mouth-to-mouth to other worker bees to reduce its moisture content.

Fun fact: each bee can spend up to half an hour chewing the honey!

This, along with the average temperature of a healthy hive, gets the moisture content of the honey down from around 70% to nearer 20%³.

4. The honey is packed into honeycomb chambers

With a water content of 20% or less, the honey won’t go mouldy or grow harmful bacteria⁴. At this stage, the sweet substance is ready to be stored for eating when resources become more scarce.

Bees pack the honey into a honeycomb cell made from the fresh beeswax they secrete⁵, and cover the cell over with a wax lid.

5. The honey is used to feed the colony

Bees feed honey to their larvae as they grow, and gather stores for the colder months when nectar and pollen are in short supply. Queens are fed royal jelly, a separate substance produced by worker bees which is rich in minerals.

So that’s how the magic happens. And “worker bees” really do earn their title.

Wondering how much honey one bee produces?

It can take a dozen bees their entire lives to produce just one teaspoon of honey⁴. And it turns out that honey is more than just a “supplementary” or back-up food.

Why Do Honey Bees Produce Honey?

“Honey and its phytochemical constituents, some of which likely derive from propolis, have functional significance in protecting honeybees against microbial pathogens, toxins, and cold stress, as well as in regulating development and adult longevity.”

Nectarivores (animals and insects that forage for nectar) have it hard.

Their main source of nutrients can be a little unreliable at times. The flowers available can vary between locations, harvest times, and between individual plants, too⁶.

So nectarivores, such as forager bees, have to protect themselves in a couple of ways:

  1. To consume other plant tissues, like pollen for protein, and,

  2. To make and store nutritious food for when times get tough.

Honeybees make honey to eat and to store so that they have a food source during the seasons where less flowers are in bloom and less nectar is available⁷.

“Creation of honey by A. mellifera as a storage form for nectar circumvents or minimizes the problems of unpredictability, ephemerality, susceptibility to microbial contamination, and phytochemical variability.”

Interest in honeybee nutrition has increased in recent years⁸ due to declining populations and the need to better understand their health⁹.

It’s probably not news to you that bees are important for more than just making honey.

“Honeybees are vital members of natural and agricultural ecosystems worldwide. In the United States, the Western honeybee (Apis mellifera) contributes more than $15 billion to the agricultural industry annually.”

Bees are major pollinators, performing an essential role in dispersing the pollen of the plants we need to survive.

In fact, around ⅓ of the food produced globally relies on pollinators, and honeybees are responsible for about 80-90% of this¹⁰.

As a result, interest in their welfare has skyrocketed in popular culture due to the threats posed to bees by climate change¹¹.

It’s more important than ever before that we understand why and how bees make honey, so that we can better shield them against this imposing threat.

Which bees make honey?

Less than 4% of all bee species make honey, and some of those don’t make enough for it to be worth harvesting¹². Like bumble bees, for example¹³.

Upwards of 19,000 bee species don’t make any honey at all¹⁴.

The Apis honeybee genus are the best known honey producers¹³.

There are three sub-groups in this family: cavity-nesting honeybees, giant honeybees, and dwarf honeybees.

The poster child for honeybees - the one we see and hear about the most - is the Apis mellifera (or Western honeybee). It is most commonly bred by humans for honey and used to fertilise agricultural crops¹⁵.

If they’re not raised in hives by beekeepers, this cavity-nesting honeybee likes cosy tree trunks.

Other honeybee species, such as the Red dwarf honeybee (Apis florea¹⁶) and the giant honeybee (Apis dorsata¹⁷) build nests suspended from tree branches and twigs.

Rock honeybees (Apis laboriosa¹⁷) nest at high altitudes on cliff faces.

Then there’s the stingless bee family with around 600 species. These bees produce honey at very low quantities. As a result, it is rare and treasured, particularly by indigenous communities¹³.

Which bees make manuka honey?

You might be surprised to hear that it isn’t native honeybees that make manuka honey.

The Western honeybee was introduced to New Zealand by British missionaries in 1839¹⁸.

These hard-working Europeans make our coveted and highly sought-after manuka honey using the sweet nectar from the Leptospermum scoparium (mānuka) plant.

Do all the bees in a colony make honey?

No, not all the honeybees in a colony make honey.

Different bee species organise themselves in different ways. Some bees are social, others aren’t.

So there’s no single set of roles for every colony¹⁹.

Sticking with our Apis genus, these honeybees are considered “social” because:

  • Most individuals in the group focus on protecting and growing the colony rather than reproducing,

  • They share parenting duties for offspring that aren’t their own, and,

  • These offspring get to work while their parents are still alive and working too¹⁹.

Honeybees organise themselves into three ranks; workers, drones, and a queen.

Worker bees

The honey producers.

Worker bees are typically female. They collect pollen and nectar, make honey, and secrete royal jelly (a nutrient-packed food for larvae and queen bees).

Their jobs actually change throughout their lives. This is referred to as temporal polyethism¹⁹.

They start by helping with activities inside the hive such as attending to the queen, feeding larvae, and cleaning. They’re sometimes referred to as house bees maintaining a healthy hive. Then they start to move around the hive more, adding ventilation and shaping the comb.

Next, these house bees venture out of the hive to collect nectar (and pollinate flowers along the way). And in the later stages of their life, they stay mostly outside of the hive, keeping it safe and clearing the dead¹⁹.

Worker bees typically eat “bee bread” which is honey mixed with pollen for extra protein²⁰.

Drones

The stud bees.

Drones are male bees with just one job: to mate with a queen from another colony²¹. This helps to secure genetic diversity, which makes colonies more resilient to changing environments and disease.

Drone bees don’t make honey, but they consume it as part of bee bread²⁰.

Queens

The mother of all bees (literally).

The queen exclusively produces eggs (up to 3,000 per day!) and does not make honey²².

Queen bees are fed and eat royal jelly rather than honey²³.

All bee larvae are fed royal jelly in their first few days of life, but future queens are fed this nutrient-rich secretion for longer to get them to an optimal reproductive health and size²².

How Bees Make Different Types of Honey

What distinguishes one type of honey from another is the floral source of the nectar.

Bees follow the same honey-making process, but the honey’s flavour, colour, and its chemical composition is largely dictated by where the nectar comes from.

This is why manuka honey has earned a distinctive reputation.

The MGO (methylglyoxal) content is particularly high in honey made from Leptospermum scoparium (or mānuka) plants. And this compound is associated with its higher antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties²⁴.

The colour and flavour of honey also varies based on the pollen a bee collects and where in the world it is grown²⁵. Lighter honeys tend to taste milder than darker honeys (but not always²⁶).

Although the ingredients are similar, and the process is the same, bees collecting nectar from different flowers in different locations will produce different honey.

What Happens to Bees When We Take Their Honey?

There are a lot of unfortunate misconceptions when it comes to harvesting honey.

Responsible beekeepers, like those we partner with, treat their hives and this process with the utmost care.

By taking certain precautions before, during, and after the harvesting process, it is absolutely possible to harvest honey without harming or killing bees.

After all, most beekeepers love their bees²⁷. And aside from being unethical, losing their population wouldn’t be sustainable or profitable either.

Here are some ways that beekeepers prepare and protect colonies:

  • They don’t harvest all the honey. Beekeepers will typically leave some honey stores for the bees to consume.

  • The honeycomb and the hive are separate. So they can carefully remove the comb and gently brush the bees from it, which usually makes the bees return to the hive²⁷.

  • They might supplement the bees’ food to keep colonies strong and healthy as seasons change. If this impacts the honey, then keepers won’t harvest until the supplementation is no longer required²⁷.

Beekeeping practices vary throughout the world and like in any industry, some suppliers are more responsible than others.

The best way to ensure your honey is ethically produced is to look out for the important labels. For manuka honey, that’s the UMF™ grade.

Read more: UMF™ honey and the UMFHA.

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What Happens to Honey After It’s Harvested?

Honey can go through a number of different processes before it reaches store shelves.

Some of these processes don’t compromise any of the beneficial properties in the honey. Others are not essential and can reduce the nutritional value of the honey.

If you’re in the market for some honey and you care about how it’s produced, then take note of the following terms and labels.

Filtration

Raw honey (straight from the hive) is filtered to remove natural debris like honeycomb parts, pollen, or dead bees. The honey isn’t tampered with chemically, so it’s a pretty standard process to prepare it for consumption.

Pasteurisation

Pasteurisation involves heating the honey to kill any potentially harmful bacteria. Unpasteurised (raw) honey is safe to eat²⁸, but the heating process can destroy some of the beneficial compounds.

Ultrafiltration

Ultrafiltration involves a further filtration process to remove air bubbles and make the honey look clearer and smoother, which is more attractive to consumers.

This process can further eliminate the beneficial compounds associated with honey’s health benefits²⁹.

Creaming

It’s natural for pure honey to crystallise over time due to the fact that it contains more sugar than water. This process is easy to undo, but creaming the honey first can help to avoid it.

Creaming honey involves adding “seed crystals”. This essentially starts the crystallisation process in a controlled way, keeping the flavour, texture, and consistency of the honey the same for longer. These tiny crystals help to prevent new ones from forming that vary in size and cause a crunchy texture.

It results in a smoother, thicker honey. We cream our manuka honey for this reason.

At New Zealand Honey Co., our range of raw manuka honey is filtered to remove debris and then creamed.

By doing this, we ensure that your honey stays as nature intended and lasts as long as possible.

Nothing more, nothing less - just pure manuka goodness.

How to Buy Honey Responsibly

Unfortunately, due to its famed health and wellness properties, honey has become one of the most faked foods in the world.

As a result, certifications and accreditations have been established to help protect both consumers buying honey and genuine, responsible suppliers.

With up to one hundred times more MGO compared to regular honeys, manuka honey has become the most regulated variant in the world.

The ultimate quality assurance marker for manuka honey is a UMF™ grade.

Manuka honey with this grade has been independently tested and verified to be monofloral manuka honey from New Zealand. UMF™ grading assures quality, freshness, and authenticity.

So if you’re looking for top quality honey that has been rigorously tested, and produced ethically and sustainably, then you’ve found it.

Click here to shop our range of New Zealand Honey Co. manuka honey.

Unsure which UMF™ grade is right for you? Take our quiz.

 

FAQs: How Honey is Made

Quick-fire answers to your burning bee questions.

How do bees make honey?

Bees make honey with plant nectar. They break down this nectar in their stomach, regurgitate it in the hive and work together to reduce its moisture content so that it won’t grow harmful bacteria or go mouldy. They store the honey in a honeycomb made from wax secreted by young worker bees, and use it to feed the colony.

Why do bees make honey?

Honey is stored in the honeycomb so that bees have a food source when nectar and pollen becomes scarce (during the winter months, for example). Honey has also been shown to contain important antibacterial compounds that protect bees from harmful pathogens and disease.

Which bees make honey?

Only around 4% of bee species produce honey, and many of those don’t produce enough that is worthwhile for people to harvest. The Western honeybee is commonly used throughout the world for honey production and crop fertilisation, and it also happens to be the species that makes manuka honey in New Zealand after being introduced here in the 1830s.

Within a typical bee colony, there are three roles: drone bee, worker bee, and queen bee. Worker bees are the only ones that actually make honey.

Do bees eat honey?

Yes. Bees eat honey and “bee bread”, which is a combination of honey with pollen for an extra protein kick. Bee larvae and queen bees eat royal jelly, a nutrient-rich secretion made by worker bees.

Should you feed bees honey?

No, it’s best not to feed bees honey. Bees can consume the honey they’ve made themselves that hasn’t left their hive ecosystem. But extracted honey may contain pathogens that are dangerous to the bees, especially if it’s from another colony or if it has been heavily processed.

Don’t attempt to feed bees unless you suspect a starvation risk, in which case you can try moving them closer to nectar-yielding plants, by giving them white table sugar, or sugar syrup.

Do bees run out of honey?

Bees shouldn’t run out of honey. However, if their hive is tampered with, if they become diseased and can’t collect nectar, or if conditions change like nectar-yielding plants disappear around them, they may struggle to produce enough honey. Climate change is a serious concern for bees as it alters weather patterns and the flowering behaviour of plants.

Does collecting honey kill or harm bees?

No. Harvesting honey should not harm or kill bees if undertaken carefully and responsibly. Although it’s inside the hive, the honeycomb can be separated, and the bees gently brushed away from its surface. Beekeepers don’t take all the honey from bees, and if need be, they might supplement the bee’s food sources to keep them healthy.



Sources

¹ Honey: its medicinal property and antibacterial activity, National Library of Medicine.

² Nectar: Description, uses, pollination, and composition, Britannica Science.

³ How do bees make honey? From the hive to the pot, Live Science.

How do bees make honey? Science Focus.

What other things do bees make besides honey? The British Beekeepers Association.

Honey as a functional food for Apris mellifera, Annual Reviews.

Why do bees make honey? New Scientist.

Honey bee diet in intensive farmlands, Ecological Applications Journal.

Diet-dependent gene expression in honeybees, Nature.

¹⁰ We need bees for more than honey, Science.

¹¹ Climate change is ratcheting up the pressure on bees, UC Davis.

¹² 11 things people believe about bees that aren’t true, Noble.

¹³ Which bees make honey? Backyard Beekeeping.

¹⁴ What do you really know about bees? Michigan State University.

¹⁵ Honeybees, USDA.

¹⁶ Different bees, different needs: nest-site requirements, Royal Society Publishing.

¹⁷ World’s 8 honeybee species beyond Apis mellifera, Bees4Life.

¹⁸ Honey and humble: Bee introductions, environment and ideology in Aotearoa New Zealand, 1839-1900, University of Waikato.

¹⁹ The social organisation of honeybees, University of Florida.

²⁰ Honeybees, Indiana State Government.

²¹ Welcome to the dystopian life of a drone bee, Earth.

²² An introduction to queen honey bee development, PennState University.

²³ Food to some, poison to others: Honeybee royal jelly, Microbiology Open Journal.

²⁴ Methylglyoxal, MDPI.

²⁵ Color identification of honey, ResearchGate.

²⁶ How does honey get its color? Wisconsin Pollinators.

²⁷ A beekeeper wants to set the record straight about honey, The Beet.

²⁸ Raw honey: 7 health benefits and possible risks, Medical News Today.

²⁹ Processing of honey using polymeric microfiltration, ResearchGate.

Your wellness journey starts with a spoonful a day.

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