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How is Honey Made? It all starts with the flowers

Updated: Mar 9, 2023

Flowers need bees and bees need flowers.

Together they produce honey and also countless fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts through the act of pollination. It is one of Earth's most remarkable relationships.

In order to make seeds, plants need to spread their flowers' pollen from one flower to another. This is tricky when you're rooted firmly in the ground. Some plants take advantage of the wind...releasing their pollen with the hope that some will land on nearby flowers of the same species. Other plants use bees.

Bees are excellent pollinators. This is because their bodies are covered in fur and pollen sticks to them as they fly from flower to flower. Plants entice the bees to visit their flowers with nectar...sugar water that is irresistible to pollinators. As bees land on a flower, she will use her long straw-like tongue to drink the nectar from the flower, which she collects in her honey stomach (a special organ designed for carrying nectar home to the hive).

As she drinks the sweet syrup, the honeybee gets covered in pollen which sticks to her fur. This is a bonus for the bee, because bees also eat pollen. It's their source of protein. She will use her front legs, equipped with little combs, to brush the pollen off her fur, sticking it onto her back legs (her pollen baskets) so that she can carry it home to the hive.

Luckily for the flower, during each foraging trip from the hive, a forage bee typically visits only one type of flower. If a bee is working on dandelions, she'll stick with dandelions for that trip. If she's working on clover, she'll stick with clover. This is definitely to the plant's advantage, because it is trying to spread its pollen to flowers of its own species, so that they can cross-pollinate and produce seeds. As the bee flies from flower to flower, some of the pollen she is carrying falls off on the next flower, pollinating it.

After many flower visits, the bee's honey stomach is full of sweet nectar and her legs are loaded with pollen. It's time to fly back to the hive and unload her bounty. As she flies into the entrance of the hive, she is met by 'processor bees.' This bees' job is to be the transport truck of the hive. The forager will pass her nectar to the transport truck bee, who will crawl all the way through the beehive, up to the top where the bees store honey. This is really efficient, because it means the forager bee can turn right around and fly back out to find more flowers.

The processor bee makes her way to the top of the hive. Here, architect bees have built honeycomb, from wax that they secrete from their abdomens. The honeycomb is made up of thousands of hexagon cells - hexagons provide a sturdy shape that uses the least amount of wax for the most storage area. The processor bee regurgitates the nectar into one of these cells, and in the process adds an enzyme called invertase. Invertase converts the nectar's sucrose (the equivalent of table sugar) into fructose (fruit sugar) and glucose (blood sugar).

There is still more work to be done - in addition to breaking down the sucrose into fructose and glucose, the bees need to dry the nectar. Nectar is mostly water and over time would ferment if the bees tried to store it that way. To transform the nectar into honey, the bees use the heat of the hive to evaporate most of the water, until the honey is less than 18% water. This low water content also makes honey naturally antibacterial. At this point, the bees will cap each cell of honey with an airtight wax seal.

Why do bees do all this work? Because they store the honey for winter. Unlike other insects, honeybees don't go dormant in winter, instead they stay awake, keep each other warm by shivering in a tight ball, and they move around the hive together eating honey. This means that an important job of the beekeeper is to ensure that the bees have enough honey for themselves for winter - in Ontario, they need about 100lbs to last from November to April. But for whatever reason, honeybees typically make two to three times the amount of honey that they need, which means we can harvest some and enjoy it too!

Sunshine in a bottle, brought to you by bees and flowers!


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