Thousands of honeybees work hard to make nutritious honey found in jars at supermarkets and roadside stands. Just one worker bee, an undeveloped female, will only produce about 1/12 of teaspoon of honey during the course of it’s average 35 day lifespan. It is an amazing feat that there is even enough honey for human consumption, let alone feeding the colony for the winter months.
The honey making process begins when the worker bee, with it’s wings beating at 11,400 times per minute, leaves the hive to collect nectar from flowers. Nectar is the clear liquid often seen when a flower is picked; it is about 80 percent water but contains many complex sugars. The worker bee uses it’s tube-like tongue to suck the liquid out of the flower which is then stored in a second stomach, called by some, the “honey stomach”.
Once the honey or second stomach is filled, the worker bee, at flight speeds which reach 15 miles per hour, heads back to the hive. The honey stomach can weigh as much as 70 mg when filled, about the same weight as the bee itself. A full honey stomach means the bee has visited between 100 to 1,500 flowers, depending on the nectar available; a good reason for home gardeners to plant native flowers rich in nectar and to avoid dangerous pesticides.
There is a valve in the “honey stomach” which can open if the worker bee becomes hungry and needs to “refuel” and get some liquid nectar energy. Other workers bees greet the returning field bee and soon begin a mouth to mouth transfer of the liquid nectar.
The worker recipient bee then produces certain enzymes which break down the complicated sugars in the nectar into more simple sugars. The soon to be honey, in about a half an hour, is then deposited in a honeycomb cell. At this stage the substance does not even resemble honey since it is still largely water.
Here’s where the buzz comes from the hive; the liquid honey substance is then dried by other bees, who constantly fan it with their wings to evaporate the water, working throughout the night. Combined with the warm temperatures in the hive, about 95 degrees F, the substance will begin to look like honey and has only a 17 to 18 percent moisture content. Once the bees, like good chefs, know the honey is the right consistency, it is sealed in wax.
Throughout this process, other arriving worker bees during the daylight hours are carrying pollen back to the hive. These pollen laden bees are easily recognizable since the pollen, usually yellow or orange in color, is carried back to the hive on their hind legs. The pollen is then mixed with honey and used as a food sourced for future broods necessary to keep the hive alive and well.
A bee hive generally consists of between 50,000 to 55,000 bees and they require about 150 to 200 pounds of honey as a future food supply. Needless to say, the worker bees do not live for long and die of work exhaustion after about 35 days. “Busy as a bee” is actually a very real true-ism.
The container of honey from a beekeeper or supermarket shelf is the end result of an amazingly complex process from small insects without which we would likely be eyeball to eyeball with starvation, scrambling for algae. Honeybees, along with other native bees, are essential to much of the fruits, vegetables and nuts we eat and along the way, honey is made.