How do bees make honey?

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A honeybee hive consists of three main classes of bees: the queen, the drones, and the worker bees. Each plays a unique role in the functioning of the hive, but it’s ultimately the worker that makes the honey.

The Queen

Her Majesty’s only job is to lay eggs and grow the hive’s population. When a new queen is born she immediately kills her sisters before they emerge, because there can only be one queen. During mating season, she’ll fly to a distant hive to mate with a many as 20 male bees (drones) and store away the sperm for later.

Once she returns to the hive, she begins to lay more than a thousand eggs each day for the rest of her 2 to 5-year lifespan. Any unfertilized egg that does not join with a sperm will mature into a male bee, called a drone. A fertilized egg that has joined with a sperm will become a female bee. The female bee will become either another queen (if the colony needs one) or a worker bee.

The Drones

These male bees exist for one reason only: to mate with a queen. That’s it.

The Workers

As the backbone of the hive, worker bees provide a number of key duties from foraging for nectar and pollen and nursing the young brood. It’s also their job to build, clean, repair, and defend the hive.

While they are all female, worker bees can never reproduce (i.e. they are all sterile), since it’s the queen’s job to lay eggs. How does this happen? All baby bee larvae are initially fed a nutrient-rich food called royal jelly. But after a few days, worker bee babies switch to a mix of regular honey and pollen. Meanwhile, the potential queen bee babies will continue to be fed royal jelly. In fact, the queen bee eats nothing but royal jelly her entire life.

Interestingly, it has been recently discovered that there is a natural chemical in this “bee bread” that keeps the worker bees sterile.

So how is the honey ultimately made?

Honey is made from the nectar of flowering trees and plants. Bees use their long, specially-adapted tongues to slurp tiny sips of the nectar into their second stomach, called the “honey stomach”. A single bee might drink from as many as a thousand flowers to fill its “honey stomach”, which can end up weighing as much as the bee itself when its full of nectar.

As the bee flies back to its hive, the digestive enzymes in its honey stomach to begin doing its job of turning the nectar into sweet honey. But the process isn’t that simple.

When she returns to the hive, this foraging worker bee will vomit the somewhat digested nectar into the mouth of another bee. That second bee will swallow the honey into its own honey stomach, continue its digestions, and then re-vomit it into the mouth of a yet another bee. This continues to happen, with each bee contributing to the digestion and transformation process that converts the raw nectar into simple sugars, primarily fructose and glucose.

Once done, the last bee regurgitates the now-processed nectar into a honeycomb. It’s still pretty watery, so the bees rapidly flap their wings to create air current inside the hive that will evaporate and thicken the nectar. Once the nectar’s water content drops below 20% or so, the bees cap the honeycomb cell with beeswax. This allows the nectar to complete its transformation into honey.

Because of its low water content and acidic pH, honey is an unfavorable environment for bacteria and for yeast spoilage. This gives honey an exceptionally long shelf life, both in the hive and in our kitchen pantry.

The power of communication

A single pound of honey requires the teamwork of more than 10,000 bees, traveling over 75,000 miles, gathering nectar from over 8-million flowers. One healthy honeybee hive will make and consume more than 110-lbs (50kg) of honey in a single year. Think about that the next time you open a 16-oz (one pound) jar of honey!

This bee collaboration requires an awful lot of communication. When one bee has found a viable food source, it shares that important information with the other bees. Since bees can’t talk, they use body language. Depending on how the bee wiggles and dances around, its moves will tell the bees whether the food is close to the hive or far away. These dance moves can also show the bees the direction they need to travel in order to find the food, as well as how good the food source is. Pretty smart, right?

If you haven’t already done so, check out the fun and informative video above (by PBS Digital Studios) to learn more.

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