Why do bees make honey?

Honeybees make honey to eat. Honey is a source of carbohydrate energy and pollen is a source of protein. Honeybees make huge quantities of honey to feed the colony in summer and to store enough food in winter. The honeybee colony overwinters with around 10,000 bees.

In comparison, wasp and bumble bees colonies are much smaller and die in autumn with only the queens surviving through winter. This means wasps and bumble bees don’t need to produce or store such a large surplus of honey.

Honeycomb is made from wax which the worker bees produce from glands in their abdomens. They build perfectly identical six-sided cells to form an interlocking hexagonal array. Each cell slopes slightly downward to stop the honey from falling out. The hexagon is the most economical shape that the bees can use to build their honeycomb, because it requires the least amount of wax to produce and holds the highest volume of honey.

The bees use honeycomb as a honey factory, larder and maternity ward.

What do bees eat?

Bees need two different types of food:

Pollen
This is a dry, powdery material that is a different colour depending on the flower from which it is foraged by the bee. For example, poppies produce black pollen and dahlias produce terracotta-red pollen. The foraging honeybee carries pollen in ‘baskets’ on her hind legs. Pollen is a source of protein and stored in cells in the comb. Workers pack pollen tightly into cells by headbutting it.

Nectar
Flowers produce a sugar-rich liquid by glands called nectaries – nectar which is collected by bees. The forager bee drinks nectar to carry it back to the hive in her honey stomach (honeybees have two stomachs) and regurgitates it onto the tongue of a house bee. The house bee puts the nectar into a cell in the comb with added enzymes. The workers then evaporate the water in the nectar by fanning their wings, until it contains only 18% water and is now honey. The honey in cells is sealed by a wax capping.

A dozen honeybees are needed to collect enough nectar to make one teaspoon of honey and each bee must visit around 2,600 flowers for this to happen.

Products of the hive

Beekeepers may harvest other products of the hive, including:

  • beeswax
  • propolis – a resinous material used to insulate and disinfect the hive
  • royal jelly – a nutritious food substance that bees use to feed larvae, particularly to make new queens
  • venom from stings.
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