Everybody knows that bees and honey are as iconic as salt and pepper. But have you ever wondered about the process behind how bees create honey within their hives?
The right bee – only certain bees make honey
Interestingly, not all types of bees are known for making honey. As an example, a species such as the “carpenter bee” consumes nectar but does not make honey.
In Australia, the most commonly observed honey-making bee is the stingless bee, with genera including Tetragonula (Abduh et al., 2020) and Austroplebeia commonly observed to create honey.
Bees need flowers
The honey-making bee needs flowering plants containing nectar to create honey (Samarghandian et al, 2017)! Nectar is a liquid found in flowers that can be ingested by bees for transportation back to their hive (note that nectar can also be used as a food source for bees, as required).
While bees are waiting for nectar to become runny enough to collect, they also collect pollen from flowers. Pollen contains protein that is used to feed the larvae (younger bees) before they become mature. To do this, the bees mix the pollen with the nectar. The nectar is rich in carbohydrates, while the pollen contains protein – both of these are used for growth and maturation.
Collection and storage
The honey-making process needs a few things to be involved. Most bees opt for honeycombs within beehives, but some bees (such as stingless bees) use wax pots (or “cerumen”) outside of a beehive (Abd Jalil et al., 2017).
Whatever the location, honey storage is an important survival mechanism for bees who struggle to find food in winter, when plants are less likely to be in bloom. Table 1 below displays common honey storage facilities for different Australian bee types.
Bees collect nectar all year round and store it in the beehive during low flower-bloom seasons (Samarghandian et al, 2017), but during spring, there is more pollen to collect as well, when trees are busy preparing to make fruits and seeds.
|Genus (species group)||Nest||Reference|
|Tetragonula||Crystal-shaped brood comb||(Cardoso et al., 2020)|
|Austroplebeia||Hive||(Ayton et al., 2016)|
|Exoneura||Stem Nest||(Stow et al., 2007)|
|Braunsapis||Within specific flowering plants||(Shenoy et al., 2007)|
How is the honey produced?
Honey is formed when the nectar that the bees consume into their mouths is released (regurgitated) and its composition is changed after reacting with enzymes.
The change results in the sucrose in the nectar being broken down into glucose and fructose that the honey becomes very concentrated. In fact, it is so concentrated that it becomes extremely viscous, and is able to be stored inside honeycomb for several years.
When we buy honey products, the labelling of honey types often corresponds to the flower that the nectar was acquired from – for more information on this, please see our article on the topic. Because the nectar retains factors that come form the original plant, including scents and flavors, honey from different areas is quite distinctive.
So, in summary, a honey-making bee will visit a blooming flower, collect nectar and fly back to “headquarters”, allowing for nectar processing to occur and leading to honey creation and storage. In commercial honey production, beekeepers will provide bees with large amounts of blooming flowers with which to source nectar from; in return, bees will produce excess honey that can be harvested for commercial use.
This mutually-beneficial “symbiotic” partnership allows for a reliable honey supply to be acquired and diverse types of honey to be farmed (the topic of differing honey types is discussed here).
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