Bees make honey using teamwork and communication. There are many steps that go into making honey, requiring multiple trips to and from the hive. For many bees, their sole purpose in life is to make honey––although one will only produce 1/12 teaspoon of honey throughout its lifespan.
Here, one can learn why these six-legged critters are affectionally referred to as “busy bees” and the many steps that go into making honey.
How Bees Make Honey
Bees are nothing to be afraid of. They’re more focused on supporting their colony, not stinging people. From a bee’s perspective, here’s how honey is made:
- A bee wakes up after sleeping for a five- to eight-hour period.
- The bee leaves the hive in search of flowers. The average bee can visit 50 to 100 flowers per trip. Bees can also travel three miles in search of the ideal garden.
- Once a bee finds a flower, it extracts nectar using its proboscis––a long tongue.
- En route to the hive, the bee keeps the nectar in a second stomach.
- The bee passes the nectar to other bees that chew on it for about 30 minutes, passing it around to others in the process.
- The nectar becomes honey and gets stored in a honeycomb cell.
- Bees flap their wings to cool down the honey, then seal it with a wax lid.
But wait! Why do bees spend their entire lives making honey? During winter, when trees and plants lose their flowers, bees can live off the honey they make during other months of the year. Bees love being overprepared, so they’ll make much more than they actually need. This makes it safe for humans to harvest the honey and store it in jars of their own.
Bees Have Different Roles in Making Honey
According to the Australian Academy of Science, the average beehive can have anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000 members. They are divided into three categories:
- Drones. These bees don’t sting, and they rarely leave the hive. They have one job in life, and that’s to mate with the queen. Some never fulfill this role.
- Workers. True to the name, these bees do the bulk of the hive’s work, from gathering nectar to raising larvae. They also build the hive itself, making its many cells that store honey.
- Queen. There’s only one queen bee per hive. Per Age, she’ll generally live from one to two years. In preparation for her passing, the worker bees will feed female larvae “royal jelly.” This substance activates a bee’s reproductive organs. The largest of the larvae generally becomes queen.
Worker bees are responsible for making honey and readying the hive for winter. Not even the queen bee makes honey; just like her specially selected young, she survives off a healthy diet of royal jelly.
How Bees Communicate to Make Honey
A bee colony couldn’t survive without communication. Luckily, bees are excellent at this. PBS notes that bees communicate with each other by:
- Doing the “waggle” dance. When a bee has found a great source of nectar, it’ll do a little dance to signal its findings to other worker bees. How quickly the bee waggles depends on the distance from the hive to the perfect flower in question.
- Emitting odors. Bees may emit odors in addition to dancing the waggle dance. They do this to alert others to a promising source of pollen.
- Buzzing. When a bee buzzes, that’s actually the sound of its wings rapidly flapping. However, new research shows that this also allows bees to communicate with one another.
By itself, a bee is nothing more than a tiny bug that likes flowers. Bees are a force to be reckoned with in numbers. From dusk until dawn, bees spend their days making honey, caring for larvae, and taking care of the queen.
Does Harvesting Honey Hurt Bees?
Some organizations, like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), believe that harvesting honey is morally wrong. PETA notes that during the collection process, careless beekeepers could destroy hives and accidentally rip bees’ wings off. However, others have different opinions, saying that careful beekeeping is key to a happy hive. What’s more, according to the National Honey Board, bees make five times more honey than they need to––and they quickly replace harvested honey. There’s no risk of them running out.
When a professional beekeeper harvests honey, they introduce the bees into a wooden box divided into “cells.” The bees make and store honey in these cells, which the beekeeper removes during harvesting. They scrape off the honeycombs and bottle the honey. When they reinsert the cell, the bees start making honey like nothing happened.
People Have Harvested Honey for Thousands of Years
Bristol University recently collaborated on a study showing that prehistoric people not only ate honey, but they might have kept bees themselves. Scientists found traces of beeswax on pottery in the British Isles and even parts of North America.
This suggests many things––but above all else, it suggests that bees, to some extent, may have evolved to meet humans’ needs. It also demonstrates the shift from living in a hunter-gatherer society to a more agricultural community.
Honeybee Honey: There’s Nothing Like It
Nothing can stop worker bees from making honey. It’s embedded so deeply into their DNA that they can’t fathom doing anything else. Still, while the debate over the ethics of honeybee honey rages on, beekeeping is a massive business––producing 1.77 million metric tons from 2000 to 2021. With the sheer amount of honey that bees make, there’s no harm in having a taste.