It’s the time every beekeeper longs for – Honey harvest time! But how do bees make honey? WARNING! Don’t read this blog if you love honey and are a bit squeamish!
Why the warning? Well bees essentially make honey by regurgitating nectar into each others mouths. I always reassure myself with the fact that they don’t use their eating stomach to do this, they have a special second stomach called a honey crop. I like to think of it as an internal nectar carrier. It makes the whole regurgitation thing a little more palatable.
It all starts with some flowers
A bee will visit many flowers and fill it’s honey crop with about 40mg of nectar. As she flies back to the hive she adds special enzymes to the nectar. One is called sucrase which changes the sugar in the nectar into two simpler sugars called glucose and fructose. These sugars stay liquid even when lots of the water has been removed. It is important to make sure the honey stays liquid when stored so it can be used overwinter without adding any water. The other enzyme added is called glucose oxidase which will help make hydrogen peroxide making the honey antiseptic to keep the hive healthy. Aren’t bees clever?
Bringing it back home
Once she arrives back at the colony she passes the nectar on to a house bee with her with her straw like tongue, called a proboscis. This process is brilliantly named ‘trophalaxis’. Now the house bee has the nectar in her honey crop and she needs to remove lots of the water from it. She does this by a process called ‘stroping’. She regurgitates the nectar into her mouth and swallows it again repeatedly. The water gradually evaporates from the nectar which stops it fermenting.
Nectar becomes honey
The nectar is ready to be stored once the water content is below 50%. The worker bee will put it into one of the cells above the brood nest. The bees eat some of it immediately but, because they are so hard working and efficient, they often have excess to store for future use. The area above the brood nest in a beehive is lovely and warm so even more water evaporates from the stored nectar. This is where the sucrase enzyme really comes in handy, the water content can drop to 20% or lower and the honey will still be liquid. Also, the glucose oxidase will help stop it going bad.
Beekeepers use a special tool called a refractometer to measure the water content of the honey. I don’t know how bees measure it but they know when it’s ready and will put a wax capping on top of the cell. It’s a bit like putting a lid on a jar of honey. Honey will keep for years when stored like this – edible honey has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs.
I hope I haven’t put you off eating honey now you understand how it’s made. It really is a delicious and healthy source of carbohydrate. We hope to have some excess honey to sell at Mrs Burney’s Bee Club this time next year but we are leaving any honey to keep the bees healthy overwinter for now. In the meantime, come and visit us and learn more about the amazing work of the honeybee.