How Bees Turn Nectar Into Honey
While all bees are really incredible in their own right, we have a particularly 'sweet' relationship with honey bees thanks to their main product, honey. But how do they visit some flowers and end up producing that sweet stuff?
First, nectar is a small reward that the flowers use to entice insects to burrow into their flowers. As an insect digs down into the petals of a flower, they rub against the reproductive organs of the flower, leaving some pollen from previous flower visits and picking up some pollen. In the case of most bees, the pollen sticks to their furry bodies. Once pollination has occurred, the flowers' goal has been met. For the honey bee, the work is only beginning.
Honey bees have a special nectar stomach, separate from the rest of their digestive system where they store their nectar forage. As they return to the hive, special enzymes in the nectar stomach begin to break down complex sugars into simple sugars. Upon return to the hive, the forager regurgitates the nectar and passes it to another bee who sips it up into their nectar stomach, adding more enzymes. This process repeats 5 or more times as the nectar is passed from bee to bee before it is placed into the comb. The goal of this is to make the sugars in the nectar more stable and easier to preserve. Afterall, the surplus of honey that is produced is for the upcoming winter, so it needs to be able to last.
As the bees add more and more nectar to the comb, they need to remove most of the water, which is key in preventing fermentation. The bees fan the combs and move air across them to evaporate the water. The nectar, which was about 80% water and 20% sugar, becomes 20% water and 80% sugar. As the content dips below 20%, it's become much thicker and stickier and is finally considered honey. Ideally, the bees will wait until it gets down to about 17-18% water and then they will cap the cell with wax. Once the cell is capped, we know that it's ready to be harvested.
By some estimates, it takes visits to roughly 2 million flowers to produce 1 pound of honey. That's a lot of work, especially when a hive is making 100+ pounds in a season. This is why we hold honey in very high regard and do everything we can to respect the bees and what they do. We also make sure that the beekeepers we work with have a similar philosophy.
Something to think about the next time you're adding a spoonful of honey to your tea or breakfast.