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Do you love the taste of natural honey? Not merely from store shelves, but the real deal - honey straight from a local hive? There really is nothing to compare with the natural, sweet taste of honey straight from your own hive.
But how exactly do bees create honey? There's quite a story behind that. In fact, there are no foods on your table that have such a history behind them.
The creation of honey is an amazing process, leaving us with an appreciation for some of earth’s smallest creatures. We already know that honey bees are fascinating. They have certain goals in life and work collaboratively to achieve them. The design and purpose behind each step of the honey-making process means we respect nature's most effective producers.
Not all bees are created equal when it comes to producing honey. Many bees pollinate and collect pollen to store for the cold months, so they can survive. Honey bees collect nectar and pollen to make their sweet survival food - honey. In fact, they produce honey, beeswax, propolis and royal jelly.
There are only about 7 species within the honey bee family. But there are over 40 subspecies recognized within these 7 species. The magnificent little creatures that give us such a wonderful sweet treat are heavy-duty worker bees.
Think of someone who preserves and stores their own food and why they might do that. They might tell you it is because they want to feed their families a healthy variety of vitamins and minerals throughout the cold months, when most fresh foods aren't available. Additionally, some might mention they would like to be certain to have plenty of food stored so they'll survive, regardless of circumstances (this was perhaps a little more likely as a response in the past).
Honey provides necessary energy through its vitamins and sugars. If you’ve ever heard the term ‘busy as a bee’ it is very literal. Bees flap their wings over 11,000 times a minute, which means they need a ton of energy. Storing their own honey helps guarantee that they have what they need, throughout the year.
Bees are very proactive! If you find a wild hive you might be surprised to see that they put aside enough honey to last them for years. If something were to happen to prevent them from foraging (i.e. a drought or lack of vegetation for foraging) the hive could potentially support a colony of bees of around 60,000 (at peak times) for a few years.
Bees will forage within a 5-mile radius of their hive, though they will generally stay as close as possible. It is interesting to watch how bees obtain their coordinates for this radius.
When you first bring your bees home, some beekeepers though not all, keep them in their hive for a few days. When let out, worker bees will make circles over the hive. This is their way of obtaining their coordinates, so they will know the location of their hive and will generally wander within that 5 miles radius.
There are many flowers that attract bees out foraging. These flowers contain sugary nectar and high protein pollen. Bees like apple, blackberry, dandelion, clover, golden rod, lavender, lime trees, ivy, rosemary and more. The sugar and protein components give the bee's young (larvae) a good start to life. When they are full-fledged bees they also need the energy to flap their wings so quickly.
When bees collect nectar, they use a long tongue, called a proboscis, that can slide down into the flower and suck nectar out like a straw. They store the nectar in a second stomach, sometimes called a honey stomach, that doesn’t digest nectar. It serves as a carrying purse and is in front of the digestive tract of the bee. The honey stomach can hold up to 70 mg of nectar and weigh almost as much as the bee itself.
Honey bees have tiny hairs on their bodies allowing pollen to stick to them, so they can carry both nectar and pollen while flying. While the worker bees are flying and storing nectar, the honey stomach begins mixing the nectar with enzymes to start pulling some of the water out of the nectar.
It is important to note that bees do not turn their vomit into honey. That is a myth. When the bee intakes the nectar they use one of two valves, sending the nectar into the bee’s digestion. This is a good thing, because if the worker bee needs energy while in flight she can use this option while foraging.
If she doesn't need the energy, then the nectar takes a second pathway into the honey stomach where it won’t be digested. Once bees make the choice to begin digesting the nectar, then that nectar cannot be used to create honey.
When the worker returns to the hive with the nectar she has foraged, there will be a younger worker bee waiting. This waiting bee is often referred to as a house bee. Her job is to suck the nectar out of the honey stomach of the forager. Either way, the process is pretty intense!
Once the nectar has been transferred, the house bee will chew it for about 30 minutes. While chewing, she adds enzymes to the nectar to break it down, forming a simple syrup. The enzymes also reduce the water content in the nectar. This makes it easier to digest and less likely to be plagued by bacteria while stored inside the hive.
Once this process is complete, the worker will distribute the resultant syrup over the comb of the hive. This is accomplished by spitting up the nectar that she chewed for the past half hour. She will deposit this inside a cell in the honeycomb. Then she spreads the tops out to maximize the surface area, so that water can continue to evaporate from the honey syrup and make it thicker over time. Additionally, bees help reduce the water content by fanning the honey with their wings.
Once the honey is to the right consistency and the water content at the right level, a bee will cap it with beeswax, ready for later consumption. The capping process is rather intense too. Bees will excrete a substance from their abdomen to cap the honey. This comes from wax glands on their abdomen. The glands push out sheets of this substance, made up of scales, which dry to form beeswax.
Bees need nectar and water to make honey. They need a place to live, such as the hive. They also need pollen. Adult bees don’t need much pollen. However, bee larvae need lots of pollen because of the high protein content.
Bees have other needs too. They need vitamins, carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and minerals. They require each of these to raise healthy new bees. This, in turn, means raising healthy young workers and eventually foragers. These requirements all play a key role in the continuation of a thriving colony.
While nectar is a key building block for honey, pollen is a vital component for bee’s health in general. When bees arrive back at the hive with pollen caught in their hairs, it must be "processed". Pollen is for the larvae, instead of the adult bees. Adult bees will eat some of it for protein but larvae need it for their formation as they transform into adult bees.
When a bee arrives with pollen, it will be stored within the hive for later use as a protein source. Bees will also collect juice from plant sources and dust from animal feed, if necessary, to store as a future protein source if sufficient pollen is not available.
Bees eat differently, depending on their type and age. They all receive Vitamin B complex and Vitamin C nutrients from honey and pollen, but get their protein differently. The queen, males (drones), and larvae get their protein through a substance called royal jelly. It is a secretion that worker bees give off. Worker bees usually get their protein from what they are collecting and storing for a later date.
Bees are survivalist and will find what they need in one form or another.
An amazing aspect of honey is that it does not spoil, due to a process known as crenation. This ensures that, when honey has been drained of much of its water and with such a high sugar concentration, it will not spoil.
Bees need certain vitamins, nutrients, lipids, and minerals for their survival. Honey supplies most of these needs. Honey is made up of about 82% carbohydrates, mainly fructose and glucose. It also contains a variety of enzymes that help convert other enzymes into fructose and glucose. Honey also has 18 different amino acids.
As if that wasn’t enough, honey contains a variety of vitamins and minerals. These include Vitamin B, Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, magnesium, chromium, as well as antioxidants like flavonoids.
Anyone familiar with diabetes and carbs probably understands the breakdown of honey. Honey is mostly carbohydrates. Carbs break down quickly and, when they do, the carbs are then converted to sugar (i.e. fructose and glucose). This in turn provides the energy bees need.
In layman’s terms, bees basically run around on a sugar high all day!
Most worker bees only live a matter of weeks during the peak season and they do not sleep. They effectively work themselves to death during that time and need a great deal of energy to get the job done. While honey gives them the huge energy boost they need, it also provides the necessary vitamins and minerals they need to maintain good health during their short life.
There are many varieties of honey available. In the south it is very common to see clover and golden rod honey, for example. What impact do different flowers have on honey?
The type of honey your bees make will depend on the plants they visit when collecting nectar. The plants visited will determine the taste, aroma, texture and color of the honey.
As a rule of thumb, honey that is clear or very light in color will usually be milder and less sweet. Darker honey, by comparison, will often have a more pronounced taste and be sweeter.
So if bees visit lavender to make their honey, the honey will likely have a lavender scent. If they visit clover fields, their honey may be less sweet, lighter in color and have a thinner texture than other honey. Bees can make honey from blueberry bushes, avocado plants, clover, buckwheat, sage, wild flowers, and even poison ivy. There is even the mystery of purple honey.
The next time you see a honey bee, hopefully you will have a new respect for all the magnificent things one tiny creature can accomplish in its lifetime.