Bees & Honey

The wonder of bees and honey making

When the European Honey bee was given its taxonomic classification, Apis Mellifera (Honey-Bearer), scientists thought that the bees only role in the production of honey was that of a small flying cargo ship, ferrying small amounts of honey from flowers and depositing it in a cleverly designed warehouse. What we have come to realise is that the process is much more complex and far more interesting.

In the last two weeks of its life, a worker bee will visit millions of flowers with one goal: to collect the resources that will feed her sisters and ensure the survival of the colony. She will do this with such a singularity of purpose that she will work herself to death in the process.

Foraging nectar into base honey 

Landing on a flower the bee extends her proboscis (a long straw like tongue) and sucks up the sweet nectar which the flower exudes. The nectar then travels into the honey stomach, passing the bee's tiny brain on the way.

It is here that a little bit of chemistry starts to happen. In the hypopharyngeal gland of the brain, an enzyme called invertase is produced, this enzyme, which she adds to the nectar in stomach, causes the complex sugars (saccharides) to break down into their smaller constituent parts of fructose, glucose and dextrose.

Now it should be said that not all nectar is equal in the eyes of the honey bee. Different plants exude different saccharides and in varying concentrations. So much so that bees will often skirt past a nearby apple orchard to fly onto a field of bright yellow oil seed rape for this precise reason. She finds the nectar of the apple blossom to be a little thin and watery and, being economical in all things, realises that she and her sisters will spend less time and energy if she flies a little further to find a better quality of nectar.

Good Housekeeping 

The second step in their melification, is to try and reduce the water out of the sweet liquid in her honey stomach. To do this, she enlists the cooperation of the whole colony. Upon returning to the hive, laden down with her load, the foraging worker quickly passes her cargo, back through her proboscis, on to a housekeeper bee, whose role it is to receive and unload the goods. The receiver bee will dump the load in the nearest available, unoccupied wax cell and then rushes back to collect the next load - it's a bit like dumping the groceries on the kitchen table when you've done a big shop, knowing that you'll put it away properly once it's all in the house.

On summer nights once the foraging workers return home, the colony turns its attention to the delivered groceries, moving it from the brood nest up to the honey storage area where they will get rid of the excess water.

Concentrating the good stuff

Honey is a super saturated solution and the bees know that if the correct water content is not reached, it risks fermentation and going bad. The bees will evaporate the water, so that the water content is well below 20%. At this level, bacteria is killed and any yeast present becomes dormant.

To evaporate the excess water, the bees fan warm air through the hive with their wings, which evaporates the water. Such is the importance of the task that even the, usually indolent, male drones join in. 

Late into the evenings during peak nectar flows, when the majority of the honey is produced, the gentle hum of beating wings can be heard outside the hive.

It is at this point, after enzymes have been added and water evaporated, that we can truly call the nutritious, sticky substance honey. It is also at this point that the bees stop and seal the honey into its cell with a thin layer of wax. These stores of food will ensure the survival of the colony right through the depths of winter into early April when the process starts again for another year.

If the European Honey Bee were to be given its taxonomic name today it's industry would surely be recognised with a different Latin name, Apis Melifica, Honey-Maker!