Most people know that bees collect nectar and turn it into honey, but the exact details of the steps involved in this conversion remain a bit fuzzy.
Nectar is a sugar solution made by flowering plants containing, on average, 40% sugar (although this can vary widely depending on the plant). Similar to when syrup producers boil down tree sap to make maple syrup products, honey is made by evaporating the water out of nectar. Bees must reduce the 60% water content down to about 20% to reach the sugar content of honey. They do this without the benefit of evaporators and instead must use their own bodies.
If you really like to eat honey but get a bit queasy, then you might not want to read further. Just assume that your glorious honey is the product of bee magic.
Nectar to honey
Foraging honeybees travel from flower to flower extracting nectar with their relatively short tongues (for bees). Honeybees prefer to collect nectar that is sweeter and thicker. The collected nectar is stored in the bee’s honey stomach, a specialized sac for storing honey, until it returns to the hive. It is estimated that collectively, the bees in a hive must make 1.3 million trips in a season for a year’s worth of food!
When they return from their flight, forager bees pass the nectar to the mouths of house bees. The house bees then go and sit quietly to process the nectar. To aid in evaporation, the bees regurgitate a small portion of nectar from their honey stomachs into their mouths. The bees then flex their tongues, exposing the drop of liquid to the air, before swallowing it again. This process continues over and over until the water content is reduced to 20%.
Each time the nectar passes into the bees’ honey stomachs, enzymes in the stomach work to break down nectar sugar, which is sucrose, into two simpler sugars: glucose and fructose. It takes about 20 minutes for the bees to process the nectar before placing it into a storage cell.
The honey in the cell will remain exposed to the air for an additional 1-5 days allowing the honey to cure. Once cured, the bees cap the honey for long-term storage.
Meanwhile, in other parts of the hive, bees are frantically beating their wings creating air flow throughout the hive. This helps regulate the temperature of the hive, but also creates drafts of air that aid in evaporation.
Properties of honey
Besides being delicious, honey has several properties that make it an ideal food storage system.
- Honey is rich in energy containing 1,380 calories/lb
- Because of the sugar content, honey won’t spoil when stored at ambient temperature
- Any bacteria or yeast that land on the honey dehydrate quickly due to the low water content of honey
- The honey is easily diluted for feeding to larvae
- Honey is easily digested by both bees and humans
Honey has been prized since the Stone Age. That’s kind of surprising given how it is made: sucked up into a bee’s mouth, stored in the honey stomach, repetitively regurgitated and swallowed before being stored in cells and exposed to air for a few days.
It’s probably a good think we can’t see the process.
Blogging my way from A to Z as part of the 2015 April A to Z Challenge! My theme for this year: Honeybees