Why do bees make honey?

Why do bees make honey?

The Honey Bee

Honey bees (apis mellifera) are flying insects and are closely related to wasps and ants. They are present on every continent apart from Antarctica. Bees are vital for the pollination of some flowers and plants, in fact, it is estimated that over 30% of the human food supply is dependent on insect pollination.

It is a popular belief that honey bees build the outside structure to their hives, but this is just not true. Honey bees make their homes in spaces such as a hollow tree, fallen log, and traditional man-made honey bee hives.

Types of Honey Bee

A honey bee hive consists of one queen bee, hundreds of drone bees and thousands of worker bees.

Worker Honey Bee

image of a worker honey bee

Worker bees make up 99% of the hive population, and they are likely to be the only type of bee you have witnessed. They are all female and do almost all of the work for the hive. Worker bees live for around 45 days and what tasks they do depends on how old the worker bee is.

The worker honey bee is responsible for: feeding larvae, tending to the queen, cleaning the hive, controlling the temperature of the hive, collecting and making food, guarding the give and making honeycomb.

The worker honey bee has a barbed stinger to protect herself and the hive. When the worker honey bee is forced to use her stinger, it will become lodged in the skin of the victim, when she tries to pull herself away from the victim the sting is left behind attached still to the venom sack which continues to pump venom until empty. As a consequence, the worker honey bee dies.

The worker honey bees legs have special brushes on them each designed to do various tasks such as brushing pollen from the eyes, cleaning antennae, wiping dust from the wings ad packing pollen onto the hind legs. Another adaptation of the worker honey bee is two spoon-shaped jaws that move horizontally for collecting pollen and chewing wax. Under the abdomen, there are wax glands used for building honeycomb and capping honeycomb cells.

Drone Honey Bee

image of a drone honey bee

Drone honey bees are the only males in a bee colony. They have only one purpose, and that is to mate with queens from other hives. They live about twice as long as worker honey bees, which is about 90 days.

Drone honey bees have large round bodies and large eyes; they also do not have stingers. They do not feed themselves when they are hungry, they hold out their tongues and wait for a worker honey bee to feed them.

Male honey bees only live in the hives during the spring and summer months, when the colony goes into survival mode; throughout the winter they leave the hive. Drones leave the hive the same time as new queens and head to mating areas where the fastest drones catch the queens. Once a drone has mated it will die, already dead before it hits the ground. The remaining drones die when food runs out for the winter.

Queen Honey Bee

image of a queen honey bee

Every hive has one queen honey bee, and she is the mother of the entire hive. She is the only female that can mate, and during the spring and summer months, she can lay 1,500 eggs a day. Before laying any eggs, the queen honey bee will inspect each cell of the honeycomb to ensure the worker honey bees properly clean it.

Queen honey bees have long abdomens and small wings, and they are significantly larger than the rest of the bees in the colony. The queen produces particular chemicals that give instruction and influence the behaviour of her colony.

To create queen honey bees healthy larva are hatched, and instead of being fed nectar and pollen they are fed royal jelly. Royal jelly is an exceptional food packed with nutrients that are produced in the heads of the worker honey bees responsible for caring for larvae. Queen bees live for around five years which is remarkably longer than other bees in the colony, thought to be because of its diet consisting of only royal jelly which leads to the human belief that royal jelly can extend your lifespan.

As soon as new queen honey bees are born, they will kill any other developing queens in the hive, and then when developed enough they leave the hive to mate and start colonies of their own, usually around 5-12 days. They will mate with over a dozen drones over three days before heading back to the hive to lay their eggs. Queens do not leave the hive ever again unless they need to find a new home, which they tend to do after creating a new queen honey bee.


The primary food sources for bees are pollen, nectar, and honey. Pollen is rich in protein, and nectar provides a wide range of sugars; therefore they're good as short-term energy sources. Honey bees gather the nectar, and it is taken back to the honeycombs at the beehive, where it undergoes a process of fanning and evaporation, eventually turning into honey.

Honey is an essential food source for bees, honey bees in particular. Honey is an energy-rich food source high in sugars and carbohydrates. Honey does not spoil, and it can be stored within the honeycomb of the beehive, in theory, it can be kept forever as bacteria and fungi cannot grow within it. This means that honey is an ideal food source for winter when nectar and pollen supplies are scarce. To give you an idea of how long honey can last, edible honey has been found in the tombs of some pharaohs.

Honey is essential to honey bees as during the winter months they need to keep a colony of around 10,000 bees alive and buzzing. Whereas bumblebees and wasps let their colonies die only having their queen survive, so it is less vital for them to produce vast amounts of honey. Honey bees need at least 20-30lb of honey to make it through an average winter. Additional honey is often produced to cater for natural predation. This is why they are ideal for humans to farm, especially if the weather conditions during the summer months are idyllic.

How bees make honey

image of honey bees gathering nectar

The first step in honey production is for bees to collect nectar from flowers. They do this by drinking from the flowers with their proboscis, a long hollow tube-like tongue that can reach into the flowers like a straw to drink nectar. Bees need to visit vast amounts of flowers just to make the tiniest quantities of honey. Roughly, to produce one pound of honey bees must forage from around 2 million flowers over a distance often extending 55,000 miles.

Honey bees use the position of the sun and the earth's magnetic field to help them navigate. They can even see the sun when it is behind a thick cloud as they can see the polarised light which can penetrate through a cloud. This is how they can forage for miles and always find their way back to the hive.

a graphic showing the anatomy of a honey bee

The nectar drank by the bees is then transferred to their honey stomach, a separate stomach with the sole purpose of storing nectar and starting honey production. Within the honey stomach, there is an enzyme called invertase, responsible for breaking down the long molecules of sugars into smaller ones to prevent crystallisation. Crystallisation being when the sugars in the nectar begin to turn into crystals, and it becomes inedible to the bees.

image of two honey bees regurgitating honey

Upon returning to the hive a foraging bee will regurgitate the contents of their honey stomach into the mouth of a hive bee, the nectar will then further continue to break down in the stomach of the hive-bee. The substance is passed through the hive until it reaches the honeycomb.

Upon reaching the honeycomb, the nectar is regurgitated into its destined chamber, where bees will begin to beat their wings to fan the nectar, speeding up the water evaporation rate. Once the substance has a water content of around 17%, the honeycomb is capped off with a wax seal.

With the honey in the honeycomb and the wax seal added, the honey is stored safely until the bees need access to it. When food supplies are low, they simply break the seal and retrieve the honey.


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