How Do Bees Make Honey?

May 5, 2015

When I go into the classroom to teach elementary students about honey bees, I like to tell them that honey is actually “bee vomit.” As expected, there’s a lot of “Eews!” and “Ughhs!” and “That’s gross!” accompanied by scrunched up faces of disgust, but when I get the children all settled down again, I ask them whether they like honey. They all nod their heads in agreement and a few of the bolder ones, shout out “Yes!” and “I love it!” Once they start thinking about it, they frankly don’t believe me about the bee vomit and think that I’m tricking them. So, I ask them to tell me where they think honey comes from. At first I get “the grocery store” or “a farmer’s market”, but then after some probing, we get to the heart of the matter…“But where does it come from before that?  How does the bee get it?”  There’s some head scratching and some thoughtful expressions on the children’s faces before a little girl raises her hand and confidently tells me “fairies make it with magic and give it to the bees to carry.”

As charming as that image is, the story of how a bee actually transforms flower nectar into golden honey is as amazing as it is true. A honey bee begins its honey making journey by visiting a flower and collecting some of its nectar with its long straw-like tongue. Flowers have evolved strategies to attract a variety of insects through their color, shape and scent. While gathering nectar, the bees also transfer pollen grains from one flower to another, which results in their pollination. Nectar is very similar in composition to sugar water. However, nectar also contains important amino acids, lipids and micronutrients. After being sucked up through its proboscis, the bee stores the nectar in its special "honey stomach" where it mixes with critical enzymes. One of these enzymes, invertase, converts most of the nectar’s sucrose into glucose and fructose. A second enzyme, glucose oxidase, changes some of the glucose into gluconic acid hydrogen peroxide. These two substances protect the honey from the growth of harmful microorganisms.

The bees then regurgitate drops of the honey-like substance (it’s still too watery to be called real honey) into their mouths and manipulate them with their mandibles before placing the drops into the hexagonal cells of the hive’s beeswax comb. To finish the honey making process, bees must remove most of the water from these drops and fan their wings to evaporate the water and thicken the substance into honey. For your reference, nectar is approximately 80% water and honey is less than 18% water. When the honey is finished drying, the bees cap each cell with more wax and painstakingly repeat the process. The resulting honey is a very healthy, nutritious and shelf-stable food. It is also naturally resistant to bacteria and mold.

So, while technically honey can blithely be described as bee vomit…there’s a lot of biochemistry that takes place in addition to just plain old-fashioned hard work on the part of the industrious honey bee in order to make honey for your honey jar. Or, if you prefer to have a little magic in your life, you can just simply agree with what the little girl said after hearing my explanation, “I like my way better.”

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