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Bug Bytes: How Bees Make Honey

A honeybee visiting a flower in Montana.
Glenn Marangelo

Liquid gold…honey, that is.

Honeybees make honey as a food source to feed the colony, particularly during winter, but exactly how do they make it?

Honeybees visit flowers to gather pollen as well as nectar, a sugary water. Using a long tongue to collect the nectar – sort of like using a straw – the bee has a choice: direct the nectar to its digesting stomach for a quick meal, or store the nectar in a second, non-digesting stomach, often called the honey stomach. Once in the honey stomach, the nectar mixes with enzymes that begin to break down the sugars and reduce the nectar’s water content.

A single bee might visit up to 1,000 flowers to fill its honey stomach, which can weigh as much as the bee itself once full. The bee then returns to the hive and transfers its payload to another bee, essentially regurgitating it into the other bee’s mouth. This transfer system continues until the nectar is finally deposited into a honeycomb cell.

Once a cell is full, the nectar is fanned by the wings of other bees to help evaporate more of the water. When enough water has been removed, we essentially have the final product.

A single honeybee produces only about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. That pound of honey you purchase is a result of more than 10,000 bees, flying about 75,000 miles, and visiting more than 8 million flowers.

So, the next time you dip into some of that precious sticky stuff, remember to give thanks to the thousands of busy little insects that made it possible.

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