Question: How do bees make honey?
Answer: From mid-June to mid-July a whole line of beehives can be spotted along the dikes of the cranberry marshes near my hometown of Tomah, Wisconsin. The gleaming-white beehives are placed five to an acre, silent sentinels standing guard like the moai statues on Easter Island. They’re trucked up from Texas; after they leave here they to go to the clover fields of South Dakota.
Bees make honey to prepare for winter; honey is the food bees rely on when the weather turns cold. Bees live in extremely socialized communities where each bee has its own job. The worker bees go from flower to flower gathering nectar. A single bee may visit as many as 1,000 flowers. Her load arriving back at the hive is about half her weight – very impressive.
The nectar doesn’t go into a bee’s stomach. It’s collected in a special storage sac called the honey crop. As the worker bee swallows the nectar, she adds enzymes to it from special glands. That starts the process of breaking down the complex sucrose into simple sugars like glucose and fructose.
When the worker bee arrives at the hive, she passes the nectar to a hive bee that swallows it again and adds more enzymes. The hive bee puts the nectar into a honeycomb cell.
In that state the honey contains too much water. If left untreated the honey would ferment and spoil. But the hive bees fan the stored honey with their wings, causing much of the water to evaporate away. With the aid of air movement and heat, the water turns from liquid to a vapor. Bees figure that 18 percent water is about right.
When the bees think the honey is ready, they cover the cell with wax to seal it. That’s when the beekeeper comes along and steals the honey. Honey is an extremely stable food source. It resists bacteria, fungi, mold and a host of other microbes. Honey can be stored for years without refrigeration.
The flowers also receive something out of the deal. Plants use nectar as a way of attracting bees. As the bees gathers nectar they also transfer pollen grains from one flower to another, thus pollinating other flowers.
Female worker bees are not able to reproduce. Worker bees live only six weeks in the summer, and four to nine months in winter. They literally work themselves to death. A hive will have about 50,000 worker bees in the busy season. They can sting once but then die if they do so.
The hive’s male bees are called drones; they come from eggs that haven’t been fertilized. The word drone is derived from an old English word “dran,” which means idler or lazy worker. The drone can’t sting; his sole job is to mate with the queen bee. Mating is followed by the drone’s death. Hives will have several-hundred drones. Come winter they are of no use and are expelled from the hive.
There is only one queen bee per hive; they live from three to five years. She mates once with several drone bees and remains fertile for life. The queen bee lays about 1,500 eggs per day. Fertilized eggs become female worker bees; unfertilized eggs become the male drone bees.
When the queen dies, the other bees make a new queen by selecting a young larva and feeding it a special royal jelly. The milky substance, made from digested pollen and nectar, is loaded with vitamin B. Long live the queen!
Larry Scheckel is the author of “Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers.” He grew up on a family farm in the hill country of southwestern Wisconsin, one of nine children. His teaching career stretched to more than 38 years teaching physics and aerospace science to more than 4,000 high school students at Tomah, Wisconsin.