Hamilton Food: How Bees Make Honey
Blessed Bee Apiaries
Contrary to popular impression, bees do not collect honey. Bees collect nectar both from flowers and also from other plants including trees.
Nectar is generally 60% to 70% water, with the remainder being primarily sucrose. The remaining components of nectar vary according to the source and make up a small part of the total, but do contribute significantly to the colour and taste of the honey.
A worker bee will make foraging trips typically lasting between 20 minutes and several hours, depending on how plentiful and how far away the nectar sources are on a given day. The nectar is stored in a sack called the honey stomach, which is different from the stomach that the bee uses to digest its own food. As required, the bee can move small amounts of honey from its honey stomach to it's digestive stomach.
In the honey stomach the nectar is mixed with invertase, an enzyme which breaks the complex sugar sucrose down into the simple sugars dextrose and levulose. After gathering up to 70% of its own weight in nectar, the forager will return to the hive and pass the nectar on to a house bee, which is a younger bee that has not yet begun to forage.
If large amounts of nectar are coming in the house bee may simply store it in honeycomb for later processing; otherwise it will first release small amount of the honey onto their probiscus, or tongue, to expose it to the normal air movement in the hive caused by the coordinated fanning of other bees, reducing the moisture content. The somewhat more concentrated nectar is then place in honeycomb cells for further concentration and ripening.
When the honey is ready it will contain less than 17% water. The bees will then cover the cell with a wax cap, sealing it for future use.
Written by Frank I. Reiter
Blessed Bee Apiaries, producers of Ottawa Valley wildflower honey.