Did you know that honey will never go bad?
Or that it comes in many natural flavors?
Well, both of these facts are true. You still need to be careful when purchasing honey, though. A lot of the honey you buy from the stores have actually been cut with Karo syrup in order to make the honey go a little further.
So when possible, buy your honey local.
But before you start hunting down your local beekeepers, wouldn’t you like to know what their bees are doing to produce this wonderful sugary treat?
If so, you’re in luck because I’ll be sharing the process with you.
Here is how honey is made:
1. The Hatching Queen
I’m going to give you a crash course in how the life of a bee works because after all, the bees have to exist in order for honey to be made.
So the very beginning of the honey process depends upon a queen. Each hive must have a queen. She keeps the hive functioning. When the hive is getting too large, the queen will begin laying queen cells. The nurse bees will take care of this cell.
They do this by feeding the queen cells nothing but royal jelly. The other eggs will be fed royal jelly for only the first few days.
But a queen cell is fed this magical concoction until the day of her hatching. Once she hatches, the older queen will most likely leave with a small swarm because the virgin queen will obviously be stronger than her and could kill her.
Plus, if multiple queen cells hatch at once and the queens chew through their beeswax cap simultaneously, the two (or more) queens will fight to the death. The one left standing is the new queen of the hive.
2. The Mating Flight
Next, comes the mating flight. A queen cell that has hatched is called a virgin queen. The queen’s job is to lay eggs and keep the hive thriving.
Naturally, she must mate before she can begin laying eggs.
But this is where bees are different than most other species. A worker bee lays mainly drone eggs. The drones are the male bees.
However, the male bees' only job is to mate with a virgin queen. A virgin queen only mates one time in her life so drones basically wait for a once in a lifetime chance to find a virgin queen and pass on his DNA.
Other than that, drones are basically one more mouth to feed that the worker bees must take care of.
So when the virgin queen decides to take her mating flight, she will fly very high in the sky. Drones have certain hang out spots that they wait for virgin queens to fly into their radar. When one does, they begin to flock to her.
Then the strongest and best drones will be the only ones that will be able to make their way to the virgin queen.
However, this has a sad ending for the drone. When he mates with the queen, his genitalia will literally be ripped off leaving a gaping hole in his abdomen that will ultimately lead to his death.
But his life’s mission is complete because his DNA will still survive in a hive. The queen has a storage sack where she stores sperm that she will utilize the rest of her life to lay fertile eggs.
3. The Eggs are Laid
Once the queen has all of the sperm she needs to lay eggs, she comes back to the hive and begins the laying process. She lays in the brood chambers. The queen will actually determine what each bee will be, based upon the needs of her hive.
But her worker bees will know based on the shape of the egg that she lays. For instance, a queen cell is more of a peanut shape while drones are larger cells. The worker bees are smaller cells than a drone.
Next, the nurse bees (which are young worker bees) will fulfill the queen’s plans by feeding the cells. As discussed earlier, the amount of royal jelly will determine which bees end up as drones and workers versus queens.
After the eggs are hatched and cared for, it is time for the new bees to get their job in the hive which ultimately leads to honey.
4. The Bees Get Their Jobs
Once the bees are past the larvae stage and are full grown bees, they graduate to their new jobs. If they are born a drone (male bee), they hang around the hive, get fed, and then leave the hive during the day to hang out with other drones in search of a virgin queen in flight.
If the bee is born a worker bee, then she is a female. She begins her duties receiving pollen and other items other worker bees have collected outside of the hive. Other bees will also help with the honey making process.
Then some will graduate to nurse bees whose job is to care for eggs and larvae, and some bees’ jobs are to care for the queen. They are called her attendants.
When a bee becomes older, they will begin scavenging and collecting food. Keep in mind, most bees live for about 2 months or less.
So this process happens quickly.
Finally, the queen bee’s job is to lay eggs which she does pretty well all day. The queen usually lays around 1500 eggs per day.
5. The Pollen is Collected
The older worker bees will leave the hive and collect pollen and nectar from around their hive. Bees will usually fly within a five-mile radius of their hive.
Next, they’ll decide what they are going to do with what they collected. Bees have a body part called the proboscis. It is like a straw that helps them to collect nectar and pollen.
Then the bee will take what they need for energy and allow it to digest in their first stomach which is intended to help them nourish their bodies.
But what they don’t use for food or nourishment, they’ll send to their second stomach. This stomach is basically a storage pouch to help them transfer what they are collecting.
Finally, they’ll fly back to the hive and be met by other worker bees. That worker bee will use their proboscis to suck the nectar and pollen from the scavenger bee’s second stomach. That is why a lot of people call honey bee vomit.
6. The Comb is Filled
Once the pollen and nectar have made it back to the hive, the worker bees will work to regurgitate what they collected.
Then they will spread it over an empty comb that other worker bees have worked diligently to construct.
Once the comb is full, the honey will need to be dehydrated. This process pulls all of the water out of the honey to keep it from spoiling.
Basically, the bees flap their wings at just the right speed for just the right amount of time until they instinctively know that the honey is ready.
Once the honey has had the water pulled out of it, the bees are ready to move on in the process.
7. The Honey is Capped
Next, the honey will be capped. Bees have the special ability that allows them to create wax from their abdomen and lay out sheets of bees’ wax. This bees’ wax will cap the newly filled comb.
This will then protect the honey from being damaged by allowing more water to come back into it. That way the bees can store it for as long as needed.
So when winter comes (or even after winter, if it isn’t needed) they can eat it.
8. The Bees Thrive and the Honey is Harvested
Once the honey has been capped, the bees store it for later use. This is also the time that beekeepers come in and harvest honey as well. My husband and I raise a large number of hives and there are some steps to harvesting honey.
First, you’ll need to check your hive to make sure that the honey is capped. You should be able to look at the frames and see. You don’t want to harvest uncapped honey if you can help it.
Second, you’ll need to cut the caps off of the comb. This can be done multiple ways. You can use a sharp knife to slice right down the side and shave the wax right off.
Or you can also use a tool like this to help you.
And remember that honey will never go bad. Even if it crystalizes, you can pop it in your microwave for a few seconds and it will be smooth honey again.
But the main thing to remember when harvesting honey is to be sure that you don’t take too much. If you are harvesting in the spring, then you can pull most of the honey because the bees will have all summer to collect and create more.
Yet, if you harvest a second time in the late summer or early fall, you’ll want to be sure that you leave your bees enough to eat on over the winter because that is their main food source over winter.
So be sure to keep that in mind so you don’t accidentally kill off your hive by taking too much.
9. Different Flavors
I mentioned earlier that honey comes in a variety of natural flavors. This will all depend upon what the bees are collecting to go into the honey.
So this means that if the bees collect sourwood, you’ll have sourwood honey. If they are collecting nectar and pollen from blackberries or blueberries, you’ll have a blackberry or blueberry honey.
Funny enough, we actually have collected some of that this year. Our bees discovered the blackberry bushes and have made an amazing honey. You first get the sweetness of the honey flavor that is followed by a distinct blackberry flavor. It is so good!
However, you can’t really control the flavor of honey that you get. It is whatever is in season, that your bees really enjoy, and bees are definitely their own creatures.
For instance, you can place your hives at the edge of your berry patch or orchard. The bees could go right into them to pollinate and collect, or they could fly right over it and collect elsewhere. That is why beekeeping is so interesting because you can help your bees stay healthy and collect from their hard work.
But you certainly cannot control what they do, or what they collect. It is all a big surprise, but what a delicious surprise they produce.
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Well, you now know how bees produce their sweet little treat we call honey. As you can tell, they put a ton of work into this product, and we are fortunate to be able to enjoy it.
But even though it sounds like we know a lot about bees, there are still so many things that beekeepers are still trying to learn.
For instance, no one really knows the in’s and out’s of the flight of the virgin queen. The mating process takes place so high in the sky that it is hard to really study it.
So I’m sure more and more information will come forward about a bee’s life in the future, but I know that they are miraculous little creatures.