We slather it on bread, use it in cooking or stir it into tea without thinking twice, but producing honey is a strenuous team effort for bees. It takes about two million flowers and more than 55,000 miles in flight to make a single pound of honey—and Americans consume some 410 million pounds of it per year, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.
The sweet substance results from a process that is none too pretty. Honey is derived from a plant product, nectar, which serves to attract pollinators. Bees drink the nectar from flowers and then regurgitate and dehydrate it back in the hive. Johanne Brunet, a professor of entomology, explains how:
• A honeybee colony is composed of one queen, hundreds of drones (males) in the spring and summer months, and thousands of sexually undeveloped female workers who do all the heavy lifting. Their duties include cleaning and caring for the brood, tending to the queen, guarding the hive, gathering pollen, producing beeswax and building honeycomb, and making and storing honey to feed the colony over the winter months. The expression “busy bee” is very well justified!
• Using her tubular mouthparts, which work like a straw, the worker bee sucks nectar from the flower into a second stomach—a “honey stomach”—within her abdomen.
• Enzymes in the honey stomach break down the complex plant sugar sucrose (a disaccharide) into the digestible simple sugars glucose and fructose (monosaccharides).
• When the bee’s honey stomach is full, the bee returns to the hive to offload its contents to one or several worker bees. The receiving bees distribute it to the young as food or place it into the honeycomb for long-term storage.
• Before placement into the honeycomb, bees will move the nectar around in their mouthparts, thereby exposing the nectar to air and evaporating some of the water content.
• Once placed into the honeycomb, worker bees further dehydrate the stored nectar by fanning their wings, gradually turning the nectar into honey.
• Finally, worker bees seal the honey-filled comb cells with wax that is secreted from the worker’s abdomen. That cover is intended to preserve honey as the bees’ food supply.
A variety of flowers and climates lead to an array of different flavors and colors of honey. In the United States there are more than 300 types of honey, ranging from such standbys as clover, alfalfa and orange blossom to such regional specialties as fireweed, tupelo, and macadamia nut.
This story was originally published in the Fall 2011 issue of Grow magazine.