Do you love a bit of honey on your toast in the morning? Let’s bee honest, we all do.
But have you ever thought about where it comes from? Of course, most of us know that we need bees to make honey. But you may be surprised to learn about the amount of time and effort it takes to create that little pot of honey on your table. In fact, bees need to make 22,700 trips to different flowers just to fill one 454g jar. When you add up all their journeys its equal to 55,000 miles which is 2.2 times around the world!
Phew, we’re exhausted just thinking about all that hard work! Let’s tell you a bit more about the bees responsible for making honey.
Why do bees make honey?
Ok, so let’s start everything by asking, do all bees make honey? To answer that, we need to look at what bees are out there.
We have around 270 different types of bees in the UK, made up of solitary bees, bumblebees and one type of honey bee. They are all hard at work collecting nectar which can be turned into honey, but not every bee does.
So, do bumblebees make honey? No, and that’s because only the queen bee survives over winter and she will usually burrow underground and hibernate where there is no need for food. It’s a similar story with solitary bees. The adults only have a short lifespan and do not live past winter, so they only need to leave some pollen and nectar in the nests with the new babies.
As you can probably guess from their name, it’s the honeybee that is responsible for making the honey and these are the ones you’ll find living in bee hives. Honeybees don’t hibernate over winter - the queen, along with her honeybee worker bees, will huddle together when it turns cold and go a bit quiet, but they remain awake. By creating honey, it allows the bees to preserve the nectar as food which they can live off over winter when there aren’t as many flowers in bloom.
So, if the honeybees need the honey to survive, how come we can take some of it? Luckily for us, the bees get carried away and will keep making honey even when they have a surplus. Beekeepers very carefully control the amount of honey they take to enable the bees to stay healthy.
What do honeybees look like?
Want to know if you’ve got honeybees buzzing around your flowers? You will first see them appear in March and they keep on going until October with the length of their season dependent on the temperature.
We often confuse honeybees with wasps and that’s because they are very similar in shape and size. However, it’s their colouring that really sorts them out. Wasps have stripes that are yellow and black and, due to the fact they are hairless, the stripes are quite clear. They also have a distinctive waist.
Honeybees on the other hand come in varying shades of golden brown to almost black. Due to the fur on their body, the stripes are fuzzy in appearance. The other great thing is that honeybees are pretty calm. Unless they or their hive is under threat, they will not sting you. It makes sense because it's not in their best interests – once the bee has stung you it will die.
How do bees make honey?
To understand this, we need to look at the amazing structure of a hive. Each one can have an average of 40,000 bees and they have a very definite structure. There is one queen bee and she’s the boss. Then there are hundreds of males who only exist to make babies with the queen. Lastly, you have thousands of worker bees, alongside a whole load of other jobs, they are the ones who make the honey.
The process begins with the worker bee finding a flower they like the look of. They use their straw-like tongue to suck up the nectar from the flower.
Back at the hive, they pass the nectar from bee to bee to reduce the water levels – this means no bacteria or fungi can develop on the honey. Once they reduce the water content the bees store it in the hexagonal honeycomb. The honeybees will then fan it with their wings to dry it out even more. When the water content has been reduced to about 18%, they seal up the chamber and it’s good to go. Amazingly, the bees instinctively know when the honey is dry enough to store!
Facts about honey bees
The worker honeybees only live for about five to six weeks.
On each foraging trip, they will make 0.02g of honey and around one 12th of a teaspoon in their lifetime.
Each hive will make an average of 27kg of honey per season with around 11.3kg of surplus – that’s around 25 jars of honey each season.
The flavour and type of honey made by the beehive depends on the foliage and flowers they find. For example, the flowers in your garden tend to produce clear liquid honey. Just think, plant plenty of bee-friendly flowers and they could end up in your jar of honey!
The capped honey the bees store can last almost forever. In fact, when they opened up the tombs of Pharaohs they found perfectly edible honeycomb – that’s over 3,000 years old!
Honey bees have hairy eyes – weird. They also have five eyes – three on top of their head and two compound eyes.
If the queen bee leaves the beehive the rest of the colony will know about it in just 15 minutes – with over 40,000 bees in each hive, that’s quick communication!