How Do Bees Make Honey?

How Do Bees Make Honey?


[MUSIC] The western, or European honeybee, pollinates
three-fourths of the fruits, veggies and nuts we eat. We’d be in trouble without ‘em.
Of course, there’s a reason we don’t call them zucchini bees, almond bees, or apple
bees. They also give us honey. [MUSIC] One healthy hive will make and consume more
than 50 kg of honey in a single year, and that takes a lot of work. Honey is made from nectar, but it doesn’t
come out of flowers as that golden, sticky stuff. After finding a suitable food source,
bees dive in head-first, using their long, specially-adapted tongues to slurp tiny sips
of nectar into one of two stomachs. A single bee might have to drink from more
than a thousand flowers to fill its honey stomach, which can weigh as much as the bee
itself when full of nectar. On the way back to the hive, digestive enzymes are already
working to turn that nectar into sweet gold. When she returns to the hive, the forager
bee will vomit the nectar into the mouth of another worker. That bee will vomit it into
another bee’s mouth, and so on. This game of regurgitation telephone is an
important part of the honey-making process, since each bee adds more digestive enzymes
to turn long chains of complex sugars in the raw nectar into simple monosaccharides like
fructose and glucose. At this point, the nectar is still pretty
watery, so the bees beat their wings and create an air current inside the hive to evaporate
and thicken the nectar, finally capping the cell with beeswax so the enzyme-rich bee-barf
can complete its transformation into honey. Because of its low water content and acidic
pH, honey isn’t a very inviting place for bacteria or yeast spoilage, and it has an
incredibly long shelf life in the hive or in your pantry. Honey has been found in Egyptian
tombs dating back thousands of years, pretty much unspoiled… although I wouldn’t personally
eat it, just in case. For one pound of honey, tens of thousands
of foraging bees will together fly more than three times around the world and visit up
to 8 million flowers. That takes teamwork and organization, and although they can’t
talk they do communicate… with body language. Foragers dance to tell other bees where to
find food. A circle dance means flowers are pretty close to the hive, but for food that’s
farther away, they get their waggle on. The waggle dance of the honey bee was first
decoded by Karl von Frisch, and it’s definitely one of the coolest examples of animal communication
in nature. First the bee walks in a straight line, waggling
its body back and forth and vibrating its wings, before repeating in a figure eight.
Whatever angle the bee walks while waggling tells the other bees what direction to go.
Straight up the line of honeycombs, then the food is in the direction of the sun. If the
dance is pointed to the left or right, the other bees know to fly in that angle relative
to the sun. The longer the waggle, the farther away the
food is, and the better the food, the more excited the bee shakes its body. If that’s not amazing enough, even if they
can’t see the sun itself, they can infer where it is and the time of day by reading
the polarization of light in the blue sky. A single bee is a pretty simple creature,
but together they create highly complex and social societies.
There’s three main classes in a beehive: Drones, workers, and queens. When a new queen is born, she immediately
runs around and kills her sisters, because there can be only one.
During mating season, she’ll fly to a distant hive to mate with several males and store
away the sperm, which she’ll use back at her home hive to lay more than a thousand
eggs a day throughout the rest of her life. Any unfertilized eggs, those that don’t
join up with sperm, will mature into male drones, which means they only have one set
of chromosomes. But fertilized eggs are all genetically female,
destined to become either queens or workers. Queens do the egg-laying of course, but worker
bees are the backbone of the beehive. So what makes most females become workers,
while just one wears the hive crown? A baby bee’s diet activates genetic programming
that shifts its entire destiny. Every bee larva is initially fed a nutrient-rich
food called royal jelly, but after a few days, worker bee babies are switched to a mixture
of pollen and honey called “bee bread”. But queens eat royal jelly their whole life,
even as adults. Scientists used to think it was just royal
jelly that put queens on the throne, but just last year they discovered one chemical in
bee bread, the food that queens don’t get, that keeps worker bees sterile. Being a queen
seems to be as much about what bees don’t eat as what they do. Making honey is insect farming on its grandest
scale, with intricate societies cooperating to make a food fit for bear tummies big and
small… with the pleasant side effect of pollinating most of the world’s flowering plants. I’d say
it’s a pretty sweet deal. Stay curious.

100 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *