Journey of Nectar to Honey

The journey of nectar transforming into honey is truly a wondrous process. It begins with bees foraging for nectar from flowering plants, then undergoing an intricate process within the beehive to convert the nectar into honey.

This sweet result of nature is not only delicious, but also has amazing health and healing properties for humans.

In this blog post, we will take a deeper look into the process that turns simple nectar into liquid gold. Understanding the detailed workings of a beehive provides an appreciation for how unique honey is as a substance.

Let’s explore the fascinating cycle of how bees produce this golden treat!

Deeper Look (Journey of Nectar to Honey)

The journey from nectar to honey involves a complex process carried out by honey bees. It starts with worker bees collecting nectar from flowers through their proboscis or “tongue”.

This nectar is then stored in the bees’ extra stomach, called the honey stomach or crop, and enzymes start breaking down the nectar’s complex sugars into simple sugars like glucose and fructose.

Once back at the hive, bees regurgitate the nectar and pass it to other worker bees who continue to break it down and evaporate water until it becomes honey. It is then deposited and sealed in honeycomb cells for bees to use as an energy source.

Overall, these are the steps bees go through to convert flower nectar into nutrient-rich and sweet honey through their unique biology and collective intelligence.

Gathering Nectar from Flowers

The first step in honey production happens outside the beehive as worker bees forage for nectar. Nectar is a sugary liquid secreted by plants, mainly flowers.

It serves as a way for plants to attract pollinators like bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other insects. The nectar acts as a reward to the pollinators for transferring pollen between flowers to facilitate plant reproduction through cross-pollination.

Plants produce more nectar during the day, especially in the morning, to lure in pollinators which are more active during the daytime.

Bees collect nectar through their long, tube-like tongues called a proboscis. The proboscis allows them to reach deep into the center of flowers and sip up the sweet nectar.

Worker bees visit flower after flower, drinking the nectar and inadvertently getting covered in pollen in the process.

A single worker bee may have to visit over a hundred flowers in order to fill its honey stomach with enough raw nectar to take back to the hive.

The journey to gather that much nectar can take several hours and spans miles of flying from flower to flower.

Types of Flowers Bees Get Nectar From

Bees gather nectar from flowering plants across wide varieties including wildflowers, fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, shrubs and more.

Some plants that bees commonly source nectar from include lavender, sunflowers, honeysuckles, apple trees, blueberries, squash, pumpkins, clovers, dandelions, cranberries and dozens more. The variety of flowers enables bees to gather diverse types of nectars which contributes to unique flavors in their honey.

Certain flowers produce more nectar than others and are especially good for beekeepers to have near their hives. Top nectar producing flowers include tufted vetch, linden trees, milkweed, marjoram, snapdragons, and goldenrod.

Having an abundance of nectar-rich flowers ensures the bees can collect enough to bring back to the hive. Beekeepers often grow some of these flowers near their hives or make sure they are native to the habitat.

Storing Nectar in the Honey Stomach

As bees sip up nectar through their proboscis it gets stored temporarily in their extra stomach called the honey stomach or crop.

This specialized second stomach has the capacity to hold nearly 70 mg of nectar.

Enzymes are added to the nectar from glands in the bees mouth and honey stomach to begin breaking down the complex sugars in the nectar into simpler sugars that bees can metabolize.

The main enzyme added is invertase which starts splitting sucrose into glucose and fructose.

Storing the nectar in the honey stomach serves a couple key purposes. First, it allows the bees to carry more nectar back to the hive compared to filling up their regular stomach.

Second, the initial exposure to enzymes starts the curing process before the nectar reaches the hive.

The bees essentially do some advance processing of the nectar on the flight back home to save time and effort.

Once their honey stomachs are full, they make a beeline back to the hive.

Depositing Nectar in Hive and Evaporating Water

After returning to the hive, worker bees will regurgitate the nectar from their honey stomachs and transfer it to other worker bees through trophallaxis or exchanging food mouth-to-mouth.

These bees continue to expose the nectar to enzymes which further breaks down the complex sugars into simple monosaccharides like glucose and fructose. This makes the nectar easier for bees to digest.

Next, the bees spread and deposit the nectar into hexagonal wax cells within the honeycomb. As more nectar is deposited, they fan it with their wings to begin evaporating water from the nectar and thickening it.

Evaporation helps reduce the water content from around 70% down to 20% over time. Less water content prevents fermentation and makes it stable for long-term storage.

Honeycomb Cells for Nectar Storage

Honeycomb consists of beeswax cells hexagon in shape which are used to store honey and pollen.

Worker bees secrete beeswax from eight specialized glands on their abdomen and use it to construct the honeycomb.

The perfectly sized hexagonal shaped cells provide the maximum amount of storage space in the hive while using the least amount of wax.

Once built, the cells provide efficient chambers to deposit nectar and fan it to remove water. The cell size and shape circulates air allowing for quicker water evaporation.

Once the honey is adequately ripened and cured, the bees will seal off the cell with a wax cap to contain the honey and prevent contamination.

Fanning with Wings to Evaporate Water

Once nectar is deposited in the cells, worker bees use their wings to fan the nectar and force air circulation in the hive.

The fanning causes evaporation of some of the water in the nectar. It takes roughly 1000 bees fanning for an hour to evaporate just one teaspoon of water from the nectar.

The circulating air also releases heat from the bees bodies which helps speed evaporation.

Over time, the water content is reduced to around 17-20%. Lower water content makes the nectar thicker and less hospitable to yeasts and bacteria that could spoil it.

Fanning therefore is an essential step in ripening the nectar into honey by removing moisture.

Bees Seal off Honey and Continue Ripening

Once the honey reaches the ideal moisture content around 17-20%, worker bees will seal off the cell with a wax capping to contain the honey.

This prevents air from getting in and causing crystallization. The wax caps are slightly domed which allows any remaining moisture to condense and move to the sides.

The capped off honey can then be safely stored for the long term.

Even after sealing, bees will continue lightly fanning the honey to further remove moisture down to 14-18%. This low water content gives honey its thick, viscosity and low probability of fermentation.

The ripening process results in honey that is stable against spoilage and suitable for long term food storage. The color also lightens over time. Sealed honey in the comb can be kept indefinitely.

“Honey in the comb lasts indefinitely while honey separated from the comb may crystallize over time. The honey never spoils.”

Beekeeper Wisdom

Honey Extraction from Comb

For human consumption, honey needs to be extracted from the wax cells of the honeycomb. This is done by beekeepers using a mechanical centrifuge which spins the frames of honeycomb and forces honey out.

The wax caps are sliced off and the frames are spun, forcing honey to the edges where it can be collected. This process does not affect the quality of the honey.

The extracted honey is then filtered to remove any remaining wax and impurities. Warming the honey makes filtering easier since warm honey flows faster.

Once filtered, the honey can be bottled and is now ready for consumption and sale. The emptied honeycomb can be returned to the hive for bees to reuse

Chemistry of Nectar Conversion to Honey

The chemical transformation of nectar into honey is facilitated by enzymes added by the bees. There are three main types of enzymes that assist in breaking down the complex sugars in nectar

  1. Diastase – converts starch into maltose
  2. Invertase – splits sucrose into glucose and fructose
  3. Glucose Oxidase – turns glucose into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide

These enzymes break down complex starches and sugars like sucrose into simple monosaccharides like glucose and fructose. This makes the sugars easier for bees to digest.

The end product is a solution of around 80% simple sugars that resists spoilage due to its acidic pH, low water content and antibacterial properties from the glucose oxidase reaction.

The enzyme chemistry modifies the nectar into an ideal food source and preservative.

Acidity of Honey

The enzyme glucose oxidase is key in giving honey its antibacterial acidic properties. This enzyme produces gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide from glucose.

Gluconic acid lowers the pH of honey to between 3.2 to 4.5, making it quite acidic. Most bacteria cannot survive in this acidic environment.

Hydrogen peroxide and other components also contribute to honey’s antibacterial effects. This natural acidity inhibits the growth of many pathogens that could potentially spoil the honey.

The acidic pH is ideal for creating a shelf-stable product.

Hydrogen Peroxide in Honey

Hydrogen peroxide is generated by the enzyme glucose oxidase when it acts on glucose molecules from nectar. Hydrogen peroxide gives honey some of its antimicrobial effects by preventing the growth of bacteria.

However, high levels of hydrogen peroxide can alter the quality of honey.

Fortunately, the enzyme catalase converts most of the hydrogen peroxide back into oxygen and water over time. Only trace amounts of hydrogen peroxide remain after full ripening.

This small amount contributes to antibacterial activity while not degrading the honey.

Bees Cap Honeycomb Cells

Once the honey reaches the proper consistency, bees seal off the cells with beeswax caps. Worker bees secrete beeswax from glands on their abdomen and use it to cover the hexagonal openings.

The dome shaped caps help shed any condensation to the sides of the cell wall.

Capping the cells serves several purposes. It seals in the honey to prevent any air exposure that could cause crystallization. The caps also keep other insects out and prevent contamination.

Finally, capping provides structural stability to the honeycomb once cells are filled. Properly sealed honeycomb can last for many years without degradation of the honey.

Beehive Honey Storage

Within the beehive, bees will construct an area specifically to store capped honeycomb for later use. This is typically towards the upper section of the hive boxes.

The honeycomb frames are carefully stacked using bee space (0.25 inches) between boxes.

During cold winters when nectar sources are limited, bees can uncap their stored honey frames in the hive and consume the honey to survive until spring.

Their honey stores allow the colony to overwinter when no new nectar is available. Access to stored honey is essential for bee colony health.

Extracted Honey Storage

For human use, extracted honey is bottled and can be stored at room temperature for many years. Storing honey in an airtight container prevents moisture loss.

The main risk is crystallization over long periods, especially if exposed to small amounts of moisture.

Pasteurized honey can remain liquid for decades. Unpasteurized honey may start crystallizing within a year or two. If crystallized, storing the jar in warm water will temporarily reliquefy it.

Properly stored honey resists spoilage indefinitely.

Uses for Honey by Bees and Humans

Honey produced by bees has multiple purposes for both bees and humans. Bees produce honey as a food source to survive harsh winters and periods where nectar is limited.

The antibacterial properties inhibit dangerous pathogens from contaminating stored honey.

Humans use honey for its sweet taste as a food ingredient, its medicinal properties, its ability to heal wounds and burns, and its application in fermented beverages like mead.

Honey is truly a remarkable substance that serves many functions beyond just taste. Both bees and humans benefit greatly from the incredible resource that is honey.

Honey Fermentation into Mead

Mead is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey with water and yeast. The sugars in the honey allow the yeast to produce alcohol through fermentation.

Mead has been produced and consumed since ancient times and is considered one of the oldest fermented drinks.

There are several styles of mead ranging from sweet to dry. The basic process involves diluting honey with water and adding yeast as well as other flavorings like fruit.

The mixture ferments for weeks or months. Resulting mead may be carbonated before bottling. Mead remains popular today as a historical beverage.

Honey Medicinal Properties

Honey has several medicinal properties that humans have utilized since ancient civilizations. It has antibacterial effects due to enzymes added by bees.

The high sugar concentration also inhibits microbial growth. Honey has been used topically to aid wound healing.

Consuming local honey is believed to alleviate seasonal allergies by slowly immunizing the body to local pollen. Honey also coats the throat helping suppress coughs.

Many cultures developed traditional medicines using honey for its wide-ranging health benefits.

Conclusion:

The multistep process bees use to gather nectar from flowers, deposit it within honeycomb, manipulate its chemistry through enzymes, and evaporate its moisture is incredibly fascinating.

Their collective efforts transform simple flower nectar into nutrient-rich honey. Understanding the intricate journey of bees producing honey gives us insight into this amazing natural process and product.

Next time you enjoy this sweet gift of nature, remember the complex workings of the hive that brought it to your table.

AspectDetails
Sweet gift of natureHoney
Complex workingsInside a beehive
Brought to your tableBees produce honey that ends up as food

FAQs:

How do bees collect nectar?

Bees collect nectar using their long tubular tongue called a proboscis to reach into flowers and sip the nectar. It is stored in their honey stomach.

What gives honey antibacterial properties?

Enzymes added by bees produce hydrogen peroxide and gluconic acid which give honey antibacterial activity.

Is crystallized honey bad?

No, crystallized honey is completely normal and edible. It can be liquified by heating briefly.

Can bees re-use honeycomb?

Yes, bees will reuse emptied honeycomb cells to store more honey or pollen.

Does honey expire?

No. Properly stored honey essentially lasts forever and does not expire or need refrigeration.