How do bees make honey?

Honey comes from the nectar that is gathered by honey bees from all the flowers they visit. The bees have glands which secrete an enzyme, and when the bees collect the nectar, it is then mixed with the enzyme in the bee’s mouth. The mixed nextor is taken back to the hive by foraging worker bees and passed to hive worker bees, who deposit it into honeycomb cells.

Initially the nectar collected and stored in the cells has a high water content. After some time, however, the water content is reduced to around 17%. This process is aided by the bees themselves, fanning their wings, which helps the water to evaporate. When the bees have established that the contents of honeycomb cells is honey (water content <20%), the cells are capped over with a thin layer of wax. This collection of honey is stored by the bees to provide a winter food source for the colony during those times when they are unable to forage outside for food.

Of course these honey reserves are also harvested by beekeepers as one of the rewards for keeping bees. But all good beekeepers understand the importance of always leaving sufficient honey in the hive so that the colony of bees do not starve and die.

A few fun facts and figures

  1. Honey bees must gather nectar from two million flowers to make 4kg of honey.
  2. One bee has to fly about 140,000 kilometers – three times around the globe – to make 4kg of honey.
  3. The average bee will make only 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.
  4. A honey bee visits 50 to 100 flowers during a single collection trip from the hive.
  5. A honey bee can fly for up to 9 kilometers, and as fast as 24 kms/hr.
  6. A colony of bees consists of 20,000 to 60,000 honey bees and one queen.
  7. Worker honey bees are female, live for about 6 weeks and do all the work.
  8. The queen bee can live up to 5 years and is the only bee that lays eggs. She is the busiest in the summer months, when the hive needs to be at its maximum strength, and lays up to 2500 eggs per day.
  9. Larger than the worker bees, the male honey bees (also called drones), have no stinger and do no work. All they do is mate (and die after mating).
  10. When a bee finds a good source of nectar it flies back to the hive and shows its friends where the nectar source is by doing a special dance which positions the flower in relation to the sun and hive. This is known as the ‘waggle dance.’

Extracting Honey

There are two primary means of extracting honey from the honeycomb, centrifugal extraction or pressing.

  • Centrifugal Extraction. This method is most common for the langstroth type of hive. Frames removed from a hive are uncapped (the top thin layer of wax is removed to allow access to the honey in the cells) and placed in an extractor which spins them so that most of the honey is removed by centrifugal force. The spinning motion flings the honey onto the walls of the extractor, where it then drips down and collects at the bottom. Once extracted, the resulting honey will contain small pieces of wax and must be passed through a filter or screen so that clean liquid honey results.
  • Pressing. For hives which do not use frames, such as Warre or Top Bar hives, or when honeycomb is cut and removed from the frames. The honey laden comb can be placed into a press which literally squashes the honey from the comb. Similar in process to pressing fruit to extract the juice, the force applied to the honey landed honeycomb bursts the individual cells allowing the honey to exit the sides of the press via small holes or slots. The honey drips to the bottom of the press pools in a tray and flows into a collection tank. As with honey from a extractor, the resulting honey will also contain small pieces of wax and must be passed through a filter or screen so that clean liquid honey results.

Crystallised Honey

At some point, when you go to your pantry for honey for your toast, you may find something thick and cloudy in the bottle where your liquid gold treat once was. What's this? Has your honey gone bad? No it has not, stored properly, honey can actually last several years.

Crystallisation is a natural process in honey and actually is an indication of good quality non-heat treated honey.

All 'Raw' or non heat treated honey, eventually starts to crystallise. Depending on the moisture content of the honey, the ratio of fructose and glucose, and the ambient temperature, crystallisation can occur in weeks or months. It is a particularly common occurrence in the cold winter months but rest assured it does not mean the honey has gone bad.

Crystallised honey can be returned to normal free flowing honey through the application of gentle low temperature heat (below 35 degrees C).

Placing the honey container in the sun or in a bowl of hot water are both suitable options in fact pretty much anything which can provide a stable gentle low heat for several hours will do the trick. However it is not recommended to place honey into a microwave oven.

But be warned: While honey may naturally have a long shelf life, heating and cooling the spread too many times can cause it to lose its color, texture and aroma.

Creamed Honey

The first thing to clarify is that creamed honey doesn’t have anything added to it, which means all the dairy-free diet followers are in luck despite the deceptive name. So, if it doesn’t have any dairy how come it is creamy? And that brings me to the questions about how we make it and what the difference is between the creamed and the liquid version…

Liquid raw honey when left in a jar will eventually crystallise. There are two types of sugar that make up honey: glucose and fructose. Glucose is the bit that crystallises and different honeys have different levels of glucose depending on the type of flower the nectar came from. Flowers such as alfalfa or clover will crystallise fairly quickly as they have a higher ratio of glucose.

Another factor is pollen. Raw, unfiltered honey has pollen particles present in it. If you were to analyse raw honey, you would be able to know which flowers the bees were visiting by the type of pollen you can find in the honey, which we think is pretty cool. However, those little particles also create a surface for the crystals to begin forming, so they also speed up the process.

Temperature also plays a role and if you keep your honey in the fridge the crystallisation process will happen much quicker. The reason why supermarket honey stays liquid and looking pretty for a very long time is that most honeys you will find on a supermarket shelf have been filtered (taking out the beneficial pollen) and heated up, which destroys the antibacterial components as well as the beneficial enzymes of honey and stops crystallisation but can turn honey into a glorified sugar syrup.

So, in summary, Creamed honey is honey that has been processed to control the level of crystallisation. Creamed honey contains a large number of small fine crystals, which prevent the formation of larger crystals that can occur in unprocessed honey. The processing also produces a honey with a smooth spreadable consistency. Because it's the glucose that crystallizes in the honey, and because glucose crystals are naturally pure white, creamed honey is always lighter colored than liquid honey of the same floral type.

There are a variety of methods to make creamed honey but a simple approach can be found HERE

Organic Honey?

A primefacts sheet on "Organic certified production with bees" prepared by Nicholas Annard, District Livestock Officer (Apiculture), Intensive Industries Development, Bathurst from the NSW Government can be downloaded here

The following points are excerpts from the above mentioned factsheet.

Beekeeping is an agricultural industry that relies very little on the use of synthetic (man-made) chemicals. It is an industry that causes minimal environmental damage and is sustainable, producing products that require little or no modification during the stages of production. So you may think that it would be an easy transition for a beekeeping enterprise to become certified organic. This is far from reality, with certification as an organic beekeeper being more difficult to obtain than for many other agricultural industries. There are many requirements the enterprise needs to meet to gain certification. The issue of the mobility of bees being able to forage over large areas is just one aspect that adds complexity to the ability of a beekeeper to become certified organic.

Organic production

'Organic' is a term used to indicate that a product is produced in a way that cares for the environment:

  • All inputs are of natural origin.
  • The product is free from man-made chemical contaminants.
  • The product has not been chemically altered.

Certified organic production

Organic certification is an audit and inspection process which allows enterprises to be verified ‘organic’ by a credible independent organisation.

Key challenges related to certified organic beekeeping include:

  • Apiary sites must be situated more than 5 km from any:
    • flower-bearing crop treated with 'non-organic' pesticides or genetically modified/engineered organisms or their products;
    • urban or industrial activities
    • waste sites
  • Detailed records must be kept for each apiary site, ...
  • There are restrictions on materials used in hive construction, ...
  • Extraction and storage surfaces must be made of food-grade materials.
  • Pest and disease control options and hive disinfection are restricted ...
  • The use of antibiotics for European Foul Brood disease (EFB) control is limited ...
  • Feeding of hives is only allowed under extreme climatic or other extenuating circumstances, ...
  • Bee colonies must be provided with a continuous supply of clean water and sufficient forage throughout the season. The food source must fulfil the nutritional needs and good health of the colony. (This will require obtaining an adequate number of sites that will maintain the health of all your hives for all types of seasonal conditions.)

You should read the full national standard in order to assess your ability to become certified organic.