By Sam Wong
Honey bees make honey to store up as food to last them through the winter months. During the coldest time of year, there are fewer flowers from which to collect nectar and honey bees are unable to forage. Thanks to their supply of honey, members of these colonies survive through the winter, unlike in most bumblebee colonies where only the queen bee survives by hibernating underground.
Honey is usually made from nectar, the sweet liquid produced by flowers to entice bees and spread their pollen. A worker bee sucks up the nectar through a long, thin tube called a proboscis and keeps it in a special honey stomach, known as the crop, which can hold up to 80 per cent of a bee’s weight in nectar. Inside, the bee’s enzymes, including one called invertase, begin to break down the complex sugars into simpler ones that are less prone to crystallising.
Once the worker returns to the hive, forager bees pass the nectar to each other from mouth to mouth. Workers that are younger than the foragers then pack the nectar into hexagon-shaped cells in the honeycomb that are made of beeswax. Next, they fan the nectar with their wings to encourage evaporation.
While nectar is 70 to 80 per cent water, these processes reduce its water content to around 18 per cent. This reduction in water turns the nectar into honey. The high concentration of sugar, meanwhile, ensures that bacteria and fungi can’t grow, meaning honey can be stored indefinitely without spoiling. The honey is covered with fresh beeswax and stored in the cell until it is needed.
A healthy colony can produce two or three times the amount of honey it needs, so it isn’t a problem for them if humans take some. Buying honey from local producers helps support bees in your area and their crucial role in the food system and wider ecosystem.