We can all probably recall, some time or another, being transfixed by the determined flight of a honeybee as she fluttered from flower to flower, collecting the sweet nectar and pollen along the way. The nectar and pollen gathered by the tireless mass of worker bees in the hive serve a vital role in the development of the colony’s brood and the overall health and well being of the hive’s population of tens of thousands of buzzing bee citizens. The worker bees of the colony, all female, toil in concert to gather nectar and pollen from thousands of blooming flora to provide for their colony. Their effort is nothing short of herculean, and the means by which they collect nectar and pollen for transport back to the hive, and refine it into food stores, is a production feat worthy of admiration.
To collect nectar, which is predominantly composed of water and sugar, worker bees will depart the hive on foraging flights. In a single foraging flight, a honey bee can visit nearly a hundred flowers before returning to the hive to deposit the collected nectar. The scale and industriousness of honeybees is truly outstanding; a single foraging worker bee might visit close to 5,000 flowers in a single day. The combined effort of thousands of foraging workers means that one hive can visit millions of flowers in one day. While a solitary worker bee might only make around 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime, the hive can make several pounds of honey in a single day during peak nectar flows. It takes the honey bees roughly two millions visits to flowers to produce one pound of honey, or roughly 55,000 miles of flying and foraging. The sheer scale of activity is dizzying. With such enormous labor demands, the colony needs a constantly refreshed labor force and a healthy hive will have a queen up to the task. To ensure the labor demands of the hive are met, a queen bee can lay over 2,000 eggs per day. With the developmental cycle of worker bees taking approximately 21 days, thousands of bees are born each day, ready to replace the overworked, fallen, or quickly aging bees that came before them.
As honey bees leave the hive to gather nectar, they will generally stay within a one to three mile radius of the hive; although bees can fly nearly six miles, they tend to stick much closer to home. The foraging worker bees are drawn by the colorful sight and smells of the flowers, enticing them to land on their petals to aid in the pollination and continuation of the flower’s genetic line. It’s remarkable to think that the beauty we see in the floral world around us is intended for the pollinators like the butterfly and the honey bee and not for us humans at all. In addition to the visual and olfactory cues put out by the flowers, the honey bees use their ability to sense an electrical field from flowers to determine whether or not there is nectar available for collection. After all, why stop at a flower if the nectar has been depleted by a bee on a previous foraging flight? Being able to sense the electrical field of the flower allows the bee to quickly pass over drained flowers, leaving their sights set on a more rewarding prize. When the bee has selected a flower, she will land and collect the nectar with her proboscis, or straw-like tongue. When the nectar has been collected, it is stored in a honey crop, a sort of second stomach or storage tank on its journey from flower back to the hive. At this time, enzymes begin to break down the nectar, the first real step in the nectar’s journey from watery-nectar to sweet, delicious honey.
When foraging worker bees return to their hive with a full load of nectar, the transformation process from nectar to honey has already begun. During the flight from the flower back to the hive, enzymes in the bee’s honey crop, or honey stomach, will start to break down the sugars in the nectar. Upon returning to the hive, the foraging bees will pass off the nectar to other housekeeping bees. The nectar will be passed from honey bee to honey bee until, finally, it is deposited in a honeycomb cell. At this point, if the bees were to cap the honeycomb cell without further altering the nectar, the high-water and sugar concentration would all but guarantee the solution would ferment. While we might like to loosen up with a bit of alcohol from time to time, the colony has zero tolerance for anything that might adversely impact the industriousness of the colony. Really, the reason bees make honey is to ensure an ample food source during the winter when there is a dearth in available nectar and virtually no blooming flora. To make sure the food supply will last, the bees need to reduce the water content of the nectar. This is achieved through the use of enzymes and by physically flapping their wings over the cells to evaporate excess water. When the nectar’s water content has been reduced to 20% or below, it is considered honey and can be capped. Stored properly, honey will virtually never spoil. Archaeologists have even discovered honey in Egyptian tombs that is still edible.
Go outside, kick off your shoes, and get some grass between your toesies. We can all remember what it was like to be a kid and marvel at the world around us. Go find some bees outside, or better yet, become a backyard beekeeper, and you’ll constantly feel that sense of awe and wonder. Next time you see a bee collecting nectar, know that one, it’s a girl, and two, it’s so damn cool that I can’t stand it. Dare I say it’s the bee’s knees?