You may have heard that not all bees make honey. This may have come as a shock because honey is synonymous with bees. However, now you may be questioning which bees do make honey. Specifically, do honeybees make honey?
Of the 20,000 bee species on earth, less than 800 (4%) of them make honey. Fortunately, honeybees are among those species and are the bees used for commercial bee husbandry. Honeybees are mainly used for pollination purposes and to create honey sold for home and commercial use.
While this may shock you, less than 4% of all bees make honey. However, as the name suggests, honeybees are among those that do. This article discusses the origins of honeybees and the discovery of honey as a food source. We will also consider how and why honeybees make honey. Finally, we will determine if any other animals also make honey.
Can Honeybees Make Honey?
There are many types of bees on earth. Around 20,000, to be exact. While not all bees produce honey, the honeybee does. The honeybee is one of 800 bee species that make honey. Although this number is significantly tiny, each bee species have its own unique purposes. Fortunately for us, part of the honeybee’s purpose is to create delicious honey.
There are approximately 44 subspecies of honeybees. They are identified by the word “Apis,” used to describe their genus name. All honeybees have the following traits in common:
- They produce honey.
- They make wax combs.
- They live as a colony in a nest and have a queen.
While various traits differ between these subspecies of honeybees, their ability to make honey is what interests us most. Here are some examples of honeybees:
- Western Honeybee (Apis Mellifera)
- Giant Asian Honeybee (Apis Dorsata)
- Himalayan Honeybee (Apis Cerana)
- African Honeybee (Apis Mellifera Scutellata)
Because you are interested in the honey-making abilities of these honeybees, you might also be interested in knowing how and why honeybees make honey. In addition, we will also discuss how much honey a colony of honeybees can make and how honeybees make beeswax to store the honey in.
1. How Do Honeybees Make Honey?
The process of making honey is an interesting one. It starts with the worker bees, who forage during the day for flowers and collect the nectar with their long tongue-like structures, called a proboscis. This nectar is kept in a special stomach called the crop. When their crops are filled, the honeybees return to the nest and pass the nectar to processor bees.
An interesting side note about the crop of a honeybee. It can contain nectar collected from between 100 and 150 flowers. When filled, the crop can weigh as much as the bee itself.
When the processor bees receive the nectar, they chew it and add an enzyme known as invertase. Invertase breaks down the nectar into simple sugars: glucose and sucrose. This process takes about half an hour.
When the processor bees are satisfied that the nectar is adequately broken down, they store the honey in predesigned hexagonal pods. These pods are made from beeswax, another thing honeybees produce. Then, the processor honeybees will fan the honey to become thick. Nectar has about 70% water, while honey only has 17%. Therefore, the honey is fanned to become concentrated and lose some water.
After the honey is entirely concentrated, the bees cover the hexagonal pod with more beeswax. Finally, the honey is ready for later use. Making concentrated honey is an arduous process, so you might wonder why the honeybees feel the need to do this.
Well, concentrated honey is much sweeter than liquid nectar. The sugar content helps prevent fungus or bacteria from growing on the honey. By concentrating the honey, the bees ensure the honey doesn’t spoil and the nest isn’t exposed to harmful bacterium or fungi.
2. Why Do Honeybees Make Honey?
The next question you may have about the honey-making habits of honeybees is why honeybees make honey to begin with. The answer to that question is simple.
Honeybees make honey to eat. During the cold winter months or rainy season, honeybees cannot leave the nest to forage for nectar and pollen to eat. Therefore, they make honey during the warmer seasons to sustain them in this time. Honey contains a lot of sugar and nutrients that honeybees need to survive.
Not all bees make honey because not all bees need a winter food supply. For example, bumblebees don’t store honey. Therefore, the bumblebee queen will hibernate during winter, while the colony will starve and die. Honeybees, on the contrary, don’t go into hibernation, and the entire colony can survive throughout the winter because of their honey supply.
Because of this, a single honeybee colony can survive for multiple seasons, adding to their numbers. This is also why many farmers prefer honeybees for pollination purposes because their numbers will continuously increase.
So, honeybees work hard during the summer to ensure a good honey supply for the winter. Honeybees consume a lot of honey in winter because they need a lot of energy to vibrate and keep the nest warm. They also feed honey to the larvae and queen to ensure the entire colony survives the cold winter months.
3. How Much Honey Do Honeybees Make?
How much honey do honeybees make exactly? Well, the exact amount of honey depends on the colony’s size, the flowers available to forage from, the type of honeybees, and the rate at which the bees can produce honey.
In general, a honeybee colony can make up to 160 pounds of honey in a single season. That’s a lot of honey for such small animals. Honeybees will need between 60 and 80 pounds of honey during winter, depending on the seasonal changes and the colony’s size.
This leaves a surplus of up to 80 pounds of honey per year. Why do honeybees make so much excess honey? Because many predators invade the nests and steal the honey. Honey badgers, and certain types of birds, for example, often break open a honeybee’s nest to steal some of the honey.
Therefore, honeybees make enough honey to last them through the winter, even if other animals take some of the honey. Fortunately, people can also harvest some honey without harming the honeybee colony.
4. How Do Honeybees Make Beeswax?
Beeswax is a critical component for honeybees. They use beeswax to build their nests. They also use beeswax to create the hexagonal shapes in which they store the honey and brood. So, how do honeybees make beeswax?
Young worker bees have four wax glands located on the bottom of their abdomens. When exposed to air, these glands secrete liquid wax that dries to form a thing scale. A young worker bee can produce eight scales in twelve hours. Thousands of scales are needed to make the honeybees’ nests and structures.
When the liquid wax is secreted, the worker bee uses its legs to scrape the wax off its abdomen and passes it to its mandibles. It then chews the wax to make it pliable and shapes it into the hexagon shape used to make the honeybee nest structures.
As the worker bees get older, their wax glands stop producing wax. They then leave their nest to forage for nectar, while the younger worker bees are left with the task of creating wax. The wax is shaped into hexagon structures because they allow the honeybees to make the most use of their space with the least amount of wax.
Beeswax has many uses for humans. It is edible and is often used in the beauty and cosmetic industry. Beeswax is also used in medicine, and to make daily items, such as candles.
Now that we have discussed the necessary aspects of honeybees and honey, we can move on to the final point of this article. Are honeybees the only animals that make honey?
Are Honeybees The Only Insects That Make Honey?
Although honeybees make the most honey, other insects also make honey. While we may not call these products honey, they are all made by processing nectar to make a sweet, sugary syrup. Here are some other creatures that produce honey or honey-like substances:
- Bumblebees make small amounts of honey to feed their queen.
- Certain wasps, such as the Mexican honey wasp, also make and store honey in their nests.
- Stingless bees in Australia produce honey, known as sugarbag.
- Aphids produce a sweet-tasting waste product that resembles honey.
- Honeypot ants make honey and store it in their abdomens to regurgitate and feed to the rest of the colony in times of food scarcity.
As you can see, honeybees aren’t the only insects who make honey. However, they make the most honey and are the only insects farmed for their honey-making capabilities. The other insects in this list produce much less honey. They don’t often make enough honey for people to harvest, and therefore their honey isn’t commercially farmed.
In this article, we explained the process honeybees use to make honey. We also discussed why they make honey, how much honey they make, and how they make beeswax. Honeybees create 160 pounds of honey per year, meaning they make more than enough for humans to harvest sustainably.
In addition to honeybees, bumblebees, certain wasps, stingless bees, aphids, and honeypot ants make honey on a much smaller scale. But, overall, honeybees are the biggest producers of honey and should be cherished and respected for their unique honey-making abilities.