What Do Bees Use Honey For?

Written On: by Theo The Beekeeper

Besides buzzing around all day and busying themselves with keeping plants and crops pollinated, Honey bees also make a golden elixir, which we call honey. This sugary, sweet goodness does not just taste exceptional but also offers us many health benefits. However, although we know that we have uses for honey, what do the bees do with it?  

Bees use honey as a means of storing a source of food and nutrients to eat during the cold winter periods when few plants are flowering, and there is far less nectar and pollen. They also use it as an emergency store in case of a crisis and as a supplement to other food sources.

honey in a cup with a wand
Honey, Honey Dipper, Drop, Flowing, Sticky

Honey bees (which is what we will be referring to unless otherwise stated) form part of a highly advanced and organized society that is made up of three prominent types of adult bees. These are the workers, drones, and a single fertile queen. Each of them has their role, and to perform their duties, they require sustenance, and this is where honey comes in, so to learn more, read on.

Why Do Bees Make And Store Honey?

honey and tea
A glass cup of tea with lemon, mint, ginger and honey on wooden rustic table.

Among the various things we have mentioned is that bees also eat honey. There are plenty of uses for honey, but we are focusing on the reasons and circumstances pertaining to what honey bees do with it. We will touch on all the purposes that honey serves, and hopefully, you will walk away feeling far more enlightened on this topic.

Honey Is Used To Refuel The Worker Bees

worker bees eating honey
Close-up of bees on honeycomb in apiary in the summer.

Like some human regions, bee colonies are structured into a caste system. There are worker bees who have the job of feeding and looking after the young, developing bees, while slightly older worker bees will go on expeditions to source what is needed to make honey. The worker bees work exceptionally hard by going out and collecting pollen and nectar, and they need sustenance.

Worker honey bees that venture out of the hive spend a significant percentage of their limited lives foraging. They gather nectar and pollen and take these back to the colony. They can sometimes travel as far as 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the hive in search of what they need to make honey and sustain the colony. While awake and able to buzz about, a worker bee’s job is never done.

The worker bees going on these excursions burn tremendous amounts of energy while flying about and carrying loads of pollen and nectar that can weigh as much as a third of their body weight. Honey (predominantly a carbohydrate) aids in energizing them and providing them with the strength to continue their work.

To give you an idea, while in flight, a bee’s wings will beat approximately 11,400 times per minute, so you can clearly understand why they require the rejuvenating and reenergizing properties of the honey produced in the hive.

Honey Is Used To Feed The Drones

Now, although their name sounds like they are the ones who protect the colony, the job is actually left up to the worker bees, which are all infertile female bees that are the smallest in size when compared to the drones and queen. The drones are male bees, and they are, without a doubt, likely the ones who are the most prominent honey consumers in the hive.

Social bee species, which include the honey bee, typically produce drones on a seasonal basis, and their sole purpose is to be primed to mate with the queen and help propagate the species. Following the copulation, though, they sadly die soon after that.

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This may sound like a depressing existence, but there are many benefits to being a drone during their lifespans. They have the easiest of existences out of all the hive members; once fertilized, the queen will lay eggs indefinitely until her dying day, or the colony opts for a new queen. And the worker bees get no time off and have to work away all day. 

The drones remain in the hive and spend their time resting and consuming copious amounts of honey; they are, in fact, an immense drain on the honey supplies and the hive’s other resources. However, honey is the central portion of their diet; the colony permits this only when the drone is preparing to mate.

Only certain drones will have the honor of mating with the new queen once she has matured, and those who do not mate are barred from the hive after that. Since they are not foragers and are accustomed to the hive’s cozy and comfortable life, they cannot find food, and when faced with harsh elements, they will soon perish.

Bees Store Honey Away For The Winter Or Emergencies 

There are two categories of bees (all-inclusive) regarding when and how long they live. Seasonal species, like the bumble bee, die out in the winter, except for the mated queen, who can enter hibernation and then re-emerges in the spring to restart the colony. Then there are perennial bees, such as the honey bees, who survive year-round.

This is where we get to the importance of adequate honey storage for the winter periods so that they still have sustenance to consume. Most flowering plants either stop flowering, go dormant, or die off during the winter; therefore, there is a limited to no supply of nectar and pollen available for the worker bees to forage.

Now they need an alternative to help them get through the icy winter periods, as sustenance to eat and as fuel to keep them warm, especially in frigid climates. Honey is the answer to this predicament, and all they have been storing throughout the rest of the year is now readily available.

There are times when natural disasters or phenomena occur; a fire might destroy a large percentage of the surrounding vegetation. Or something like extreme and unexpected drops in temperatures (or increases) could lead to the flowers wilting and dying, thus meaning that the bees will need another food supply while waiting for things to regrow.  

Honey Is Used In The Regulation Of The Temperature In A Hive

The worker bees do not only fly outside of the hives; there are times when they will need to beat their wings within the hive to help regulate the temperature inside the structure. To do so, there is also the need for energy; thus, honey does not control the temperature in the hive. However, it fuels the bees, enabling them to do so.

A beehive does not have air-conditioning or a thermostat, yet it also endures the temperature of the surrounding air. Additionally, honey bees (the workers) can metabolize honey with the intention of heat production. Bee eggs and larvae need to be kept at a fixed temperature, and if it drops too low, they are at risk and, ultimately, the continuation of the colony.

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Honey Is Used In The Process Of Creating Beeswax

Various species of bees, including the honey bee, create beeswax, formed from an internal process and excreted from their abdomens. Beeswax is a highly useful byproduct used for many things in hives, such as constructing combs and other structures.

For a bee to be able to produce beeswax, it requires carbohydrates (in the form of glucose) which they will acquire from consuming honey, and they also need protein (from bee bread). For honey bees, beeswax is a crucial element in building and developing the hive as it is used in making combs and cells; they also use it to put a sealant over the honey cells and those used for pupating larvae.

Honey Is Used As A Source Of Nourishment For Bee Larvae

Social bees, unlike solitary bees, are very hands-on and involved in the lives and development of their larvae from the instant they have hatched. The worker caste, whose job is to look after the young bees, will clean out the cells and replenish them with food for the larvae’s needs during their rapid development.

Various things are fed to the larvae; one of these is royal jelly, which is usually given to potential candidates to take the place of the old queen. Another is the pollen, sometimes referred to as bee bread, but one of the other vital food sources for the larvae is honey.

Other Sources Of Food For Bees

As you are likely aware, honey bees are vegetarians. Besides consuming honey to supply them with the energy they require, they also collect nectar and pollen from flowering plants. These are a staple part of their diet.

The nectar gets harvested and converted into a sweet liquid, honey, their primary carbohydrate source. Honey is what gives them energy (particularly the workers and then the queen as well) and enables the workers to fly long distances for extended periods, helping with the upkeep of the hive and other daily tasks.

Pollen, which you now know is also referred to as bee bread, is their main protein source; they not only pollinate flowers and crops with the pollen, they collect it and purposefully return it to the hive. Another reason why bees consume pollen is that it contains an array of other things such as vitamins and minerals, as well as fatty acids.

Is Honey Bee Vomit?

There is a reason why people perceive honey as “bee vomit,” and this is because bees take in and then regurgitate the nectar when they return to the hive. Many would agree that this fits the definition of vomit, and they do have a valid argument in that the substance (nectar) travels down the bee’s esophagus and is stored in a “second stomach” before being forced back up.

The snag is the “second stomach,” where the nectar is stored, referred to as the crop is not used in any manner to digest food whatsoever in honey bees. Instead, the only purpose of the crop is to store the nectar until the bee has returned to the hive. The nectar they collect is never digested and is therefore distinguishable from mammalian vomit, where only one stomach exists.

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How Do Bees Make Honey?

Honey Production begins with the nectar-containing flower the bee visits and, with their tongues, sap it up and store it in the crop or “second stomach .”There is then a process that the nectar undergoes while in the crop, which involves it getting broken down into simple sugars, preparing it for long-term storage.

Once the forager bee has returned to the hive, there are two ways the nectar can be transferred into storage. Either they will transfer it to honey pots located on the outside of the hive, where other bees can then retrieve it, or they will transfer it directly into the crop of the processor worker bee. Finally, the nectar is regurgitated into a honeycomb, where it will be stored for future use.

The worker bees will then fan the nectar in the honeycomb by beating their wings, resulting in the excess water and moisture evaporating out of the nectar. Following the water evaporating from the honeycomb, the worker bee will use beeswax, excreted from their abdomen, to seal the comb. Once the honey is properly sealed inside the comb, it can be retrieved whenever needed.

Is It Wrong Of Humans To Take Honey From Bees?

In the wild, there is always the threat of predation and the likes of certain mammals, like the honey badger or even other insects, and certain bird-life will attempt and often succeed in stealing honey stores from the bees’ hive. At times this will mean devastation for the colony, but usually, when they are under attack, the worker bees will try to fend off predators to maintain the safety of the hive.

That is in the wild, where nature cannot be monitored or controlled; however, what about people taking honey from bees, especially since the bees work tirelessly to manufacture it? Surely bee farms are a cruel and unnatural way for bees to live? We have documented proof that humans and bees have had interactions for thousands of years, and people have loved honey for a long time.  

The truth is that some beekeepers do not care properly for their bees, but an upstanding and skilled beekeeper will understand how much can be extracted without harming the hive and its residents. If a colony is healthy and thriving, it may produce two to three times as much honey as they genuinely need, so it is not an issue if only a portion is taken.

Conclusion

Now you know and have a better understanding of why bees make honey and their uses for it. Honey serves various purposes, from being eaten during winter periods or during times when other food sources are scarce to feeding their young and making bees’ wax. The next time you enjoy some honey, consider the hard little workers that help to produce it.

There is also the human element involved, and because bees are so essential, we must regulate how much we take from them. This is why responsible beekeepers will always ensure that the colony is appropriately looked after and has enough access to nutrient-filled alternatives when they take some of the honey.

References

https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/helping-agricultures-helpful-honey-bees#

https://www.buzzaboutbees.net/why-do-bees-make-honey.html

https://www.newscientist.com/question/bees-make-honey/

https://theconversation.com/curious-kids-how-do-bees-make-honey-143450

https://www.greenmatters.com/p/why-bees-make-honey

Author

Theo The Beekeeper

When I was a kid, my dad used to keep bees around the small farm we had, and I absolutely loved helping him. In the past few years, we’ve picked up the hobby again, and I’ve been doing a lot more research. This website is the accumulation of things I’ve learned along the way! You can learn more about my journey and the resources I’ve developed on my about page.

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