The Science Behind How Honey is Made
Beeswax remains one of the most extraordinary aspects of nature’s architectural masterpieces created by bees. They collect nectar from flowers and combine it with special enzymes to reduce its moisture content. The bees go through the entire routine of nectar processing, protein storage, and cell cap sealing about three times a year in temperate climates. This informative guide aims to explain the science behind how bees produce it. It will also answer why it has such a long shelf-life, what happens if it is not harvested, and other burning questions.
Why Do Bees Make Honey?
There are three main reasons why bees make it. These are:
- Bees make honey by focusing their energy on transforming flower nectar into chemical-packed calories that will sustain them through the winter. In warm climates where food supplies are not reliable, bees store excess portions as a source of energy if they cannot forage. Mostly, this happens when flowers are not blooming or blossoms have been depleted. In cooler climates, bees may not make much and rely on food sources available throughout the year.
- The enzymes help to prevent bacterial growth.
- Bees need water to survive but can’t use rainwater since it’s too diluted with other substances. Instead, they use the water found in the syrup to hydrate themselves.
So, how do bees make it?
What is the science behind how it is made? Bees collect nectar, process it in their stomachs, and store it in wax structures attached to the walls within the beehive. Beeswax produced by bees is used to store sweet liquid and larval food.
Nectar is a sugary liquid that’s secreted by flowers as part of the plant fertilization process. It serves as an incentive for bees, birds, and other pollinators to spread pollen from one flower to another. Flowers use nectar, a scented substance with a sweet taste, to attract bees. Pollination is higher in plants with many flowers and more nectar. Cross-pollination increases the productivity of the plants and provides bees with enough nectar.
Bees reduce the water content in the nectar using various enzymes and increasing its sugar content. Nectar can have a water content of 80% to 90%, but after processing, the water content reduces to 20%. If the sugar concentration is higher, bees will reduce the water content further to around 18%.The bees carry the nectar back to the hive, which is deposited in beeswax and further digested. They add more enzymes to break down the sugars until they attain the desired results. As the bees fan their wings over the open cells, they stimulate evaporation and reduce the nectar’s water content.
Besides, the bees fan their wings to enhance aeration in the beeswax. The constant movement of air evaporates the water out, minimizing the moisture content. It has many different sugars and complex molecules, which prevent certain enzymes from breaking it down over time. The final product contains sugar, water, trace enzymes, and minerals (such as zinc, iron, potassium, and manganese), pollen, proteins (including enzymes and “nitrogen-containing compounds”). Besides, it also contains carbohydrates, amino acids, and vitamins B6, antioxidants. In its natural state, processed nectar contains 66% fructose sugar content, 23% glucose, and less than 1% sucrose.
The bees need protein to rear their brood. They collect pollen grains from flowers and pack them into triangular pollen baskets on their hind legs. As they fly back to the beehive, they transfer the pollen from these pollen baskets to special comb cells in the hive made for storing the protein-rich sugary syrup. Mostly, brood rearing begins in late winter, a period where natural resources are limited. During this period, a shortage in proteins can have adverse effects on population buildup. The bees, therefore, have to collect enough pollen to sustain the colony throughout the season. However, the collection rate varies depending on the pollen availability of pollen and the colony’s needs. While other bees are gathering nectar, a certain percentage of bees will be collecting pollen.
Bees visit different types of flowers that have nectar to collect. Once the beeswax is full, the bees cap it off with wax to preserve it. The syrup is broken down by special enzymes called invertase and glucose oxidase, preventing it from spoiling or changing its state. The comb has an internal comb wall called a “propolis” or bee glue used to maintain the storage areas and seal comb cells. After harvesting, the beeswax is replaced with a new one to ensure that production does not stop. During winter, when few plants are blooming and bees don’t need to forage, they remain clustered inside their hive – constantly keep moderate hive temperatures by vibrating their wing muscles, thus generating heat. The bees stay clustered together to maintain this kind of internal temperature because they cannot produce enough heat on their own to keep their bodies warm.
If the bees become chilled below about 50°F (10°C), they cannot generate enough heat to stay alive and might eventually die.
The Bee Colony
A typical beehive can hold between 30,000 and 80,000 bees in the winter when they are clustering. The population can increase to as much as 150,000 during spring and early summer before the swarming season.
The sugary syrup is stored in the upper part of the hive inside numerous thin-walled wax cells. Beehives are often described as enclosed structures where the larva is raised. That’s because it can be challenging to harvest the product without destroying most of the empty comb. Once a colony has filled the available beeswax, the bees can turn to other nectar sources and produce more wax.
On most occasions, a bee colony produces more than it needs for its survival. Swarms and new colonies need a lot of food for house-cleaning and building comb before taking on their first nectar gathering mission. However, once they’ve gathered enough food to survive the winter, the bees will begin adding wax to store excess sweet syrup for future use.
A colony can live through many cycles of building a new comb to increase its production before replacing its old beeswax with a new one. At that point, there may be more food in the hive than a single colony can use, so the bees will prepare to swarm and leave behind the hive. Some colonies may produce more than they can store or even eat before spoils at the end of summer, so they again prepare to swarm.
The process of gathering and processing nectar
Bees collect nectar with their proboscis, long tongue-like organs with bristles, and filter the pollen from the nectar. Nectar is water (80-85%) and fructose with smaller glucose, sucrose, maltose. When bees fly from flower to flower, they collect nectar and transport it to the hive for processing. The stomach holds about 75 mg of nectar when full. It takes about 60 flowers’ worth of nectar to fill a bees’ stomach. When they return to their hive, the bees regurgitate the nectar onto worker bees inside the colony, who will carry it back to cells and distribute it among other worker bees for processing.
A bee can hold up to 6,000 stomachs in its lifetime, each with about 50 mg of nectar. When bees digest the nectar, they have a smaller crop and larger stomach. The stomach must be large enough to hold the nectar while it passes through the bee’s system. When bees return to their hive, they regurgitate the nectar onto worker bees, who will carry it back for processing.
Can you keep bees without harvesting from them?
Although it’s possible to keep bees without conducting regular harvests, the movie is not recommended for several reasons. First, the bee colony will outgrow the hive leaving no room to populate. The process will cost you more since you will be required to spend more on buying hives. Second, the bees will consume all the stored food in the hive during winter since the external weather conditions will not be favorable. During summer and spring, the bees may reduce their production and may not process enough food to last the entire winter period. Third, failing to harvest regularly will make the bees overpopulate. Keeping the bees healthy in overcrowded hives can be challenging.
If you do not perform occasional harvests, it is hard for a bee colony to store enough food for the winter. Bees need enough food to survive cold temperatures and poor foraging conditions. So, if you know that next year will be a lousy year for foraging, it is best to harvest early enough so that your bees have enough food throughout the coming months.
The only time the idea of harvesting does not matter is when you are keeping bees in a temporary location like an observation hive or for pollination purposes. In these cases, it is typically more about the bees than practicing commercial bee farming.
Why does Honey not spoil?
When stored properly, honey neither spoils nor needs to be refrigerated. High sugar concentration inhibits the microbial growth that causes food spoilage. It comprises more than 80% of sugars, including glucose, sucrose, fructose, and complex carbohydrates.
Honey has high osmotic pressure and low pH of between 3.5 and 5.5, which creates an unfavorable environment for spoilage-causing organisms. It creates a harsh environment for microorganisms to grow. Water molecules are the building blocks of all living organisms that are made up of water. When water is removed from microorganisms, they are unable to replicate or reproduce. The liquid’s acidity in its natural and processed state makes it difficult for bacteria to grow. Since it is hygroscopic, it absorbs moisture from the air, making less desirable forms of microorganisms unable to thrive and multiply on its surface. It contains high acidity, an exceptionally low water activity of between 0.6-0.7, and few enzymes. These factors protect it from microorganisms, help in preventing spoilage, and make it resistant to change.
So why is there an expiration date on the Honey Bottle?
Honey is a stable food with a long shelf-life and can last for years without spoiling. In the bottle, the sugary liquid is processed and not in its natural state. The expiration date reflects its ability to remain safe for human consumption beyond that time, not its potential to spoil. It means that the expiration date is just a marker that notifies the store owner to add the new and fresher stock. Pasteurization is a process that heats the liquid in its natural state to a temperature that will kill most potentially harmful yeast and fungi.