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Why do bees make honey?

Honey is a food-source for honeybees.  Honey, an over-saturated sugar solution, serves as the carbohydrate source for the bees, while the pollen, collected over multiple trips to flowers, serves as the hive’s protein source.  How though, do bees transform the nectar they collect from thousands of flowers into the sticky-sweet substance we know as honey?  And why do they do it?

The relationship between pollinators, like the honeybee, and nectar-producing flowers is an incredible one.  Flowers produce nectar to attract pollinators; a gift from flower to insect in exchange for the service of pollination.  This service is needed to ensure the continuation of a floral species and a process aided by the wind, animals, and insects alike.  Attracted to the flowers by the nectar, a scout bee will locate an abundant nectar source, like a plentiful field of wildflowers, before communicating the location back to the rest of the hive.  A scout bee will communicate this information by dancing; the waggle dance is used by bees to communicate information to the rest of the colony and is performed in a series of figure-eight twirls and a rapid “waggles” of the bee’s body.

Armed with the knowledge of the location of an abundant nectar source, the worker bees will forage the flowers collecting nectar by sucking it from the flowers with their straw-like tongue, a proboscis.  After collecting the nectar from the flower, the nectar is stored in the crop of the honeybee, which is like a storage vessel for nectar within the bee.  The crop is sometimes referred to as a honey stomach or honey crop.  In the crop of the honeybee, enzymes start to break down the sucrose sugars in the nectar into other simple sugars, like fructose and glucose.  When the honeybee makes it back to the hive, it will pass the collected nectar from bee to bee until it is ultimately deposited in a honeycomb cell.

When the nectar is deposited into a honeycomb cell, the moisture content is too high to store long-term.  This poses a problem for the colony, as the high-moisture content, presence of sugar, and yeast could lead to fermentation. Fermented nectar would not make a good source of food, so the hive takes efforts to prevent fermentation.  Honeybees will positon themselves atop the nectar-filled cells and physically flap their wings to draw water from the solution and dehydrate the flower-nectar.  When the nectar falls below 20% water, it is sufficiently cured to prevent fermentation and the bees will seal the cell with wax.  At this point, the transformation from nectar to honey is complete.  During the winter when there is not an ample supply of nectar to feed the colony, the honeybees will rely on the honey collected and stored during nectar-flows of warmer months.

Honey is the result of thousands of worker bees toiling to further the continuation of the superorganism of which it finds itself a part of, the greater honeybee colony all striving for one goal: survival.  The relationship between pollinators and flowers has literally shaped the world we enjoy every day.  Flowers have colors, enticing scents, and tasty nectar to attract the pollinators that are vital to the survival of our own species.


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