The Importance of Honey

The Importance of Honey

The Importance of Honey

Bees on Comb

Honey bee workers tending to honeycomb cells. Photo © Scott Camazine.


Honey Appreciation

Did you know that honey is not only a tasty treat for people but is also necessary for healthy honey bee hives to function and survive? The complete process of honey production is complex and requires a great deal of cooperative effort among many worker bees. Without honey storage, honey bee colonies would starve during the cold winter months and during nectar shortages. 

Nectar Collection and Pollination

The Honey-Making Process

How Bees Use Honey

Surplus Honey

Further Reading


Nectar Collection and Pollination

Nectar Availability
As you may know, the raw material for honey is nectar, a sugary liquid produced by flowering plants. The amount of nectar available for collection by bees is directly affected by environmental conditions such as precipitation and temperature. For example, in a wet spring, honey bees can starve because nectar gets washed out of the flowers; it often takes several days for plants to recover typical nectar yields.  Alternatively, a stretch of hot days in the summer may lead to peaks in nectar levels.

Foraging and Bee Communication
Most honey bee workers begin foraging for nectar approximately three weeks after emerging as adults (Adult Life Cycle). They typically travel up to 2 miles from their hive and may spend up to 3 hours foraging at a time. They may visit up to 100 flowers per trip and make up to 50 trips per day, although this varies depending on plant availability or quality, weather, and physical barriers.  If a foraging bee discovers a good source of nectar (or pollen), she is able to communicate this information with other bees when she returns to the hive. Depending on how far the source is from the hive, she will perform the round dance or the waggle dance. These dances are an advanced behavior unique to honey bees, composed of motions and buzzing vibrations, that informs other workers about the food source.  For example, the intensity and the orientation of the waggle dance indicate the quality, distance, and direction of the source. Besides motion and sound, these bees may also share regurgitated nectar with recruits or use odor to direct others to help collect the food.


Waggle Dance

The blurry bees above are workers performing the waggle dance to recruit and direct
other workers to a nectar or pollen source. Photo © Scott Camazine.


Pollen Collection
It is also important to note that foraging honey bees may also collect pollen while visiting flowers. Pollen is not used to make honey but is a nutritious food source for honey bees because it contains protein, lipids, vitamins, and minerals.  It is carried to the hive and stored in cells, but not in large amounts like honey. Honey bees may moisten stored pollen with nectar to produce bee bread, a fermented bee food that is an important protein source, especially for developing bees.   Although the majority of a colony’s foraging bees collect nectar, many of them also collect pollen.  Worker bees can store pollen in a special pollen basket, a structure on the outer surface of each hind leg.  Additionally, pollen becomes stuck in hairs of a bee’s legs and body and is then transferred from flower to flower as the bee forages. This is a very important mechanism of pollination for many plant species and ensures the growth of future flowers, which is vital for the survival of the bee colony.  This symbiotic relationship between bees and plants is called mutualism, a biological interaction between individuals of two different species, where both individuals benefit.


Bee with Pollen Basket

Honey bee workers collecting nectar from a thistle flower.  Note the enlarged
pollen basket on the rear leg of the bee on the right. Photo © Scott Camazine.


The Honey Making Process

Once the nectar has been collected, it is taken to the hive where it can be transferred, manipulated, and then finally stored as honey.  When a foraging bee returns to the hive with the nectar she has collected, she distributes it among three or four house bees.  She forms a droplet of nectar solution at the base of her mouth which is then ingested by the house bees and stored in their honey stomachs, an expandable sac which holds honey ingested in the hive along with nectar and water collected by foraging workers. 

Once a house bee has received a full load of nectar, which is composed of about 90% water, she manipulates it with her mouthparts to promote moisture evaporation.  At the same time she uses enzymes to break down the sugars to more digestible forms and to protect the honey from bacteria during storage. After this process, she regurgitates the nectar solution into a droplet that hangs from her mouth in the air for as long as 20 minutes to further evaporate moisture. Finally, she deposits the un-ripened honey into a cell. Bees may fan the cells to continue removing moisture from partially filled uncapped cells. Workers will seal cells with a thin layer of wax once the honey moisture content drops to 20%.


Bees Fanning

The honey bees above are fanning. This behavior can be used to
evaporate moisture
from honey. Photo © Scott Camazine.

How Bees Use Honey

The amount of honey produced by each colony varies from year to year but it is estimated that a honey bee colony, typically consisting of around 30,000 individuals, will use around 130-175 lbs of honey annually.  (Honey weighs about 12 pounds to a gallon).  Honey is a vital carbohydrate or energy source for adult honey bees, especially the workers who are always on the go.  Furthermore, it is also necessary for normal growth and development in larvae.  When nectar is scarce and larvae are underfed, developmental failure is high and dwarf adults are produced.  In addition, honey also provides the energy adult drones need for mating flights.  Queens do not directly eat honey but are instead fed a substance called royal jelly, a complex mixture of protein, lipids, sugars, and vitamins produced primarily by young worker honey bees. 

Perhaps one of the greatest uses of stored honey is that it provides the food or energy that a colony needs to survive the winter.  During the winter, workers and the queen form a tight cluster and metabolize the honey to generate heat.  This keeps the bees warm and protects them from the cold.  The temperature of the winter cluster typically stays around 85 °F.  However, the colony will perish if the honey supply runs short and the bees are unable to produce adequate heat.

Surplus Honey

Honey bee colonies often produce a surplus of honey but the amount can vary from 0 to as much as 200 pounds depending on the quality of the hive’s foraging area.  In this region, each colony typically averages about 50 pounds (4 gallons) of surplus honey each year.  Beekeepers in this area can safely remove surplus honey for human consumption without harming the colony as long as they leave enough honey (50-60 pounds) for the colony to survive.  For thousands of years people have kept honey bees and used honey as a food product, for its medicinal qualities, and even in cosmetics.  Modern beekeeping, or apiculture, developed in the United States during the 1850’s.  Several million pounds of honey are produced in the U.S. each year, generating billions of dollars in revenue (Honey Economics). For more information about beekeeping and how people use honey, please visit the Illinois State Beekeepers Association.

Further Reading:

Gojmerac, W.L. 1980. Bees, Beekeeping, Honey, and Pollination. Westport, CT: Avi Pub.

Kevan, P.G.. 2007. Bees, Biology, and Management. Cambridge, MA: Enviroquest Ltd.

Winston, M.L. 1987. The Biology of the Honey Bee. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.