How is Honey Made? The Buzz About Honey
Nature has gifted us with a great many good things, but one of the best is honey. Sticky, sweet, and pairable with almost anything, honey is amazingly versatile and addictive. It also has major benefits and is one of few products we can get from other living creatures without hurting them. All around, honey is wonderful.
But how is honey made? We all know it comes from bees, but how exactly does it get from a bee to the syrupy goodness we find in our pantries? I always knew it had something to do with flowers and pollination, but why do bees make honey? Do bees eat honey? Are we stealing from the bees when we take honey? I have so many questions. And if you have these questions too, then you’re in the right place.
How It’s Made
So, as it turns out, honey bees have two stomachs. Kind of. And they have different jobs! There’s a type of honey bee called a forager who, you guessed it, forages. These bees go out and visit various flowers, pollinating them along the way. As they do this, they collect nectar, a sugary liquid produced by many plants. The forager bees just collect the nectar, they don’t eat it. They do this by slurping it up and storing it in that weird second stomach they have. Though it’s really more like a little pocket because it doesn’t actually allow the bees to digest the nectar.
The forager bees go home to share their nectar with the hive. They regurgitate the nectar (mmm bee barf), and go back for more. This is where another type of bee, the processor bee, takes over.
The nectar is spit up from the forager bee directly into the processor bee. Ugh. The processor bee then takes it back to the hive and horks it up into the honeycomb, those hexagon shapes in a bee hive. As they do so, an enzyme s added which breaks the nectar down into two types of sugar: glucose and fructose.
Nectar contains a lot of water, so bees fan their wings to dry out the nectar and help evaporate some of the water. How weird is that? Then, bees, because they’re so dang smart, seal the little hexagons with wax so that the honey doesn’t absorb moisture and go bad. Genius!
Different plants produce different types of nectar which mean differences in flavour, consistency, and colouring in honey.
Now I knew bees made honey, and I’d heard of beeswax, but somehow I didn’t put two and two together to realize bees also make wax. There are glands in the bees that turn the sugar from honey into wax. This then oozes out their pores, which sounds horrible to be honest, and creates tiny flakes of wax. The bees chew on this until it becomes malleable and then use it to create and seal the honeycomb.
Why Do Bees Make Honey?
Bees do actually eat honey. They make honey and store it in honeycombs so that they have a store ready for winter, when many of the plants may be dormant or dead, and it’s too cold for the bees to be out of the hive. Eating honey also keeps the bees warm enough to survive.
So Are We Stealing?
If honey bees need honey to survive the winter, does that mean we’re stealing honey that they need to survive? Well, to be honest, it’s a debated question. Many vegans and animal rights activists say that taking honey from bees is harmful. Others say it has little to no effect on the bees at all, and some even argue that it’s helpful.
Many beekeepers say that bees often produce more honey than they need for the winter. Because bees also work continuously, rather than stopping when they have enough honey, there’s plenty left over that humans can use without harming the bees or leaving them without the honey they need.
Harvesting the honey can hurt the bees if not done properly, but any beekeeper that is careful and respectful can harvest honey with no adverse effects to the bees. This means housing them in a proper environment where they will stay healthy, checking on them to ensure there are getting everything they need, and making sure they have enough sources of nectar to produce honey.
Keeping an eye on how much honey your bees are able to produce is important to ensure you don’t take honey they may need. Considering the seasons to decide how many harvest periods you can have in a year.
Sometimes, when bees produce too much honey, especially in bee farms, they may find their home too small and begin swarming, leaving the hive. Or they may begin filling the parts of the honeycomb usually reserved for laying eggs and raising new bees. If this happens, the colony may decrease in strength and size. Removing the honey can alleviate this issue.
When beekeepers harvest the honey, they must keep the bees away from the hive. A popular method of doing so is by filling the hive with smoke fueled by something like cotton, leaves, or grass. The smoke calms the bees, making them more docile. The honey can be removed without any bees being hurt in the process.
One potentially harmful practice that was once popular in beekeeping was clipping the wings of the queen. Whether it was to track how old the queen was or to prevent the queen from leaving and taking the colony with her, wing clipping has been found to have more negative effects than positive ones. The more we learn about the harmful effects of wing clipping, the less common it has become.
The issue of whether harvesting honey is or is not immoral really comes down to your personal beliefs. It’s not a purely black and white (or black and yellow?) issue. It absolutely can be done without any harm to the bees, but the fact remains that some beekeepers are either too inexperienced or careless and do end up harming the bees. There’s also the argument that farmed bees can sometimes compete with wild bees for sources of nectar and may end up harming other species of bees. Also, as with anything in the corporate world, bees can be exploited and kept in less than ideal environments, taking more honey than appropriate, or feeding bees unnatural diets or pesticides and antibiotics in order to improve profits.
There are good and bad ways to keep bees. So in the end, you have to decide whether humans eating honey is something you think is wrong or not. The same way you decide with meat, dairy, and wool.
What Do We Do When We Have the Honey?
With bee farms, the bees build their hives in a box that have “frames”. These are pieces of the honeycomb that can be removed individually to allow beekeepers to access the honey. Once a frame is removed, beekeepers scrape off the wax that is sealing the cells. They then use a honey extractor, a tool that spins the frames around at high speeds, forcing the honey to the bottom where it can be drained. The frames are then returned to the hive where the bees can refill them.
The honey is put through a sieve to collect anything that isn’t honey. After that, they are placed in the containers in which they are stored or sold! That’s it. There is no sort of purification or processing needed for raw honey. Honey is an incredibly natural product that we can just eat straight from the hive. However, some places require honey to be pasteurized, which means it must be heated to ensure the eradication of any harmful bacteria.
What surprised you the most about the process of honey making? Where do you stand on the ethics behind honey harvesting? Let us know in the comments!
Don’t forget to check out these fascinating facts about maple syrup!