News: Harvesting Honey at Fox Haven
The ability of honey bees to produce honey is an amazing survival strategy. The process incorporates the physiology of the individual worker bees with complex social behaviors that help the hive function as a whole to ensure enough honey is produced for all.
Plants mix water with a bit of sugar (sucrose) produced from photosynthesis to create nectar in their flowers; thus enticing animals to come partake (while simultaneously pollinating the flower). Forager bees collect nectar from flowers, storing it in a special organ known as a “honey stomach” in order to transport it back to the hive. This nectar is not digested by the forager. However, while the nectar is stored in it’s body, the bee mixes it with enzymes which begin to break down the more structurally complex sugar sucrose into the simple sugars glucose and fructose.
These structurally simpler sugars are easier to digest, making this the first crucial step in honey production. Returning foragers regurgitate their stored nectar, and pass it off to another worker bee in the hive. This worker stores the nectar in her body (introducing more enzymes) as she finds the right cells within the hive to regurgitate the nectar into for storage. Once cells are completely filled with nectar, worker bees will stand over the cells and vigorously flap their wings. Their body heat, plus the air flow from their beating wings, expedites the evaporation of water from the nectar.
Once the sucrose in the nectar has all converted to simple sugars, and evaporation has brought the water content down to 17-18%, the material is considered finished honey. The workers then use beeswax (made by their bodies) to cap and seal the cell for long-term storage. Basically, honey is a supersaturated solution of simple sugars suspended in a small amount of water. Trace amounts of various nutrients and minerals found in the nectar are also preserved, making honey a complete food for honeybees! But why do the bees go to such trouble to make honey, instead of consuming the plant nectar outright?
Although the bees will consume honey as needed throughout the year, the majority of it is stored for winter. Honey production, as an evolutionary trait, is primarily a mechanism for winter survival, and its characteristics make it an ideal food for the cold months of winter.
- There are no flowers or other food sources for bees during the winter; so storing up any food is a crucial survival strategy
- The supersaturated nature of honey means the that, drop for drop, the bees get as much energy and nutrition out of it as they can; allowing them to stay healthy throughout the winter while eating as little as possible.
- The water content of the honey is so low compared to the sugars present, the water molecules never have the chance to bond together to form ice. Meaning honey won’t freeze. *(This low water content also prevents microorganisms like bacteria from inhabiting and breaking down the honey. This allows it to be stored indefinitely with no worry of contamination.)
So, ultimately, honey bees evolved the ability to produce honey as a way to allow an entire hive of bees to survive the winter together. Beekeepers must be aware of this when taking honey from hives, as taking too much will condemn the hive to starvation during the winter. Beekeepers deal with this issue differently.
Some take all the honey they can, knowing that their hives will die, and just plan to purchase new bees every spring. This callous method shows no respect for the bees, treating them like a mindless machine that only has value because of the commodity it produces.
The majority of beekeepers want their hives to survive, and therefore have to be more careful about their harvesting. They’ll wait until later in the year (late summer/early autumn), after the bees have stored away most of their honey for the year, at which time they’ll harvest a certain percentage of the honey in each hive. This allows the beekeeper to enjoy some honey, while also leaving enough for the bees to survive the winter. This method can be very successful; however, without years of experience, it can be difficult to confidently know how much honey to leave to ensure the survival of the hive. Several factors play into how much honey (in pounds) a hive needs to survive the winter (mainly pop. size of the hive and the severity of winter weather and temperature drops).
To compensate for this uncertainty, some beekeepers will produce sugar dense foods, like bakers fondant, to supplement the bees lack of food storage after honey harvest. This fondant can be the difference between life and death for a honey bee colony. However, the quality of such “bee food” pales in comparison to actual honey. Human-made sugar products lack the trace amounts of nutrients and minerals found in plant nectar. And, if the fondant is not heated correctly when it is made, it contains more sucrose (a disaccaride) than glucose and fructose (monosaccharides), requiring more energy for the bees to properly digest it.