So we talked about the three types of bees and how the queen regulates everything…but not many folks keep bees to study colony dynamics. Honey is the main point for most people though there are tons of other hive products and benefits including pollination (and here and here ), wax for various products , pollen, royal jelly, and propolis (you can google those…tons of info!)
To understand how honey production works, we need to understand more about what goes down inside the hive. The bees begin to collect pollen right now (in WV anyhow) when the maples start to bloom. Did you know maple trees actually flower and bloom? Well, they do and the bees count on maple pollen and nectar this time of year to stimulate the queen to ramp up egg production for the coming of the real “honey flow” in about a month or so. Bees use pollen as their protein source which is especially important for the raising of new baby bees.
Pollen comes in many colors from grayish green from the maples to bright yellows, reds and blues, depending on the source. Bees bounce from flower to flower collecting pollen in pollen baskets on their back legs (thereby pollinating the flowers) until they have a full load. I have seen bees barely make it back to the hive because they are so loaded with pollen. They come in low and slow, but most make it…slow and steady! So, when these females get back to the hive, other females remove the pollen, mix it with a bit of nectar, and pack it into some of the honey comb.
(I am pointing to pollen above)
As you have probably seen, hives are typically square boxes. Bees, however, tend to work in circular patterns. Imagine in the box a basketball-sized spherical area where the queen typically lays all of the eggs. In a similar manner, around the brood nest the bees pack in pollen and outside of that they fill in the remaining space with honey stores. So the picture you should have in your head is of a gobstopper where the center is full of baby bees. Outside of that, the next layer is pollen followed by honey as the outside layer.
(there’s lots to see above…yellow is pollen, white is bee larva, shiny is raw honey/nectar, cardboard-brown is capped brood or bees in pupal stage)
So, we have pollen and brood covered. Honey is what it is all about though. Honey starts out as nectar from flower sources including weeds, trees, crops, flowers and everyhing in your garden including corn, squash, and tomatoes. Bees collect nectar in a honey stomach (separate from their gut) using their 3 tongues to draw in the nectar from the base of the flower (usually). Once they are full (after visiting 60 or so flowers), they return to the hive weighing up to 50% more than when they left. Other females help them place the raw nectar into honey comb and begin the honey making progress. Nectar is mostly water with sugars and other things when it leaves the flower source. In order to convert nectar to honey, the bees add enzymes to convert sucrose in the nectar to glucose and fructose. They also reduce the moisture content of nectar from up to 80% down to less that 18%. During the honey flow, many bees will stand at the hive entrance and fan their wings. Other bees throughout the hive also fan. The air flow over the raw honey causes the moisture to evaporate from the nectar. Once the moisture content is low enough, worker bees cap the honey which completes the ripening of the honey.
Properly collected honey (i.e. honey collected after it has been capped by the bees), if stored properly (covered in a moisture-proof container) will last indefinitely. I always test my honey with a refractometer to make sure the moisture is low enough to prevent fermentation. Fermentation from excessive moisture is what ruins honey. Some folks think that crystallized honey is bad honey. In fact, all honey will crystallize. The rate of crystallization depends on the nectar source but does not make it bad. Crystallized honey simply can be placed in a pan of very water for 15 or so minutes and it will de-crystallize.
Ok, so there is a lot of stuff that goes into making honey. If done properly, the beekeeper can harvest 50-100 pounds of honey from a hive (in WV anyhow) and still leave enough honey for the bees to eat through the winter. I keep honey supers on my hives from tax day until the end of July. There is another honey flow in the fall which I let the bees keep to boost their winter stores. Summer is where it is at for the bees though! And they rock it!