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Ask Dr. Universe: How do bees make honey?

In this May 27, 2015 file photo, volunteers check honey bee hives for queen activity and perform routine maintenance as part of a collaboration between the Cincinnati Zoo and TwoHoneys Bee Co. at EcOhio Farm in Mason, Ohio. (John Minchillo / John Minchillo/Associated Press)
In this May 27, 2015 file photo, volunteers check honey bee hives for queen activity and perform routine maintenance as part of a collaboration between the Cincinnati Zoo and TwoHoneys Bee Co. at EcOhio Farm in Mason, Ohio. (John Minchillo / John Minchillo/Associated Press)

Q: How do bees make honey? – Nisi, 10, Nampa, Idaho

Dear Nisi,

All around the world bees are busy turning nectar from flowers into sweet, golden honey. That’s what I found out from my friend Brandon Hopkins, a honey bee researcher at Washington State University.

When a bee sucks up nectar from a flower, the sugary liquid flows into its honey stomach. Unlike the stomach where its food goes, the bee uses this tiny compartment just for carrying honey. It can haul about one-third of a bee’s body weight in nectar.

Once the bee’s honey stomach is full, it heads to the hive, where it is greeted by housekeeping bees who are ready to help with the next step.

The full-bellied bee spits up, or regurgitates, the nectar. It passes the nectar to some of the housekeeping bees then heads back outside to fill up again. Meanwhile, the housekeeping bees get to work. They pass the regurgitated nectar to other bees in the hive, and it is eventually put into the hexagon-shaped honeycomb cells.

Hopkins said sometimes the nectar has too much water in it for the bees to make honey, so the bees fan the nectar with their wings to help some of the water evaporate.

After the bees get rid of the moisture it is ready for storage. Using a gland in their body, the bees produce small flakes of wax. They can use their jaws, or mandibles, to move it around and shape it. Finally, the bees create a wax cap for the honeycomb cell to seal in the honey.

Bees are quite the honey-making machines. They are also important for helping plants and flowers survive. While sipping nectar, they also move around tiny grains of pollen from flower to flower. This process helps flowers reproduce. The pollen is also food for the bee.

Bees are not only good for plants, but also for any humans who like to eat dinner. Bees help pollinate fruits, nuts and all kinds of other food sources. Of course, we also eat the honey they make. Honey has been part of the human diet for a long time.

Archeologists have actually found old pots full of honey in tombs from ancient Egypt. It had crystalized into more of a solid but could be melted back into liquid. Even though the honey was put in ceramic pots thousands of years ago, it was still good to eat. Honey has the longest shelf life of any food out there, Hopkins adds.

There are lots of bees that make honey, and there are lots of different kinds of honey to try.

The flavor often depends on what plant nectar the bee used to make it – clover, berries, trees or whatever flower the bee happened to visit. Send an e-mail with the subject “honey” to Dr.Universe@wsu.edu this month, and you’ll be entered into a raffle for a jar of honey from WSU. The winner will be announced the last week of June.

Sincerely,

Dr. Universe

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