Nectar & Honey 101

Making Nectar into Honey

Pretty much everyone knows that bees collect nectar from flowers to make honey.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m not going to talk too much about what nectar is here.  For my younger readers (Hello to the Mighty Midway 4-Hers!) and anyone else who wants to learn more, the Wikipedia article on nectar is a great place to start, but in short, nectar is mostly water with some natural sugars, and bees have to do quite a bit of work to transform it into honey.


One of my bees harvesting nectar

Warning, some readers might think this next part is a little gross.  Other readers, like me, might think it’s awesome.

The bees drink nectar from the flowers, bring it back to their hive in their stomach, and regurgitate it (throw up) several times so it’s partly digested. The chemicals in bee saliva are an important part of the process that transforms the nectar into honey.  However, it’s still mostly water, so the bees  deposit (spit) the partly-digested nectar in the cells of the honeycomb, and fan it with their wings until most of the water is gone.  This concentrates the sugar, and when the water level is low enough (17% or less), we call it honey.

So when you eat honey, you’re eating something that came from a flower, but was inside a bee’s stomach, until they partly digested and then regurgitated it.  I think that’s really  cool, but I realize that some folks might not want to think about it too hard!

Once the bees have evaporated enough water, they put a thin wax cap over the cell, and store the honey for later.

Kinds of Honey

If you go to a grocery store, you can probably find several kinds and colors of honey (if you can only find clover or wildflower honey, try a farmer’s market).  One of the most exciting things about beekeeping is that the color and flavor of the honey depends on what kinds of nectar the bees use to make it.  You can get honey that’s a very pale yellow, a rich golden color, or even a crazy dark brown, and each one will have a unique taste-usually pale honey has a light taste, and dark honey has a strong taste.  If you’d like to see a list of common kinds and colors of honey, the National Honey Board has a nice one.

Sometimes it’s easy to tell what kind of flowers your bees are using to make honey.  If they’re parked in an apple orchard at the right time of year, it’s pretty safe to assume they are mostly getting nectar from apple blossoms.  Commercial beekeepers rent their bees to farmers for pollination, so they get to know exactly what kinds of plants their bees are using.  However, most hobby beekeepers (like me) just have their bees in a convenient location and don’t know what their main nectar source is, so we call our honey “Wildflower Honey.” Next time you see that label in the store, you’ll know that it’s code for: “whatever flowers the bees could find.”

My next post will have more photos, I promise!

Published in: on 19 June 2009 at 3:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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