Here is the text of the third article for our village magazine. Like the first and second articles, the aim is to spread an appreciation and respect for the insect population around us. In this installment, the focus is on bees’ summer activities and honey. Keeping it down to 550 words and writing for readers with a wide range of age and knowledge, is quite challenging.
The Bee Buzz – a busy summer
We are rapidly reaching the time of year when honeybees are at their most numerous and busiest – the Queen is now laying at her peak rate of up to 2,000 eggs every day; and most of the female worker bees are out foraging as much as they can to feed the colony and, of course, to lay down some stores of delicious honey.
As the abundance of flowering plants increases from late Spring into Summer, so the bees step up their population to take advantage of all the food available during this relatively short-lived boom-time. They are totally dependent on the variety and number of flowering plants they can reach within their typical three-mile flight radius from their hives, hence the importance of our gardens which can provide a range of flowers blooming over a longer period than, say, the two-three week glut of Oil Seed Rape fields.
Bees lay down stores for their ongoing needs and as a larder for when other sources are not available. The primary purpose of honey is for winter stores as unlike other insects, honeybees do not die or hibernate over winter., although they do reduce their activity significantly. Given a good summer, the ever-efficient bees can produce so much stored honey that the beekeeper can remove a quantity of it without affecting their winter viability; conversely prolonged wet summer weather reduces the blooming period and also rain washes nectar out of flowers and this can result in some colonies starving, causing some bees to ‘rob’ other hives, and the beekeeper to provide sugar syrup, in place of nectar, to supplement their stores.
But what is honey exactly and how do bees make it?
Honey is bee-vomit. Well, the picture is a little more complicated than that, but saying so seems to entertain young children, and some adults. Let’s start again – honey is essentially fructose and glucose along with various trace components. It is made by concentrating nectar in a process involving both the bees’ digestive system and evaporation.
Nectar is typically ~75% water, ~25% sugars (sucrose, fructose, glucose), and micronutrients such as amino acids and vitamin C, pollen, and various other microcomponents, which give honey from different sources its distinctive flavours. In the hive, the thousands of returning foragers regurgitate their tiny quantity of nectar (typically only 0.04grams) to young worker bees who repeatedly deposit and suck up the nectar, adding enzymes to adjust the acidity and converting the sucrose into fructose and glucose.
Once thus chemically adjusted, it is placed into the wax cells, but it still has too high a water content to be stored long term and will ferment. Therefore, the bees now ‘air-condition’ the hive by fanning their wings madly to evaporate the mixture until it is only ~20% water. In summer, hives hum loudly all night long from the thousands of wings beating inside. This process takes several days, but once complete the honey is sealed-off by a wax cap and can be stored for years. And so the process continues as long as the nectar flow lasts.
So, as you reach for the delicious honey over breakfast, appreciate for a moment the effort expended to make it: it takes one bee its entire life to make just one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. That one-pound jar requires ~2 million visits to flowers, flying more than twice round the world. Busy bees indeed!
Bee Keeper (currently employing ~80,000 workers)