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British Beekeepers Association

Honey

As beekeepers we get asked lots of questions about honey: listed below are some of the most popular.

Why Do Bees Make Honey?

Honey bees are special in that they overwinter as a colony, unlike wasps and bumblebees (see Biology). The colony does not hibernate but stays active and clusters together to stay warm. This requires a lot of food, which is stored during the summer. Although a hive only needs 20-30 lb of honey to survive an average winter, the bees are capable of collecting much more, if given storage space. This is what the beekeeper wants them to do.

Bees have been producing honey in the same way for over one hundred and fifty million years

How Much Honey Can One Beehive Produce?

One hive can produce 60 lb (27 kg) or more in a good season, however an average hive would be around 25 lb (11 kg) surplus.

Bees fly about 55,000 miles to make just one pound of honey, that’s 1½ times around the world. Romans used honey instead of gold to pay their taxes.

How Does The Beekeeper Get The Honey From The Bees?

The queen bee is kept below the upper boxes (called ‘supers’) in the hive by a wire or plastic grid (called a ‘queen excluder’), which the queen is too large to fit through. As the bees cannot raise brood above the queen excluder, only honey is stored in the supers. As the season progresses the beekeeper adds more supers until the time to harvest the honey.

A special one-way valve is then fitted in place of the queen excluder and gradually all the bees are forced into the lowest part of the hive. The beekeeper can then simply lift off the ‘super’ boxes containing the honey comb. The honey is extracted from the comb using centrifugal force in a machine called a spinner, which looks like an old-fashioned upright spin dryer.

Do The Bees Miss The Honey That Is Taken?

No. A strong colony can produce 2-3 times more honey than it needs. If necessary the beekeeper can feed sugar syrup in the autumn to supplement for the loss of honey.

Why Are Some Types Of Honey Clear And Runny And Other Types Opaque And Hard?

The type of honey made by the bees is dependent on the types of foliage and flowers available to the bees. Crops such as oil seed rape (the bright yellow fields in the spring) produce large quantities of honey that sets very hard, so hard that the bees cannot use it in the winter; garden flowers tend to give a clear liquid honey. If the beekeeper wants to produce a monofloral honey, e.g. pure clover, orange blossom, etc, the beehive is put out of range from other floral sources. This can be difficult for the hobby beekeeper, who normally produces a blend of the season’s honey. In the autumn, some beekeepers move their hives onto the moors to harvest the nectar from wild heather. Heather honey is thought to be the king of honeys and has a clear jelly consistency.

How Do Bees Make Honey?

Bees take nectar, which is a sweet sticky substance exuded by most flowers and some insects (honeydew), and mix it with enzymes from glands in their mouths. This nectar/enzyme mix is stored in hexagonal wax honey comb until the water content has been reduced to around 17%. When this level is reached, the cell is capped over with a thin layer of wax to seal it until the bees need it. This capping indicates to the beekeeper that the honey can be harvested. Capped honey can keep almost indefinitely. For the school swot: Sucrose (nectar) + inverters (bee enzyme) = fructose + glucose = honey. Perfectly edible honey comb was found in the tombs of the Pharaohs, over three thousand years old. How’s that for ‘Best Before Dates’.

Does Honey Contain Additives?

No. The only treatment is filtering honey to remove any wax debris produced during the extraction process.

How Do Bees Make Wax?

The youngest bees cluster in large numbers to raise their body temperature. Wax-producing glands under their abdomens slowly secrete slivers of wax about the size of a pinhead. Other worker bees ‘harvest’ these wax scales and take them to the part of the hive requiring the new wax. Bees use about 6 lb of honey to produce 1 lb of wax.

What Is Royal Jelly?

Royal jelly is the food fed to queen bee larvae. It is a creamy white colour and is very rich in proteins and fatty acids. It is produced by the mouth glands in young bees. Each queen needs only a teaspoon of royal jelly. Many magical properties are claimed of royal jelly, however a sceptical view is probably the healthiest, especially as products sold in health shops are expensive and can contain as little as 2% of the real thing. Pure royal jelly is almost tasteless.