Nectar is plant-sap produced by flowers and consists of sugar, water and minute quantities of many other ingredients.
Bees transport nectar in their honey stomach, where enzymes are added to aid its transformation to honey.
The unknown story about honey is that bees produce exactly what they need and no more.
The nectar is ripened in the hive by repeated exposure in small droplets in the cells of the comb and on bees’ tongues. Warm air is circulated through the hive by fanning bees, as in a tumble drier, and removes excess moisture from the nectar. Over time, the moisture content drops from 80% to 20%. At this stage the honey is ripe and the cells in which it is placed are closed with a wax capping.
Do Bees Make Excess Honey - Gareth John
Honey is a source of essential micro-nutrients, it is their sole energy source and powers all hive operations. Bees rely on it to keep the centre of the hive warm (esp. in colder winter climates) and for energy intensive activities like foraging. There is no nectar to be had in winter or in regions with long dry summers, so the honey consumed at that time is honey that was made in prior seasons. In a sense, the hive is acting like a hibernating bear, living off fat reserves put down while the living was good. If the next foraging period is poor, the hive may not be able to store excess honey that year, so will rely on stores built up in previous years. Hence, any ‘surplus’ honey at the end of a season is the hive’s insurance against future poor foraging conditions.
Modern beekeeping has forgotten this and removes any honey deemed to be surplus at the end of each forage season. Indeed, many beekeepers remove all the honey not just at the end of the season but on each occasion that the bees store any significant amount. This practice is supported by the common and misguided notion that honey taken from a hive can be replaced with sugar water, as if the two are equivalent. They are not. Honey contains nearly 200 different substances, many of which are essential for the health of the colony. Simple sugar water contains two substances: sugar and water. Microscopy shows that bees fed sugar water have intestines that are shrivelled and dull in comparison with bees fed honey ¹ ² ⁴, whose intestines are plump and shiny. Of course, it suits beekeepers who are driven by the desire to maximise honey ‘production’ to pretend that the honey removed from a colony can easily be replaced. It makes them feel better. But, sadly, it does not make the bees feel better.
Honey is more than just food for the bees - among other things it is a physical control on the brood development. As the hive fills up with honey, the space for brood reduces and the colony finds a natural balance ³. The bees, having achieved food security, are then able to divert their energy to other important tasks such as hive hygiene. If honey is suddenly removed, the bees respond with more brood development to raise more honey gatherers, and they drop essential hygienic behaviour. A side effect is that this can lead to a catastrophic increase in varroa mites, as well as diseases and mould that can kill the hive.
The unknown story about honey is that bees produce exactly what they need and no more. Not only is it the perfect food for bees, and their medicine, it is also part of the physical biology of a healthy hive.
1. Diet-dependent gene expression in honey bees: honey vs. sucrose or high fructose corn syrup. Marsha M. Wheeler 2014 Link
2. Effect of Feeding Honey Bee (Apis mellifera Hymenoptera: Apidae) Colonies With Honey, Sugar Solution, Inverted Sugar, and Wheat Starch Syrup on Nosematosis Prevalence and Intensity. Papežíková, I 2019 Link
3. Tober Schiffer Natural Bee Husbandry Issue 12 Pages 17 - 29 Link