All around the world humans enjoy eating honey that is harvested from the hives of the hardworking honey bee. We use it in our tea, on our bread, and in our cooking. In some cultures, honey is also highly valued because of its medicinal qualities.
However, our benefit is not the reason why bees spend so much of their time and energy turning nectar into honey. Primarily, honey bees make honey to eat it themselves. They eat honey because it is a vital source of energy. Without it, bees could not survive.
Why Do Bees Eat Their Own Honey?
Bees eat their own honey to stay alive. Because it’s made up of simple sugars, honey provides the energy bees need in order to perform the many daily tasks in the hive.
From the time they are born bees are ready to work, beginning with cleaning the cell they were born in, until their final task of foraging for nectar and pollen.
Although it’s a major food source, honey isn’t the only thing bees consume. Foraging bees collect pollen that provides the protein they need to build strength and muscle. Pollen is necessary for the development of healthy baby bees too.
To Keep Warm During Winter
During winter, temperatures plummet. Depending upon what part of the world the hive is located, snow may fall. To keep themselves and the hive warm, bees form what is known as a Winter cluster towards the center of the hive, where it is warmest.
The cluster consists of two layers:
- An inner layer of bees who vibrate their wing muscles to generate heat
- An outer layer of bees that acts as a shield to prevent heat from escaping
In the center of the cluster is the queen, who is kept warm to ensure she stays healthy enough to repopulate the hive as the cold weather subsides.
During Autumn the bees build up honey stores that can now be accessed by the Winter cluster. Each bee will take turns breaking away from the cluster to eat honey.
Because it’s often too cold to leave the hive in Winter to forage for fresh nectar, the bees’ survival is fully dependent on eating stored honey. The honey provides them with the energy they need to maintain the Winter cluster and vibrate their wing muscles to generate heat. The dense frames of capped honey also provide the bees with insulation against the cold.
To Make Beeswax
Honey is used by worker bees to make wax. They break down the sugars in the honey and produce wax from the four pairs of wax glands which are found on the underside of the abdomen.
The wax glands reach maturity between 9 and 12 days, therefore wax production is undertaken mainly by bees in this age range. The glands begin to lose their efficiency between days 18 and 21, when the bee begins to take on the duty of foraging for nectar and pollen. Bees in this age range can produce wax, but in smaller quantities.
Once the young bees have secreted the liquid wax from their abdominal glands, the wax, exposed to the surrounding air, begins to solidify into small scales or flakes. These wax shapes are transferred by the hind legs to the mandibles (jaws) where they are molded and added to comb that is under construction. Pollen and propolis are added as the wax is prepared to be used to make honeycomb.
Bees consume around 8 kilograms of honey (17.6 pounds ) to produce just 1 kilogram of wax (2.2 pounds). Given the importance beeswax has in the beehive – it provides the building material for the honeycomb, where honey, nectar and pollen are stored, and the queen lays the eggs – it’s easy to see why it is so vital bees have enough honey to produce it.
To Take Care Of The Hive
Bees eat honey to draw energy from its simple sugars in order to undertake all the tasks needed to keep the hive functioning well.
One of these necessary tasks is foraging for pollen and nectar. Foraging is the task of searching, identifying and collecting wild food sources and is used by many of the world’s wild creatures. Foraging is undertaken within a certain range, which is the distance the forager will travel to find food.
In the case of the honey bee, the typical foraging range of a bee is between 200 meters and 1.5 kilometers (between 220 yards and 1 mile).
From the moment she is born, a worker bee has many other tasks that require energy expenditure besides foraging. As she ages the jobs become more demanding and complicated.
Initially, the tasks the worker bee undertakes are within the hive and she is known then as a house bee. As she ages, her duties are largely performed outside the hive so she is known as a field bee.
The house bees spend energy in cleaning, removing dead bees, feeding and caring for developing larvae and guarding the hive entrance, before becoming field bees whose job it is to collect nectar and pollen to feed the colony.
All these tasks require a lot of energy – so worker bees need to eat a lot of honey.
Swarming is the way in which a bee colony reproduces. Congestion in the hive is the major reason bees swarm. When they run out of space, the colony decides to split in two.
Approximately half the bee population and the old queen leave the original hive in a whirling mass and land temporarily on a shrub, tree branch, post or object usually not more than 200 meters (220 yards) from the hive.
When bees swarm they are looking for a suitable place to build a new home. In preparation, the bees leaving the hive gorge themselves on honey so they have enough energy to make the journey. At the same time, they starve the laying queen so she loses enough weight to fly.
After the swarm lands nearby, scout bees leave to find a suitable location for a new home. This may take anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Once a suitable place is found, all the bees and the queen leave together.
Another reason bees gorge themselves on honey before they leave the original hive is that it will be immediately required at the new location – to make wax, build comb and provide food for themselves and the queen. They need to do this work quickly to establish the hive and give it the best chance of survival.
To Make Royal Jelly And Bee Bread
Nurse bees use honey or nectar in conjunction with digested pollen to make royal jelly, which is mixed with a chemical secreted from a gland in their head. Royal jelly is the creamy substance that helps transform an ordinary worker bee into a queen bee, extending her life from approximately six weeks, to several years.
Royal jelly is available for human consumption too, and is highly sought after as a dietary supplement because it contains so many essential minerals, B vitamins, proteins and amino acids.
All larvae are fed royal jelly initially even if they are not destined to become queen bees. After an initial diet of royal jelly, the larvae are weaned onto a diet of bee bread.
Once again honey is used, this time in conjunction with pollen and various liquids, to make up bee bread. During this short time, the ravenous larvae become 1,500 times their original size. The high protein bee bread is fed to the developing larvae before the cells are sealed with a porous cap of wax.
Bees don’t make honey for humans – they make honey so they can eat it themselves! Honey is an essential food source for honey bees. It provides them with the energy they need to keep the hive functioning efficiently.
As a beekeeper, it’s important to remember this when harvesting honey. Enough honey should be left at all times to feed the colony. That way, bees will have the energy they need to forage for food, make royal jelly and bee bread, and survive the harsh cold of Winter.