Honey and Bees

Bee hives in a bee yard

The Colony

Why do Bees Make Honey? Honeybees collect nectar and store it as honey in their hives. Nectar and honey provide the energy for the bees’ flight muscles and for heating the hive during the winter period. Honeybees also collect pollen which supplies protein for bee brood to grow.

Honey bees live in colonies that are often maintained, fed, and transported by beekeepers. Centuries of selective breeding by humans have created honey bees that produce far more honey than the colony needs. Beekeepers harvest the honey. Beekeepers provide a place for the colony to live and to store honey in. The modern beehive is made up of a series of square or rectangular boxes without tops or bottoms placed one on top of another. Inside the boxes, frames are hung in parallel, in which bees build up the wax honeycomb in which they both raise brood and store honey. Modern hives enable beekeepers to transport bees, moving from field to field as the crop needs pollinating and allowing the beekeeper to charge for the pollination services they provide.

A colony generally contains one breeding female, or “queen”; a few thousand males, or “drones”; and a large population of sterile female “worker” bees. The population of a healthy hive in mid-summer can average between 40,000 and 80,000 bees. The workers cooperate to find food and use a pattern of “dancing” to communicate with each other.

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A queen bee surrounded by her attendants

The Queen Bee

The queen is the largest bee in the colony. Queens are developed from larvae selected by worker bees to become sexually mature. The queen develops more fully than sexually immature workers because she is given royal jelly, a secretion from glands on the heads of young workers, for an extended time. She develops in a specially-constructed queen cell, which is larger than the cells of normal brood comb, and is oriented vertically instead of horizontally.

She will emerge from her cell to mate in flight with approximately 13-18 drone (male) bees. During this mating, she receives several million sperm cells, which last her entire life span (from two to five years). In each hive or colony, there is only one adult, mated queen, who is the mother of the worker bees of the hive, although there are exceptions on occasion.

Although the name might imply it, a queen has no control over the hive. Her sole function is to serve as the reproducer; she is an “egg laying machine.” A good queen of quality stock, well reared with good nutrition and well mated, can lay up to 3,000 eggs per day during the spring build-up and live for two or more years. She lays her own weight in eggs every couple of hours and is continuously surrounded by young worker attendants, who meet her every need, such as feeding and cleaning.

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A drone honey bee perched on a fingertip


The male bees, called “drones”, are characterized by eyes that are twice the size of those of worker bees and queens, and a body size greater than that of worker bees, though usually smaller than the queen bee. Their abdomen is stouter than the abdomen of workers or queen. Although heavy bodied, drones have to be able to fly fast enough to catch up with the queen in flight. Drones are stingless.
Their main function in the hive is to be ready to fertilize a receptive queen. Mating occurs in flight, which accounts for the need of the drones for better vision, which is provided by their big eyes.

In areas with severe winters, all drones are then driven out of the hive. The life expectancy of a drone is about 90 days.

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A worker bee.

Worker Bees

A worker bee is a non-reproducing female which performs certain tasks in support of a bee hive. Worker bees undergo a well defined progression of capabilities. In the summer 98% of the bees in a hive are worker bees. In the winter, besides the queen, all bees are worker bees. Workers feed the queen and larvae, guard the hive entrance and help to keep the hive cool by fanning their wings. Worker bees also collect nectar to make honey. In addition, honey bees produce wax comb.

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A frame of honey from a hive being uncapped with a hot knife.

Honey Bee Products

Of course, honey is the main honey bee product that we are interested in here at the National Honey Board! In addition, there are a few other products of the hive that are also extremely important.

Honey: In the hive the bees use their honey stomachs to ingest and process the nectar a number of times. It is then stored in the honeycomb. Nectar is high in both water content and natural yeasts which, unchecked, would cause the sugars in the nectar to ferment. After the final regurgitation, the honeycomb is left unsealed - bees inside the hive “fan” their wings creating a strong draft across the honeycomb. This enhances evaporation of much of the water from the nectar. The reduction in water content, which raises the sugar concentration, prevents fermentation. Ripe honey, as removed from the hive by the beekeeper, has a long shelf life and will not ferment.

Beeswax: Worker bees of a certain age will secrete beeswax from a series of glands on their abdomen. They use the wax to form the walls and caps of the comb. When honey is harvested, the wax can be gathered to be used in various wax products like candles and seals.

Pollen: Bees collect pollen in the pollen basket (a concave area on the hind legs of the bee with special hairs to hold the pollen in place) and carry it back to the hive. In the hive, pollen is used as a protein source necessary during brood-rearing. In certain environments, excess pollen can be collected from the hive. It is often eaten as a health supplement.

Propolis: Propolis (or bee glue) is created from resins, balsams and tree saps. Honeybees use propolis to seal cracks in the hive.

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For more information…

For more information about honey and its benefits, please check out other areas of this National Honey Board website, especially the “Honey Information” pages in the “Consumer” section. For more information about honey bees, beekeeping and related topics, you may turn to several online articles in Wikipedia, from which much of the above content and images were drawn, and which we would like to credit. Many universities also publish beekeeping information online through their cooperative extension programs.


Photos above marked “Waugsberg” are from Wikimedia Commons User Waugsberg, and are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.

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A worker bee pollinating an orange blossom.


The Honey Bees’ Second Shift

In addition to gathering nectar to produce honey, honey bees perform a vital second function - pollination. About one-third of the human diet is derived from insect-pollinated plants, and honey bees are responsible for 80 percent of this pollination.

Pollination is the fertilization of a flowering plant.  Pollination occurs when pollen is transferred from the anthers of a flower to the ovules of that or another flower. Honey bees are responsible for pollinating a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts such as almonds.

Orange Blossom photo courtesy of George DeLange, Arizona

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Honey Trivia (bee-yard in background)

Honey Trivia

We are pleased to present a whole bunch of trivia in regard to honey!  You can truly amaze your teachers, friends, and co-workers with these important facts.

  1. How many flowers must honey bees tap to make one pound of honey?
    About two million flowers, give or take.
  2. How far does a hive of bees fly to bring you one pound of honey? 
    More than 55,000 miles.
  3. How much honey does the average worker honey bee make in her lifetime? 
    About 1/12 of a teaspoon.
  4. How fast does a honey bee fly? 
    About 15 miles per hour.
  5. How much honey would it take to fuel a bee’s flight around the world? 
    About one ounce (or two Tablespoons); no carry-on luggage is allowed!
  6. What is mead? 
    Mead is wine made from honey.
  7. How many sides does each honeycomb cell have? 
    Each cell is a six-sided hexagon.
  8. What is the U.S. per capita consumption of honey? 
    On average, each person consumes about 1.31 pounds.
  9. What state is known as the beehive state? 
  10. How many wings does a honey bee have? 
    Each honey bee has four wings.
  11. How many beekeepers are there in the United States? 
    There are an estimated 150,000 hobby beekeepers in the United States.
  12. How many honey-producing colonies of bees are there in the United States? 
    The USDA estimates that there are approximately 3 million honey producing colonies in the United States. This estimate is based on beekeepers who manage five or more colonies.
  13. How many flowers does a honey bee visit during one collection trip? 
    A worker bee visits about 50-100 flowers during each trip.
  14. How do honey bees "communicate" with one another? 
    They communicate by "dancing." Honey bees do a dance which alerts other bees where nectar and pollen are located. The dance explains direction and distance. Bees also communicate with pheromones, a unique odor common to the particular beehive.
  15. What does "super" mean to a beekeeper? 
    Supers are the hive boxes in which honey is stored, usually placed above the deeper box called the "hive body", where brood is reared.

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