To Bee or Not to Bee

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Oct 19, 2013

“The only reason for being a bee that I know of is to make honey. And the only reason for making honey is so that I can eat it.”
Winnie the Pooh

Did you know this about honey bees?

  • They are the only insects that produce food eaten by man.
  • The average honey bee will actually make only one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.
  • It takes about 556 workers to gather one pound of honey from two million flowers.
  • A hive consists of 20,000 – 30,000 bees in the winter, and 60,000 – 80,000 in the summer.
Someone who cares for honey bees is called an apiarist and the place being cared for is an apiary. Anyone who wants to become an apiarist must have five things: a hive (to keep the bees), the bees, a veil (to protect your face), a smoker (to calm the bees so that they won’t sting you when you’re extracting honey), and wax (which bees make to form the honeycomb on special etched sheets).

Honey bees represent only a small fraction of the approximately 20,000 species of bees. As a group they appear to have their center of origin in south and southeast Asia, including the Philippines. There are no honey bees native to the Americas. In 1622, European colonists brought the dark bee to the Americas, followed later by Italian bees and others.

Honey bees sense magnetic fields and use that to navigate. They are known to communicate through many different chemicals and odors. They, like other insects, also use specific behaviors that convey information about the quality and type of resources in the environment and where these resources are located.

In the hive the bees use their “honey stomachs” to ingest and regurgitate the nectar a number of times until it is partially digested. The bees work together as a group with the regurgitation and digestion until the product reaches a desired quality. It is then stored in honeycomb cells. After the final regurgitation, the honeycomb is left unsealed. However, the nectar is still high in both water content and natural yeasts which unchecked would cause the sugars in the nectar to ferment.

The process continues as bees inside the hive fan their wings, creating a strong draft across the honeycomb that enhances evaporation of much of the water from the nectar. This reduction in water content raises the sugar concentration and prevents fermentation. Ripe honey, as removed from a hive by a beekeeper, has a long shelf life and will not ferment if properly sealed.

Beekeeping practices encourage overproduction of honey so that the excess can be taken without endangering the colony. According to Eva Crane’s “The Archeology of Beekeeping,” humans have been collecting honey for 10,000 years. In ancient Egypt honey was used to sweeten cakes and biscuits. Ancient Egyptians and Middle Eastern peoples also used honey for embalming the dead. In the Roman Empire, honey was possibly used to pay taxes instead of gold. The Mayans used honey for culinary purposes.

In Jewish tradition, honey is the symbol for the New Year, Rosh Hashanah. At the traditional meal for the holiday, apple slices are dipped in honey and eaten to bring a sweet new year. The Hebrew Bible makes many references to honey including the familiar description of the Promised Land as a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 33:3).

Whether honey comes from a polyfloral, monofloral or blended source, or whether it is served crystallized, pasteurized, raw, strained, ultrafiltered, ultrasonicated, whipped, dried or in a comb, its medicinal value has been known for at least 2,700 years. 

The next time I observe honey bees extracting nectar from the flowers in my backyard or I take a teaspoon of honey for my sore throat, I will realize I am encountering a place I rarely go … into the world of bees. 

Think about it.


Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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