Sunday 23 October 2011

Why do bees make honey?

The bees we call 'honey bees' (Apis Melifera) form a permanent colony.  Although each bee may not live for long, the colony of bees should continue indefinately, if disease, weather or predation don't get to it!

In the areas of the world where bees are native, there are generally distinct seasons, so plants do not flower all year round.  This means that the bees have to have some means of storing food to keep them going during the part of the year when they cannot collect nectar.  Larger animals get through the winter by storing food as fat inside their body and then using this energy over the winter.  Since one bee may not survive the winter it makes more sense to the colony to store its food supply externally.  This is honey. 

The bee colony has no idea how bad the winter will be, so will store as much excess food as honey as possible.  Beekeepers have also attempted to breed bees that will collect more honey, resulting in better crops for the beekeeper!  As beekeepers we either leave the colony with enough honey to see them through the winter, or we take all the honey, then feed the bees with sugar syrup, which they turn into a sort of honey and use that in the winter.

During the winter, the bees in the hive don't hibernate.  They form a ball, or cluster, with the queen bee in the middle.  They then eat the honey in the middle of the cluster for energy, and keep warm by 'shivering'. They can vibrate their large flight muscles without flapping their wings.  This gives off heat and keeps the cluster warm.

The bees only start flying again when the weather warms up.  After several months in the hive, their first flight out is to go to the toilet!  Once the first spring plants start flowering and producing nectar, the queen starts laying eggs again and the whole annual process of breeding bees to collect honey begins again.