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[Photographs: Max Falkowitz]

Honeybees are fascinating:

  • Each bee colony can house as many as 80,000 bees during the busy flowering season.
  • Each colony has a single queen—the only sexually developed female of the colony—whose primary job is to mate with male "drones" in her colony and lay eggs.
  • Those males don't collect pollen or nectar, clean, or make anything. All they do is mate with their queen.
  • Once in the queen's lifetime she'll fly to the 'drone congregation area' and mate with up to 20 drones. Males unlucky enough to get lucky will have their genitals ripped from their bodies when the mating is done, then fall to their deaths.
  • The queen can then lay eggs for the rest of her life without mating again—as frequently as one every 20 seconds. Her egg production will eventually slow down, and once it does, her daughter bees will surround and suffocate her, then toss her corpse out of the hive.

It's a brutal cycle of life, during which every bee plays a specific, demanding part. But the entirety of the honeybee's life and death is set around the drive to create something particularly sweet: honey, nature's only manufactured food, and the most important product of colony life.

Our food system relies on honey: modern agriculture would be virtually impossible without honey bees pollinating thousands of plant species around the world. And real honey—raw, pristine, flavorful honey that hasn't been cooked to death and dumped into a plastic honey bear—is one of the most historic ingredients in the human diet.

If you want to learn about honey, you have to learn about bees: their life cycle, their environment, and their surprisingly complex social lives. It helps to have a guide.

Marina Marchese is one of the nation's leading experts in apiaries and honey production. The founder of the American Honey Tasting Society, her Red Bee honey farm in Weston, Connecticut distributes its own award-winning wildflower honey to high-end food stores, and she's authored Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper and co-authored The Honey Connoisseur; Selecting, Tasting and Pairing Honey. We spent a sun-soaked afternoon with Marina at Red Bee and came away with an in-depth look at the fascinating world of hive life.

Hive Life

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An apiary colony lives in a series of hives stacked on top of each other. In the cold of winter, the family is small—about 20,000 bees comprised mostly of sterile female workers, a handful of male drones, and a single queen—who huddle together in the cold to keep warm. Only once the temperature rises above 55°F will they be able to flap their wings enough to fly.

Come warm weather, bees go into full production mode, and the colony can grow fourfold up to 80,000 bees. The queen will outlive most of her children—a particularly strong one can live for up to five years, whereas her workers and drones only last six weeks in the busy summer season.

So the queen's ability to repopulate her family is vital to the colony's success. A thriving colony "has a lot to do with the genetics of the queen," Marina explained. "If her genetics are right she'll lay a lot of eggs and the colony will boom much faster."

As matriarch, the queen doesn't just lay eggs all day. She also rules the hive through pheromones; chemical signals that task her children with keeping the hive in working order and making sure only those marked with her scent enter the hive.

In the height of summer, when mama bee is dropping those 20-second eggs, she does so in a "brood nest" in the centermost part of the hive, keeping her growing babies safe and contained while the hive's outside cells are used for honey making. A single fertilized egg is laid in a hexagonal cell that worker bees clean and maintain; those cells will be reused throughout the season.

Once summer comes to a close, the queen will slow down egg production, and the female workers will give most of the drones (whose only purpose, again, is mating) the boot, literally pushing their brothers out of the hive. Bees rely on summer's honey production to keep them fed through the winter. So the males, having served their purpose, are left to starve or freeze outside, their corpses often found lying en masse on the ground just outside their home.

The First Three Weeks of a Worker Bee's Life

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At one point, all female eggs have the potential to develop into either a worker or a queen bee. For three days, all fertilized eggs are fed royal jelly; a nourishing liquid of water, protein, amino acids, and trace vitamins and minerals excreted from the hypopharanx gland of young worker bees. After that point, growing worker bees switch to a diet of nectar and pollen, developing enough by their seventh day to be sealed in their cell with a wax cap, emerging fully formed at 20 days (24 for drones). It's hard to tell the difference between the three when thousands are buzzing around you, but there are some subtleties that sharp eyes can note; the queen has a very long, "streamlined" abdomen. Workers have slightly larger middles, and drone bodies are the shortest and most rounded.

The youngest bees clean and repair birth cells and feed royal jelly to their sibling eggs. Slightly older bees attend to and clean their queen, transmitting her orders through the rubbing of antennae. Others act as guards, sniffing out the pheromones of bees that enter the hive to guard against intruders. And others repair drafts in the hive with the sticky propolis that foraging worker bees bring back from neighboring sappy trees. Then there are the honey producers—those who relieve slightly older worker bees of the precious nectar they collect, and take it through the final steps of transforming into honey.

When healthy older bees return to the hive, they come home to a strong family with growing babies, sturdy cells ready to receive their nectar, and hive walls strong enough to ward off bad weather and invading foreign bees.

The Last Three Weeks of Production

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Foraging bees return to enter their hive via a "landing strip."

The task of venturing out into the world for nectar is left to mature bees. Here's where the honey comes in.

Bees fly from their hive to collect pollen, nectar, and propolis; all important resources for hive life. Their queen's pheromones are detectable from three miles away, so they may venture that far to forage.

Location is the strongest environmental factor in a honey's flavor, as flowers that grow near a hive influence how that honey tastes. Set a hive in a field of clover—which grows prominently "from the Ohio River to the West Coast and from Canada to Oklahoma," says Marina—and the bees will collect and produce the United States' most common single-source honey. Set a hive in a field of blueberry plants and you won't be able to avoid the pungent aroma of the berries in the final product.

Most small-scale beekeepers leave their hive in one location close to their homes, usually surrounded by many kinds of flowers. When a hive's honey is made from different kinds of flowers it's called "wildflower" honey. But wildflower honey can taste just as interesting and nuanced as single-flower varieties, and a wildflower from Connecticut will taste vastly different from one, say, in Ohio.

Though a hive may get nectar from all kinds of flowers, individual bees are flower monogamous, and once they chose a flower variety they'll return to it for the remainder of their days. No one knows why this the case, but if a bee first ventures out foraging in early summer during dandelion blooming season, she sticks to dandelions. If she's born later in the summer she may discover a liking to goldenrods or asters.

This makes bees the world's most effective natural pollinators. As they collect nectar from flower to flower they bring those flowers' pollen with them—it collects in bunches along their hairy legs—helping the plants reproduce.

From Nectar to Honey

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Fresh honey straight from the comb.

Each foraging bee sucks up nectar with a long, tube-like tongue, and then stores it in a secondary honey-sac stomach. A worker can gather her own weight in nectar—about 70 milligrams—in one trip, which requires visiting up to 1,500 flowers.

Then the alchemy begins. Younger worker bees suck nectar out of foragers' honey sacs and mix it—in their stomachs—with a naturally occurring enzyme called invertase that breaks the nectar's sucrose down into glucose and fructose. Bees break down nectar sugars for the same reasons humans do; they can't digest complex polysaccharides like sucrose (what we think of as table sugar), so they need to convert it into simple sugars to use it as fuel. Once the nectar is converted, its final sucrose content is a mere 5%.

After workers convert the sugars they regurgitate the transformed nectar into the outer cells of the hive, then fan it with their wings to drive away moisture. Once moisture content drops below 18%, the nectar has officially ripened into digestible honey, and is then sealed in its cell with a wax cap to be tapped for food during the long winter. This low-moisture honey is impervious to bacterial spoilage and, if stored properly, will last effectively forever.

Bees make honey perfectly well on their own, and if a beekeeper is impatient they can royally screw up the process. If they harvest the honey before its moisture is reduced it'll be prone to fermentation. That may taste fine if you lick the honey straight from the comb, but stored honey with a high moisture content will spoil. That's why experienced beekeepers know not to harvest honey until bees cap the cells with wax.

Keeping Hives Healthy

Yes, bees make honey so they can eat it. There's no limit to how much honey a hive can produce, so smart beekeepers will supply a growing hive with additional space for bees to fill with more honey. This also gives the bees enough living room that they aren't tempted to swarm and seek out a more spacious home.

Small-hive beekeepers and hobbyists care about their bees, and if it looks like a colony is running short on honey to make it through the winter, they'll supplement the bees' diet with sugar. For more beekeeping tips, Marina's first book Honeybee is all about her love affair with bees and how to raise them.

But It's All About the Bees

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The entire honey process—the grand bee division of labor, building honey cells in hives, foraging, and production—is exhausting for the bees who go through it. A worker that could live for up to five months during the winter will literally work herself to death after six weeks in prime production season. And her life's work will net her one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. That's right: it takes twelve bees to make a single teaspoon of honey.

A singular colony produces an average of 50 pounds of honey in a moderate season, and potentially up to 250 in a stellar one. And it's perfect to eat as-is. Raw honey, bottled without heat or stabilizers, contains layers of flavor and aroma matched only by fine wine and tea. Shelved without refrigeration, it's indefinitely edible, and it has medicinal, religious, and purely pleasurable purposes all over the world.

Magical.

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