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Drop by Drop: How Honey Happens


Connecting Your Garden to Your Teaspoon

Bees are part of every garden.

Because bee populations continue to decline…and because September is National Honey Month…and because our first-ever Harvest Weekend (featuring our volunteer beekeepers, plus a honey tasting!) is September 19-20…we dedicate this month’s Smart Gardener to the story of how bees actually produce the honey that you eat from the flowers that you (and your neighbors) grow.

It’s a missing link that gardeners don’t often think about. Most of us understand that flowers attract bees as a reproductive strategy. At the other end of the process, everyone knows that honeybees make honey, which tastes delicious!

But what happens between the flowers and the honey jar is utterly fascinating—and it may make you think differently about how you garden.

PHOTO: Honey bee with legs full of pollen.

Honey starts with nectar

Plants produce the sugary secretion called nectar to attract bees. Nectar is bee food: specifically, it provides the carbohydrates that bees need. While searching for and collecting nectar, bees spread pollen from one plant to another. This mutually beneficial relationship has co-evolved over millions of years.

In a colony, every bee has a specific job. The job of finding nectar falls to adults called foraging or field bees.

When a forage bee arrives at a flower, it dips its tongue (or proboscis) into the nectar at the base, sucking up the sweet liquid into a storage organ called a honey stomach. The bee adds saliva to the nectar to help it go down. The nectar already has the scent and flavor of the honey it will yield, and has about an 80/20 ratio of water to sugar (mostly sucrose).

Bees load up while out in the field, typically gathering their body weight in nectar. Having stopped at many flowers (the “busy bee” movement from flower to flower on a single plant or crop), the bee flies back to the hive.

Nectar delivery

At the hive entrance, forage bees must first pass inspection by guard bees. (The frequent interlopers from other hives are escorted out or stung.) Guard bees recognize foragers both by the scent of the hive (from the queen’s pheromones) and the scent of already-familiar nectar being brought in.

Next, the forager moves to an area where hive bees congregate to offload the nectar. The forage bee offers a drop of nectar from its honey stomach. If the hive bee likes what it tastes, more is transferred. When a forager has downloaded all of the nectar to a number of hive bees, it is free to head back out…and repeat the nectar-gathering process again and again.

Nectar ripening

Meanwhile, the hive bee begins the process of turning nectar into honey.

The bee retreats to a quiet place in the hive. She, too, has added a bit of saliva to the nectar, and the enzyme within that saliva, invertase, starts to break down the sucrose into glucose and fructose. Another enzyme, glucose oxidase, contributes to the preservation of honey and its famous antibacterial properties.

Next comes dehydration. The bee releases a drop of nectar from its honey stomach to the space between its proboscis and mandible, allowing the dry hive air to evaporate and concentrate the drop. Rolling it around to expose it fully, she adds more nectar as needed, until the dehydrated drop has reached a large enough size.

Then she delivers the partially dehydrated drop to a honeycomb cell, which may or may not have an egg or larva inside. The drop continues to dehydrate and is moved and tested often until it reaches 18 percent moisture content. Now officially honey, the drop is finally moved to cells near the brood it will feed. If those cells are full, it will be stored in the extra hive space, called a super, that a smart beekeeper has provided.

Bees need at least the first 50 pounds of honey to feed the hive throughout the season, plus extra honey to survive the winter. It is the surplus honey that beekeepers harvest and bottle for their lucky customers to eat. It is estimated that it takes two million bee visits—back and forth from hive to flower—to produce just one pound of honey!

Scrabbling for pollen

While nectar provides the carbs in bees’ diets, pollen provides the protein.

Scrabbling is the excellent word for the act of foraging for pollen. Honeybees are hairy bees and, as they fly, their bodies pick up an electrical charge. Brushing against the inside of a flower causes pollen to jump onto the bees’ body hairs.

While nectar foragers concentrate on liquid food collection, pollen foragers specialize in gathering pollen, which is fed to the brood in the hive. A pollen-covered bee grooms herself by removing pollen grains from her hair with her legs, which are equipped with tiny combs and small side structures called pollen baskets. After packing pollen into the baskets, the bee carries her load back to the hive, where house bees store it in empty cells near the larvae that need to be fed.

Bee-barren or beautiful?

Does your yard or garden offer all that bees need? While you may not be a beekeeper, a neighbor within 2 miles of you (that’s a bee’s foraging distance) most certainly is. Even in a major urban area like Chicago, there are beekeepers everywhere. (And Chicago’s honey is well known for its sweetness—a result of the plant diversity found even in the density of the city.)

As you have gathered, the honey that you eat is a direct product of the flowers in your—and your neighbors’—yards and gardens. The only processing that takes place between the plant and the food you eat is that done by the bees. And the products that you use on your yard and garden—such as herbicides and pesticides—can easily make their way into the nectar and pollen that the bees eat, and that ultimately reach your teaspoon.  

The truth is, we are all beekeepers, and smart gardeners include bees as they plan their landscapes and gardens year after year.

Five kinds of plants beloved by bees

Are these in your yard?

  1. Early spring flowers. While humans thrill to the very first flowers of spring, for bees they are a necessity. Easy to find at any nursery, sweet alyssum is a spring favorite that’s an important early source of nectar. Plant crocus bulbs by the hundreds to provide the first pollen of the year.
  2. Bell-shaped flowers. Coral bells, nicotiana, snapdragon: all have the shape that holds plenty of nectar inside for foraging bees.
  3. Native plants. Having evolved on the prairie of old, globe thistle, echinacea, and Joe-pye weed are not only great-looking summer natives but also true bee magnets. Our friends at the Xerces Society share a Midwest native plant list for bees. Joe-pye weed was the subject of one of our recent Plant Evaluation Notes (PENotes).
  4. Herbs. Share your bounty with the bees! Let some herbs—thyme, anise hyssop, rosemary, borage—go to flower as a rich source of beefood. Lavender, of course, is famous for the honey made from its nectar.
  5. Flowering shrubs and trees. Trees and shrubs flower, too! Bees go wild for American linden flowers in late spring (think linden flower honey). Others worth considering: maple, sumac, serviceberry, spicebush, and fruit trees like apple and peach.

Bonus category: weeds. Dandelions—yes, the flower Americans love to hate—are a tremendous source of bee food. And clover (clover honey is an American favorite) is considered “bee pasture” when planted as a cover crop.

Karen Zaworski is a garden writer and photographer who lives and gardens in Oak Park, Illinois.