Honey—From the Bee to You
BY “AWAKE!” CORRESPONDENT IN SOUTH AFRICA
DO YOU enjoy the sweet taste of honey? For thousands of years, until the use of cane and beet sugar was developed, honey was man’s only sweetener. How much do you know about honey? And what is involved in getting honey from the bee to you?
We can learn by looking in on an apiary here in South Africa. This one has ten hives, all painted white and standing on supports a few inches above the ground. The hives are made of wood, with sections fitting one atop the other. On the bottom, resting on the supports, is a base measuring eighteen by twenty-two inches (46 by 56 centimeters). Above that is a large section, about eleven inches (28 centimeters) deep, called the “brood chamber.” This is the heart of the hive, where new bees are bred and fed.
Above the brood chamber are one or more sections called “honey supers,” each about six inches (15 centimeters) deep, where honey is stored. Above the supers is an inside cover plus a top cover or roof.
Between the brood chamber and the honey storage area above is a perforated metal sheet called the “queen excluder.” This allows worker bees to pass through, but not the queen, thus limiting her egg-laying activity to the brood chamber.
The brood chambers and supers contain wooden frames that enclose and support wax combs. The frames fit loosely in the sections, allowing free movement for the bees and being easy to remove.
The Bee Close Up
Here at our apiary (in South Africa), the bees are of the type called Apis mellifera adansonii. Taking a close-up view of these amazing insects reveals a body that is an absolute marvel of intricacy and efficiency. Every detail of its anatomy suits its life purpose—to produce offspring, to pollinate flowers and to make honey.
Take, as an example, the “worker” bee, an infertile female. As with other insects, her body is divided into three parts. The tiny head is roughly triangular, with three simple eyes on top and two larger, more complex, eyes, one on each side. It has antennae, tough mandibles (jaws) for biting, and a long tongue, or proboscis, that can suck up liquids.
The middle section of a bee is the thorax. It is hard, round and equipped with muscles that power the six legs and four wings. This is the “engine” that enables our tiny flying creature to travel miles away from the hive and return laden with pollen and nectar. What type of fuel does this engine burn? A tiny drop of honey!
Largest is the hind section, or abdomen. It is covered, as are the head and thorax, with a tough casing that serves as a skeleton or “exoskeleton.” Insects have no bones. It is difficult to believe that in this tiny space are a complex digestive system with two stomachs (one serving as a temporary store for nectar and water), intestines, a circulatory system with heart and veins, a respiratory system for conveying oxygen to all parts of the body and a nervous system.
Observers will notice that a bee’s body is hairy, just right for collecting pollen from flowers. Its two hind legs have tiny “pollen baskets,” and the two middle legs have special stiff hairs for brushing pollen into these baskets. The middle legs also have a tiny spur for removing wax from the bee’s underparts. The front legs have a little notch for cleaning the antennae and a tiny comb for cleaning the eyes. The fore wings and smaller hind wings separate when folded. But when our little lady spreads them, they automatically hook together—a great advantage for flying.
Attached to the wooden frames inside a hive are honeycombs containing masses of six-sided cells—perfect for size, strength and economy of space. Where do the bees obtain the wax for building these honeycombs? A marvel of creation! Certain bees take a good fill of honey and stay quiet for about twenty-four hours. In some mysterious way minute wax scales appear on their abdomen. The bees then scrape the wax off and use it to construct their cells. It takes seven to fifteen pounds (3 to 7 kilograms) of honey for them to produce one pound of wax.
A Busy Life
Busy indeed is the life of a worker bee. Life begins when the queen puts her abdomen into a cell and deposits a tiny egg. Three days later the egg hatches a larva or grub. Young workers appear and take over the job of nursing the new baby. In their heads the workers have glands that secrete ‘bee milk’ (sometimes called ‘royal jelly’). This food has special nourishing qualities. Some say that during its first day the grub increases its size by more than 500 percent.
After two and a half days the diet is changed to a mixture of pollen and honey, both of which are kept stored in cells right in the brood chamber. On the ninth day after the egg is laid the cells are sealed with a porous wax cover and the larva spins a silken cocoon. Marvelous, complex changes take place and some nine or ten days later a young bee, almost fully grown and ready to work, bites its way out of the cell.
Once out of the cell a bee gets right on the job. The youngster first cleans up the cells. Then her milk glands develop and she becomes a nurse for the larvae that need constant attention day and night for the first few days. Some authorities say that they need 1,300 meals a day!
A few days later our young worker progresses to storage work. In this capacity she accepts from “foragers” nectar and pollen, storing them in cells. She also helps to keep the hive cool. After about two weeks (it varies according to circumstances), Miss Bee takes on other tasks. Her wax-making glands develop and she uses these for cell building and to provide other benefits to the bee community. Later she takes a turn of duty at the entrance as guard to the hive, admitting only members of her hive. The two antennae on her head enable her to distinguish strangers by sense of smell. She will attack intruders, including humans, who may seek access to the hive for honey or some other purpose.
At the age of three weeks Miss Bee becomes a forager. As such, she travels out of the hive, often for considerable distances, to locate and bring back nectar, pollen and water. Getting a full load may mean visiting a thousand clover flowers. No wonder that, during the honey season, worker bees live only five to six weeks!
However, it is not necessary for foragers to scan unfamiliar terrain every time they set out on their pollen-collecting missions. Amazingly, bees have a way of “telling” one another where to look for nectar. How so? When she returns to the hive after locating a new source of nectar, the worker does a dance to direct fellow foragers. A figure eight dance means that the nectar is near. A dance with feeble tail-wagging means that the nectar is far, and it indicates how far. If her body points vertically up the comb, she is saying that the bees must fly in the direction of the sun. A dance at any other angle shows in what direction they should fly relative to the sun. The smell of the nectar and her own special scent left on the source of nectar further aid the other foragers to find the right spot. Truly, a remarkable sign language.
A Look at Royalty
Outstanding is the queen bee. Both in size and function ‘Her Majesty’ is different. The queen is larger, has no devices for handling or carrying pollen and only uses her sting to kill rival queens. This happens when the hive flourishes and new queens appear.
Does a queen bee spring from some special royal descent? Actually, the egg from which a queen develops is the same as those for worker bees. How, then, does it produce a queen?
No one really knows. But there are some differences in the nurturing process. In a beehive, queen cells are much larger and more prominent than ordinary cells. When an egg is laid in a queen cell, it gets special treatment. Instead of being fed on ‘royal jelly’ for two and a half days, future queens receive this unique nourishment for four and a half to five days. Surprisingly, development of a queen takes only fifteen to sixteen days, less time than for workers.
When new queens appear, the bee colony prepares to “swarm,” that is, to form a new colony, usually with the old queen. The recently arrived virgin queens fight it out, leaving one as the new queen of the old hive. The victorious queen then takes off on a nuptial flight, pursued by a number of males, or “drones.” One of them succeeds in joining her in flight.
During her mating flight, the queen receives enough spermatozoa to last for years. Thereafter, she becomes virtually an egg-laying machine, capable of laying up to 3,000 eggs per day. In contrast to the short life-span of worker bees, a queen may live for several years and become the progenitor of many future generations.
Honey Is Beneficial
Honey starts with flowers that have nectar. This attracts insects, including bees. Apart from sugars, nectar contains several minerals vital to human health. After the bees drink deeply of this sweet juice, their bodies add to it enzymes and formic acid. These digest and change the sugars. Further handling back at the hive helps to evaporate water.
The final product, mature honey, is composed of approximately 41 percent fruit sugar (levulose), the sweetest sugar known. It also includes 35 percent grape sugar (dextrose), 17 percent water, 2 percent sucrose and small amounts of mineral salts and amino acids. One authority says that up to 450 different amino acids have been found in honey. Honey also has almost all the trace elements that the human body needs. All these factors make honey a most pleasant and healthful food.
Honey is especially good for little ones. It is a gentle laxative and can be used safely for babies, starting with a half teaspoonful a day. Being predigested food, honey can help with digestive disturbances. It can relieve constipation, which, in turn, can help with high blood pressure. Honey is a quick-energy food and its amino acids can build up calcium in the body. Moreover, it is mildly sedative and encourages sleep. Taking two teaspoonfuls of honey with every meal for a period of time has been known to help persons who have become run down and irritable. (Honey and Its Value, by D. C. McGill, M.A. Ph. D.) With good reason did a Bible writer state: “My son, eat honey, for it is good; and let sweet comb honey be upon your palate.”—Prov. 24:13.
From the Hive to You
How does one extract honey from a beehive? An important step is the use of a “smoker.” This is a device consisting of a small bellows attached to a metal cylinder containing combustible material. When it is lit, smoke issues through a funnellike top. A few whiffs of smoke at the entrance to a hive cause bees to sound an alarm. Fire is a dangerous enemy of bees. To prepare for the imagined emergency the bees sip some honey. This and the effect of the smoke make them more docile and easier to handle.
The next step is to open the hive by removing the roof and the inner cover. Some bees will be busy at the honey frames. A whiff of smoke drives most of them below to the brood chamber. If most of the cells have been sealed with a thin layer of wax, it is evident that the honey is mature. Everything will be clean and neat—no mess, no accumulation of excreta or rubbish.
Now we take out the honey frames, replacing them with fresh ones having a wax base with the outline of the cells already marked. The bees will then build complete cells on this foundation.
After cutting the thin wax seal away from the cells, the frames go into a “honey extractor.” This is a metal, drumlike container with slots or supports inside to hold the frames in position. The supports are rotated inside the drum, and as the frames whirl around, the honey comes out by centrifugal force. It falls to the bottom of the drum, goes through a strainer and flows out of a tap or honey gate into waiting jars.
We hope that this visit to our apiary has helped you to appreciate more fully the value of honey and the vital part that bees play in preparing it for us. Marvelous indeed is the way these little creatures testify to the wisdom of the great Designer and Creator of all living things, Jehovah God.—Ps. 104:24.
[Diagram on page 23]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
WAX SCALE REMOVER