Products of the Beehive
Honeybees are one of nature’s marvels. Although they are always associated with the natural production of Honey there are many other products of the hive which are useful to mankind, both for nutritional and cooking use as well as for medicinal use.
Honeybees should never be indiscriminately destroyed. Once you understand the marvelous simple engineering and food production skills of these intrepid little insects you will realise just how complicated the human race has become!
Honey is the product of honeybees (Apis mellifera). It is made from the nectar of flowers, shrubs and trees, is a natural substance and may be produced in a number of different flavours. It is composed of a mixture of sugars of which the main elements are fructose and glucose, some portion of sucrose and other mineral elements. These elements combined with water content make up the honey liquid. Thus the composition of honey looks on average as follows:
|Water||16 – 17%|
|Sucrose||2 – 5%|
|Other Sugars (such as maltose)||8%|
|Traces of other minerals||2 – 4%|
How do Bees make Honey?
The female worker bee, after the age of about 18 to 21 days commences her work as a foraging bee with her main function to seek the foods of the hive. There are four main foods of the hive; nectar, pollen, water and propolis. Nectar which is converted into honey is the carbohydrate of the bee’s diet. Pollen is the proteinused to feed the larvae and young bees. Water is essential to make the honey and keep the bees hydrated. Propolis is the medicinal element of the beehive used as a disinfectant and for health maintenance.
The foraging worker bee seeks out the nectar from flowers which is secreted through the nectaries of the plant usually inside the flower or from the leaves and stems of the plant or tree. She sticks her tongue into the nectar and sucks it up and stores it in a sac (“honey stomach”) in her body. When she has collected enough nectar she returns to the hive. You can observe nectar bearing bees at the hive entrance by their rounded and slightly bent abdomens as they alight on to the floorboard. Whilst the nectar is in the sac in her body certain enzymes from her saliva break down the nectar into simple sugars.
On return to the hive the foraging bees transfer the digested nectar to other younger house bees in the hive. These house bees also digest the nectar in their own honey sacs before they regurgitate small quantities of the nectar into the honey comb cells. Only a small amount is placed in each cell at a time because at this stage there is still too much water content in the nectar and the bees have to evaporate the excess water content before adding more unripe honey to the cell. The evaporation of the excess water is caused by the bees “fanning” the honey comb with their wings to cause air currents which dry out the unripe honey until the correct water moisture content is achieved. Once all the cells are full with ripe honey the bees then seal each cell with a thin layer of wax. Once sealed the honey remains ripe and will not go off or ferment unless the water moisture content in the hive over ripens the honey.
Because of the large sugar content in honey it does not spoil and can be kept in a glass jar for months. Honey with greater sugar content will crystallize. It can be restored to its natural liquid state simply by heating gently in low boiling water, a warm oven or by leaving it in a hot sunny spot.
The bees’ home is built of beeswax. The bees’ home is the honeycomb in which the queen lays her eggs which develop into larvae, then pupae (known as brood) which develop into young bees. The bees also store their honey and pollen in the honey combs. In order to make the honeycomb worker bees will fill themselves with honey and some pollen and cluster together to maintain heat around their bodies which is created by the metabolism of the honey in their bodies. Bees have eight small wax glands under their abdomens and with the increased temperature and honey these glands begin to sweat tiny scales of white wax. The liquid wax secretes through their glands and as a result of a chemical reaction the wax solidifies into small wax flakes. The bee then uses its back legs to take out these flakes which it then puts into its mouth for chewing and rendering into a malleable substance. The bees mould this wax with their mandibles and build hexagonal cells into honeycomb. The middle “spine” of the honeycomb is called the “septum” and the base of the cell is built to cover the bases of three cells on the other side of the septum.
Bees will build two different sizes of honeycomb – one (the smaller size) for brood of worker bees, and another, (the larger size) for brood of drone bees. Both can be used for storing honey. On a honeycomb which hangs vertically the bees will store their honey at the top of the comb and around the side. The brood cells are normally in the center with pollen stored in pockets around the edges of the brood.
Where the bees build honeycomb for the exclusive use of storing honey these combs are often thicker than the combs built for brood. Once the bees have filled the honeycomb with honey they seal the cells with a thin layer of beeswax. When removed by the beekeeper to extract the honey this layer of beeswax is referred to as “cappings”.
Beeswax is a very important side product of the beehive. It is rendered down by heating in a solar wax extractor or boiling it. Beeswax melts at about 63 degrees centigrade. It has a specific gravity of 0.96 which means that it is lighter than water and floats in both water and honey. If honey containing wax particles is left to stand overnight all the wax will settle on the surface and can be skimmed off the following morning.
New Honeycomb is pure white in colour and is darkened with propolis by the bees. Note the rich brood pattern in the comb on the right.
Beeswax has many uses. Primarily, for the Beekeeper, it is used to make the wax foundation sheets put into frames ready for bees to construct their honeycomb on. It is also used extensively in furniture polish, for tanning leather products and the cosmetics industry. Lip balm is made from beeswax.
Once again the making of beeswax by honeybees and the way in which they manipulate it into the construction of the honeycomb emphasizes the uniqueness and marvel of this creative little insect.
Propolis is “bee glue”, a dark sticky gum type texture which bees use for home maintenance. They collect it from plant secretions, resins and gums which are naturally found in the buds and leaves of flowers and shrubs. The bees collect this propolis on their foraging trips, store it in their pollen sacs and fly back to the hive. These resins are in liquid form. On returning to the hive the house bees remove these resins from the foraging bee’s hind legs and using their tongues pack the propolis resin throughout the hive dwelling.
Propolis is used to seal cracks and openings in the hive and in particular the bees will close up the hive entrance if it is too large or if they need to reduce the ventilation gaps in the hive. In winter bees will reduce the hive entrance with propolis and then open it up again in summer by chewing away the excess propolis. It is also the bees’ anti bacterial agent used to cover virtually the entire area of the hive. The combs are disinfected and polished using propolis – hence the reason why new comb changes from white and yellow to dark brown after many seasons of use. Bees will often cement loose parts of the hive, especially frames using propolis and it is often difficult to remove these parts once they have been solidly gummed down.
In the wild, bees will use propolis to cover the outer sides of the comb area to protect the comb. They will also cover over decaying insects and small rodents which have penetrated the colony’s space with a layer of propolis to avoid bacterial contamination within the hive.
Propolis does have medical value for humans and has been commercially rendered into lotions, creams, tablets and “propolis tincture” as a homeopathic remedy.
Bees need pollen as the protein part of their diet and particularly for feeding newly emerged bees. When a bee is born (or emerges from the brood cell) it is not fully developed and it needs pollen as a protein source for the optimal functioning of its hypopharyngeal and wax glands. It is the function of the newly hatched house bees to feed the larvae with brood food made up of worker and royal jelly. Without sufficient pollen consumption the young house bees cannot produce sufficient quantities of this jelly to feed the larvae and they themselves become emaciated and dysfunctional.
A foraging bee collects pollen by landing on a flower and rubbing its body against the pollen sources of the flower, especially the stamens. The pollen particles may be moistened by the bee using the nectar she has engorged or from the flower. When she has gathered enough pollen from various flowers and plants she cleans the pollen off her body and into her pollen sacs on her hind legs where she packs as much as she can before flying back to the hive. Once back in the hive she will off load her pollen by reversing into a cell and removing the pollen from her hind legs using her middle legs. A young house bee has the job of moistening the pollen and packing it tightly into the cell.
There are many different colours of pollen depending on which flowers the pollen was collected from. The main colours are white, cream, yellow, orange and red.
Pollen only has limited use for human consumption or other non bee applications. It is used in some homeopathic remedies for a variety of ailments. Many persons unknowingly suffer from severe pollen allergies affecting their respiratory systems. Bee sting allergies may also be attributed more to a pollen allergy in the bee venom than the bee venom itself.
Royal Jelly is the food for the developing Queen. In order for the bee population to develop and for new swarms to propagate the worker bees will, when the time is right, build larger cells on the side of the honeycomb. This is usually at the start of a new season, or when the hive space becomes too small for the existing colony of bees or in an emergency when the queen has died or been accidentally killed.
Royal Jelly comes from the young nurse bees which secrete the jelly substance through their hypopharyngeal glands and deposit the substance directly into the cells of the queen bee. Some royal jelly is also fed to the early stages of worker larvae but not in the same quantities as that fed to the developing queen. In fact the queen larva is fed more than it can consume. Royal jelly is not stored by the bees anywhere in the honeycomb and is only used directly in the growth of the developing larvae.
Royal jelly looks like a jelly paste substance. It is whitish in colour. It can be harvested by the beekeeper and is taken from the queen cells when the larva is four days old. This is when the maximum amount of jelly has been deposited into the queen cell. Because the quantities are small relative to the size of the queen cell it takes a lot of harvested queen cells to produce a viable crop of royal jelly.
Royal jelly is used commercially as a homeopathic medicine and dietary supplement. It is said to have some miraculous curing abilities. It is also used in the cosmetics industry to a wide extent.
Beekeeping in South Africa, Third Edition Revised, Johannsmeier M. F., ARC 2001;
Guide to Bees & Honey, Fourth Edition, Hooper T., Marsden House, 2003.