How does it all work..
Nectar is plant-sap produced by flowers and consists of sugar, water and minute quantities of many other ingredients. Bees transport nectar in their honey stomach, where enzymes are added to aid its transformation to honey.
The nectar is ripened in the hive by repeated exposure in small droplets in the cells of the comb and on bees’ tongues. Warm is air circulated through the hive by fanning bees, as in a tumble drier, and removes excess moisture from the nectar. Over time, the moisture content drops from 80% to 20%. At this stage the honey is ripe and the cells in which it is placed are closed with a wax capping.
Honey is a source of essential micro-nutrients. Bees also rely on the energy it provides to keep the centre of the hive warm: 35°C in the summer and 25°C in winter. There is no nectar to be had in winter, so the honey consumed at that time is honey that was made the previous summer. In a sense, the hive is acting like a hibernating bear, living off fat reserves put down while the living was good. If the next summer is poor, the hive may not be able to store excess honey that year, so will rely on stores built up in previous summers. Hence, any ‘surplus’ honey at the end of a summer is not just for the next winter, but is the hive’s insurance against future poor summers.
Modern beekeeping has forgotten this and removes any honey deemed to be surplus at the end of each summer. Indeed, many beekeepers remove all the honey not just at the end of the summer but on each occasion that the bees store any significant amount. This practice is supported by the common and misguided notion that honey taken from a hive can be replaced with sugar water, as if the two are equivalent. They are not. Honey contains nearly 200 different substances, many of which are essential for the health of the colony. Simple sugar water contains two substances: sugar and water.
Microscopy shows that bees fed sugar water have intestines that are shrivelled and dull in comparison with bees fed honey, whose intestines are plump and shiny. Of course, it suits beekeepers who are driven by the desire to maximise honey ‘production’ to pretend that the honey removed from a colony can easily be replaced. It makes them feel better. But, sadly, it does not make the bees feel better.
It is time we learnt that bees need honey to be healthy and vibrant. They need to live on honey during the winter, not on sugar water or other honey substitutes that have been shown to harm bee health. If we, as beekeepers, wish to share in the bounty of the bee, we need to be very aware of how precious is the honey we are sharing. If a hive produces honey that is genuinely excess to its needs, then we may take some of that excess. But we need to be aware that part of that excess may well constitute insurance against future starvation. When we take honey, we enter into a contract with the bees: we are now responsible for insuring against future starvation. So we are well advised to keep some of the harvested honey on one side in case we have miscalculated and the bees need it back.
Then, and only then, can we truly enjoy some of the shared harvest, safe in the knowledge that the bees will not come to harm through our actions. If we are uncertain, we should err on the side of caution in our harvesting policy, even if this means going without. After all, we will not suffer or perish without honey, but the bees will.