Bees & Honey FAQ's

What is honey?

Honey is a mixture of sugars and other compounds. With respect to carbohydrates, honey is mainly fructose (about 38.5%) and glucose (about 31.0%). Honey's remaining carbohydrates include maltose, sucrose, and other complex carbohydrates. As with all nutritive sweeteners, honey is mostly sugars and contains only trace amounts of vitamins or minerals. Honey also contains tiny amounts of several compounds thought to function as antioxidants, including chrysin, pinobanksin, vitamin C, catalase, and pinocembrin. The specific composition of any batch of honey depends on the flowers available to the bees that produced the honey.

Honey has had a long history in human consumption. The main uses of honey are in cooking, baking, as a spread on bread, and as an addition to various beverages, such as tea, and as a sweetener in some commercial beverages. Honey is also the main ingredient in the alcoholic beverage mead, which is also known as "honey wine" or "honey beer". Historically, the ferment for mead was honey's naturally occurring yeast. Honey is also used as an adjunct in some beers.

Flavours of honey vary based on the nectar source, and various types and grades of honey are available. It also has had a role in religion and symbolism.  The wonderful healing qualities of honey have been known since ancient times: honey was the most used medicine in ancient Egypt - it was deemed so precious that it was used as a form of currency; the Roman legions treated their wounds with honey; and athletes who participated in the ancient Olympic Games ate honey and dried figs to enhance their sports performance.  

Because of its unique composition and chemical properties, honey is suitable for long-term storage, and is easily assimilated even after long preservation. Honey, and objects immersed in honey, have been preserved for decades and even centuries. The key to preservation is limiting access to humidity. In its cured state, honey has a sufficiently high sugar content to inhibit fermentation. If exposed to moist air, its hydrophilic properties will pull moisture into the honey, eventually diluting it to the point that fermentation can begin.

What are honey's medicinal properties?

Honey is one of the world's oldest known medicines. Its anti-bacterial and healing properties make it a great natural remedy for many common health problems.

The slightly acidic pH level of honey (between 3.2 and 4.5) is what helps prevent the growth of bacteria, while its antioxidant constituents cleans up free radicals. The physical properties of honey vary depending on the specific flora that was used to produce it, as well as its water content.
Honey can be used as a natural remedy for:

  • Sore throats and coughs
  • Wounds, cuts and burns
  • Hay fever
  • Digestive health
  • Hangovers
  • Healthy skin

How do bees make honey?

A bees' tongue works like a straw.

Honeybees use nectar to make honey which they get from flowers. Nectar is almost 80% water with some complex sugars. In fact, if you have ever pulled a honeysuckle blossom out of its stem, nectar is the clear liquid that drops from the end of the blossom. Bees  use their long, tubelike tongues like straws to suck the nectar out of the flowers and they store it in their "honey stomachs". Bees actually have two stomachs, their honey stomach which they use like a nectar backpack and their regular stomach. The honey stomach holds almost 70 mg of nectar and when full, it weighs almost as much as the bee does.

Honeybees must visit between 100 and 1500 flowers in order to fill their honeystomachs.  It  takes about 20 trips and over a 1000 visits per flower per trip to collect and produce 1 gram of honey.

The honeybees return to the hive and pass the nectar onto other worker bees. These bees suck the nectar from the honeybee's stomach through their mouths. These "house bees" "chew" the nectar for about half an hour. During this time, enzymes are breaking the complex sugars in the nectar into simple sugars so that it is both more digestible for the bees and less likely to be attacked by bacteria while it is stored within the hive.

The bees then spread the nectar throughout the honeycombs where water evaporates from it, making it a thicker syrup. The bees make the nectar dry even faster by fanning it with their wings. Once the honey is gooey enough, the bees seal off the cell of the honeycomb with a plug of wax. The honey is stored until it is eaten. In one year, a colony of bees eats between 60 and 100kg of honey.

How is honey collected?

Puffing smoke into the bee
hive to make the bees docile

Collecting honey is typically achieved by using smoke from a bee smoker to pacify the bees; this causes the bees to attempt to save the resources of the hive from a possible forest fire, and makes them far less aggressive.

The honeycomb is removed from the hive and the honey is extracted from that, often using a honey extractor. The honey is then filtered. In many cases the beekeeper will responsibly leave enough honey in the beehive for the colony to survive.

If extra food is required to maintain the colony the beekeeper may provide the hive with unprocessed honey or a honey substitute such as sugar water (in the fall) or crystalline sugar (in the winter – a "candyboard") so that the hive does not starve.


Why are bees so important?

A bee pollinating a flower

Honey bees are a highly developed species of the animal world and contribute significantly to the sustainability of the eco-system in all areas – urban environment, farming areas and bush lands. In Africa alone there are an estimated 3000 species of bees and throughout the world some 20,000 different species.

Globally there are more honey bees than other types of bee and pollinating insects, so it is the world's most important pollinator of food crops. It is estimated that one third of the food that we consume each day relies on pollination mainly by bees, but also by other insects, birds and bats. Worldwide, honey bees are a critical player in the pollination of many native plants as well as in the production of important food, fiber and seed crops.

Many domestic and imported fruits and vegetables require pollination. Examples include avocados, soybeans, asparagus, broccoli, celery, squash, and sunflowers for oil, cucumbers, citrus fruit, peaches, kiwis, cherries, cranberries and melons. For crops such as blueberries and almonds, the honey bee plays an essential role in pollination of commercial crops,  with around 80% of crops said to be dependent on honey bees. Honey bees can also pollinate clover and alfalfa, which are fed to cattle, so there are implications for the meat and dairy industry too. And that is not to mention the huge range of manufactured food products made from all these ingredients.

In addition, honey bees play a significant role in the pollination of other important crops such as cotton and flax. And there are also a number of valuable non-food products produced by the honey bee, such as beeswax used in cleaning and beauty products .

How does a bee colony work?

Honey bees are social insects, which means that they live together in large, well-organized family groups. Social insects are highly evolved insects that engage in a variety of complex tasks not practiced by the multitude of solitary insects. Communication, complex nest construction, environmental control, defence, and division of the labour are just some of the behaviours that honey bees have developed to exist successfully in social colonies. These behaviours make social insects in general, and honey bees in particular, among the most fascinating creatures on earth.
The average colony of bees consists of 40,000 or more bees. Approximately 13,000 of these bees will be out during the day collecting nectar, pollen and water whilst the balance remain in the hive cleaning, ventilating, guarding and tending to the young larvae. As the size of the colony increases up to a maximum of about 60,000 workers, so does the efficiency of the colony.

A honey bee colony typically consists of three kinds of adult bees: workers, drones, and a queen.

Wild bee colony

In addition to thousands of worker adults, a colony normally has a single queen and several hundred drones. The social structure of the colony is maintained by the presence of the queen and workers and depends on an effective system of communication. The distribution of chemical pheromones among members and communicative “dances” are responsible for controlling the activities necessary for colony survival. Labor activities among worker bees depend primarily on the age of the bee but vary with the needs of the colony. Reproduction and colony strength depend on the queen, the quantity of food stores, and the size of the worker force. But surviving and reproducing take the combined efforts of the entire colony. Individual bees (workers, drones, and queens) cannot survive without the support of the colony.

Each colony has only one queen, except during and a varying period following swarming preparations or supersedure. A queen is easily distinguished from other members of the colony. Her body is normally much longer than either the drone’s or worker’s, Her wings cover only about two-thirds of the abdomen, whereas the wings of both workers and drones nearly reach the tip of the abdomen when folded. average productive life span of a queen is 2 to 3 years.

Queen bee with workers

Because she is the only sexually developed female, her primary function is reproduction. She produces both fertilized and unfertilized eggs. During peak production, queens may lay up to 1,500 eggs per day, and and possibly more than a million in her lifetime. New (virgin) queens develop from fertilized eggs or from young worker larvae not more than 3 days old. New queens are raised under three different circumstances: emergency, supersedure, or swarming. When an old queen is accidentally killed, lost, or removed, the bees select younger worker larvae to produce emergency queens. When an older queen begins to fail (decreased production of queen substance), the colony prepares to raise a new queen.

Drones (male bees) are the largest bees in the colony. They are generally present only during late spring and summer. The drone’s head is much larger than that of either the queen or worker. They have no stinger, pollen baskets, or wax glands. Their main function is to fertilize the virgin queen during her mating flight. Drones become sexually mature about a week after emerging and die instantly upon mating. Although drones perform no useful work for the hive, their presence is believed to be important for normal colony functioning.

Workers on honey comb

Workers are the smallest and constitute the majority of bees occupying the colony. They are sexually undeveloped females and under normal hive conditions do not lay eggs. Workers have specialized structures, such as brood food glands, scent glands, wax glands, and pollen baskets, which allow them to perform all the labors of the hive. They clean and polish the cells, feed the brood, care for the queen, remove debris, handle incoming nectar, build beeswax combs, guard the entrance, and air-condition and ventilate the hive during their initial few weeks as adults. Later as field bees they forage for nectar, pollen, water, and propolis (plant sap). The life span of the worker during summer is about 6 weeks.


What types of bees do you get, and what's a Killer Bee?

In South Africa we have two main species:

  • Apis Mellifera Scutellata also known as the African bee, which is a is a subspecies of the Western honey bee and is found throughout South Africa except the Cape areas.  
  • Apis Mellifera Capensis, the Cape bee which was originally restricted to the Western and Eastern Cape area.

African honey bees cannot be distinguished from European honey bees easily, although they are slightly smaller than the various European races. The differences between African and European bees manifest themselves behaviourally. To the casual bystander, the primary identifying behavioural characteristic of Africanized bees is their heightened defensiveness compared to that of European subspecies. All honey bees readily defend their nests, and an attack usually means that the victim is too close to the nest. While European races of bees may attack a nest intruder with a few bees (usually no more than 10-20 bees), African bees may attack the same intruder with hundreds of bees. Furthermore, African bees generally defend a larger radius around their nest and usually require lower levels of stimuli to initiate an attack.

Subspecies of western honey bees are native to Europe and Africa but have been spread widely outside their native range due to their economic importance as pollinators and producers of honey. However as with other fauna and flora, problems can arise when a new strain is introduced to foreign territories.

The Africa Bee (Scutellata) Killer Bees in South and North America:
Honey bees from Africa were imported to Brazil in the 1950s. The purpose was to introduce genetic material from the tropically adapted African bees into the resident European bees, thereby creating a bee better suited for a tropical environment.

In 1957, several African queen bees were released accidentally. Their descendants quickly established a large feral population which had not existed in South America previously.  Small swarms of Africanized bees are capable of taking over European honey bee hives by invading the hive and establishing their own queen after killing the European queen bee.

The success of the African honey bee reflects superior adaptation to the tropical environment as compared to that of the European bee. Over the next four decades, the wild African honey bee population expanded into most of the tropical and subtropical parts of the Americas. African bees entered South Texas in the early 1990s, and since have disbursed throughout several South Western states of America.

The Cape Bee (Capensis) in Northern South Africa:
The Cape bee was originally restricted to the Western and Eastern Cape area. In the 1980's these bees were introduced into the Gauteng (formally Transvaal) area by pollinators, and it was not a success.

Cape Bees are unique in that the worker bees are able to reproduce their own kind through egg laying, whilst Scutellata does not. If a female worker from a Cape honey bee colony enters an African bee nest, she is not attacked, partly due to her resemblance to the African bee queen. Now independent from her own colony, she may begin laying eggs, and since they are capable of parthenogenetic reproduction, they will hatch as "clones" of themselves, which will also lay eggs.

As a result, the Capensis workers increase in number within a host colony. This leads to the death of the host colony on which they depend. When the  colony dies, the Capensis females will seek out a new host colony. The introduction of the Capensis Bee into the Scutellata region created total havoc amongst the beekeeping industry at the time, and currently Scutellata hives with Cape Bees are destroyed to prevent the spread of the Cape Bees to other hives.  

end faq