How Do Bees Make Honey And Why Do They Sting?

Aug 18, 2017

Why do bees pollinate? How do bees make honey? Why do bees have stingers? Why do bees die when they sting you? What's the difference between a bee and a wasp? Does honey have healing properties? Vermont farmer and beekeeper John Hayden of The Farm Between answers all of your bee questions! And we learn about one curious kid's app, which he hopes will help save pollinators.

"How do bees make honey and why?" - Annika, 6, San Diego, CA

Bees collect nectar from flowers. Nectar is the sweet liquid that entices the bees to the flower. The bees climb onto or into the flower and suck up the nectar with their straw-like mouth and collect it in a little sac called a crop. They also collect pollen on their legs. As they move from flower to flower, they leave a little bit of that pollen on each new flower they visit. That's called pollination and that's how flowers reproduce.

(We have a lot more about how pollination works here. And if you're curious about how humans reproduce, we've got just the episode for you here.)

Bees take the pollen and nectar back to their hives and put it into the honeycomb, six-sided cells they have built out with wax.

"Pollen is like protein, one of the building blocks of the animal bodies," John Hayden explains. "They use that to feed their young mostly."

But the nectar is what they turn into honey. They fan it with their wings to evaporate some of the moisture in the liquid. So honey is just concentrated nectar.

"It takes so many trips from a bee going back and forth collecting nectar just to get a teaspoon of honey. It's amazing," Hayden says. "Some people say it's like bee puke, they're vomiting it back up. But we're trying ot market honey so we don't use that term."

Bees keep the honey in storage for the winter months when there are no flowers. But they make more than they need, so beekeepers take the extra honey out of the hive and leave them enough to make it through the winter.
 

"Why do bees have stingers?" - Mirabel, 4, Longmont, CO

Beekeepers use smoke to keep bees calm when they open up a hive box. The bees start to eat honey when they smell smoke, which makes them sleepy.
Credit Jane Lindholm / VPR

Nobody likes to get stung by a bee. But why do they do it? Bees sting to protect their hive and defend their honey from potential predators. 

"Skunks want to eat bees," for example, Hayden explains. "They'll come and scratch on the door [of the hive] at night and the bees will come out to see what's happening and the skunks will scoop them up by the handful and eat them up. Or a bear will come in and the bear likes to eat the baby bees, the little fat chunky larvae, and I'm sure they'll take a little honey dip on the side."

In nature, everything is food for something else, so the bees need protection. But when a honeybee stings something it dies! Honeybees are social insects that depend on their colony to survive. So they are willing to sacrifice a few bees to make sure the whole colony can survive.

Honeybees die when they sting because their stinger has a barb on it, like a fish hook. The stinger gets hooked into your skin and then when the bee tries to fly away the hook stays in and pulls out the bee's abdomen as it flies away.

"And it leaves a little sack that has venom in it, so it's got this poison. And it's got a muscle around it that keeps pumping So if you think a little bulb with a barbed point that keeps pumping into you, it's an amazing adaptation," Hayden explains.

Honeybees are far from the only pollinator. Native bees are very important to our ecosystem and there are more than 4000 species in the US alone. Butterflies, hummingbirds, and bats also play important pollinator roles. Listen to the full episode to learn more about native pollinators and hear from curious kid Kader Narayan, an eight-year-old who lives in Pennsylvania, about his efforts to teach people about pollinator gardens.

Curious kids in this episode include Anita, left, 6, from Calais, Vt,; Bellamy, center, 4, from Sharon, Vt., and Lily, 4, from Plymouth, Mi.
Credit courtesy from parents / VPR

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