“The bee, from her industry in the summer, eats honey all the winter.” — English proverb

Stingless bees

Bees, like ants, are really a form of specially adapted wasp. They evolved about 150 million years ago, just as flowering plants started to emerge. There are 20,000 bee species, of which only seven are true honey bees. The other main honey producers are found among the 800 species of stingless bees, or Meliponini, found in the tropics. Stingless bee honey is runnier and sweeter than honey bee honey, with an even more intense floral flavour.

Honey, honey

Bees produce honey as a store of food to keep the colony alive through winter and periods when they can’t fly. By managing them in artificial hives, humans have produced the only semi-domesticated insect so far. Prefabricated combs make it easier for them to overproduce honey (building the wax comb is very labour-intensive). As a result we can help ourselves to the excess without damaging the colony.

A jar of honey with honey dipper

Bees make honey by eating and regurgitating the nectar they collect from flowers several times. This mixes it with preservative enzymes from their honey stomach. Once it’s ready, they pack it into the hexagonal wax cells and fan the comb with their wings until all but 20 per cent of the water evaporates.

This stops the sugar fermenting. The cells are then sealed with wax to produce a uniquely stable form of stored sugar, which can keep without spoiling for decades.

Why doesn’t honeycomb melt? The bees maintain a constant temperature of 95F (35C) in the hive. Not only do they use their wings to fan, in extreme heat they collect drops of water instead of nectar and use it to fill the hive with a cooling mist.

Bee space

Perhaps the most important single breakthrough in the history of beekeeping came in 1851, when an American clergyman, Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth (1810-1895), discovered what he called the “bee space”. Worker bees are very tidy. If they see a hole or a crack they diligently fill it with propolis, a hard resinous cement. This made opening hives and removing the honey-bearing frames slow and difficult work.

Langstroth’s discovery was that if the space between the frames of honeycomb and the side of the hive, and between the top of the frames and the wooden board that covered them, was exactly three-eighths of an inch – enough space for two bees to pass one another – they would fill it with soft wax comb instead of propolis. Langstroth hurried to patent his discovery.

Honey at the State Fair of Texas 2008

The bee space led to massively increased yields, greater control over the combs, and healthier colonies. Commercial mass production of honey suddenly became possible.

Sadly, Langstroth’s patent proved too easy to copy and he died a poor and bitter man. In his later years he claimed anything reminding him of bees caused intolerable mental agony.


Using smoke to pacify bees seems counter-intuitive: surely the smoke is more likely to make them angry? But honeybees are woodland creatures, which have evolved to escape the risk of fire. Smoke triggers a defensive reflex: they eat as much honey as they can, so they will have plenty of energy to follow the queen when she leaves the hive.

A full bee is a docile bee. That’s why swarms are rarely dangerous, however terrifying they may look: they are composed of very well-fed bees attempting to establish a new colony. If a beekeeper finds a swarm, he’s entitled to keep it.

Bee’s knees

In 2000, when the Guinness Book of Records was looking to launch its new website, it decided to do so by producing the world’s smallest advertisement. Scientists at the Rutherford Appleton laboratory near Oxford produced a piece of film no wider than a human hair, which was stencilled in gold with, and tied it to the leg of a honey bee.

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