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Honey is produced by bees who have collected nectar or honeydew. Bees value honey for its sugars, which they consume to support general metabolic activity, especially that of their flight muscles during foraging, and as a food for their larvae. To this end bees stockpile honey to provide for themselves during ordinary foraging as well as during lean periods, as in overwintering. During foraging bees use part of the nectar they collect to power their flight muscles. The majority of nectar collected is not used to directly nourish the insects but is instead destined for regurgitation, enzymatic digestion, and finally long-term storage as honey. During cold weather or when other food sources are scarce, adult and larval bees consume stored honey, which is many times as energy-dense as the nectar from which it is made.

After leaving the hive a foraging bee collects sugar-rich nectar or honeydew. Nectar from the flower generally has a water content of 70 to 80% and is much less viscous than finished honey, which usually has a water content around 18%. The water content of honeydew from aphids and other true bugs is generally very close to the sap on which those insects feed and is usually somewhat more dilute than nectar. One source describes the water content of honeydew as around 89%. Whether it is feeding on nectar or honeydew, the bee sucks these runny fluids through its proboscis, which delivers the liquid to the bee's proventriculus, also called the honey stomach or honey crop. This cavity lies just above its food stomach, the latter of which digests pollen and sugars consumed by an individual honeybee for its own nourishment.

In Apis mellifera the honey stomach holds about 40 mg of liquid. This is about half the weight of an unladen bee. Collecting this quantity in nectar can require visits to more than a thousand flowers. When nectar is plentiful it can take a bee more than an hour of ceaseless work to collect enough nectar to fill its honey crop. Salivary enzymes and proteins from the bee's hypopharyngeal gland are secreted into the nectar once it is in the bee's honey stomach. These substances begin cleaving complex sugars like sucrose and starches into simpler sugars such as glucose and fructose. This process slightly raises the water content and the acidity of the partially digested nectar.

Once filled, the forager bees return to the hive. There they regurgitate and transfer nectar to hive bees. Once in their own honey stomachs the hive bees regurgitate the nectar, repeatedly forming bubbles between their mandibles, speeding its digestion and concentration. These bubbles create a large surface area per volume and by this means the bees evaporate a portion of the nectar's water into the warm air of the hive.

Hive bees form honey processing groups. These groups work in relay, with one bee subjecting the processed nectar to bubbling and then passing the refined liquid on to others. It can take as long as 20 minutes of continuous regurgitation, digestion and evaporation until the product reaches storage quality.[16] The new honey is then placed in honeycomb cells, which are left uncapped. This honey still has a very high water content, up to 70%, depending on the concentration of nectar gathered. At this stage of its refinement the water content of the honey is high enough that ubiquitous yeast spores can reproduce in it, a process which, if left unchecked, would rapidly consume the new honey's sugars. To combat this, bees use an ability rare among insects: the endogenous generation of heat.

Bees are among the few insects that can create large amounts of body heat. They use this ability to produce a constant ambient temperature in their hives. Hive temperatures are usually around 35 °C (95 °F) in the honey-storage areas. This temperature is regulated either by generating heat with their bodies or removing it through water evaporation. The evaporation removes water from the stored honey, drawing heat from the colony. The bees use their wings to govern hive cooling. Coordinated wing beating moves air across the wet honey, drawing out water and heat. Ventilation of the hive eventually expels both excess water and heat into the outside world.

The process of evaporating continues until the honey reaches its final water content of between 15.5% to 18%. This concentrates the sugars far beyond the saturation point of water, which is to say there is far more sugar dissolved in what little water remains in honey than ever could be dissolved in an equivalent volume of water. Honey, even at hive temperatures, is therefore a supercooled solution of various sugars in water. These concentrations of sugar can only be achieved near room temperature by evaporation of a less concentrated solution, in this case nectar. For osmotic reasons such high concentrations of sugar are extremely unfavorable to microbiological reproduction and all fermentation is consequently halted.[15][16] The bees then cap the cells of finished honey with wax. This seals them from contamination and prevents further evaporation.

So long as its water concentration does not rise much above 18%, honey has an indefinite shelf life, both within the hive and after its removal by a beekeeper.

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  • Danielle Lasit