How do you get bee honey without bee babies?

'We're like Marmite, man. Love us or hate us' / image © Andrey Davidenko / 123RF

I was recently asked this question by friends: ‘How do you keep baby bees out of bee honey?’ At this time of year, when the honey crop is due, FAQs about beekeeping are popular. ‘I watched a nature program that showed bee larvae in honeycomb,’ said Damien, quite concerned. ‘Is it the same honeycomb that you use for honey?’

It is a good question: bees do make honeycomb both for raising brood and to store food. However, wily beekeepers manipulate bees to make sure only honey is harvested from the hive. Don’t worry, you are not spreading baby bees on your toast!

The hexagonal array of honeycomb is all the bees handiwork. / image © Andrey Davidenko / 123RF

People sometimes think that the honeycomb in hives is man-made. How could this geometrically-perfect hexagonal array be made by stripy little insects? But the bees do make it, because they are clever. They make the comb for bee babies and the comb for our honey.

Here are some secrets of the comb and how beekeepers get the honey bit.

#FAQ1: Why do bees make honeycomb?

Bees use honeycomb as a nursery, honey factory and food store. The queen lays eggs inside the cells, which hatch into white grub-like larvae. The larvae pupate and emerge as bees. Collectively, rows of larvae in honeycomb are called brood. Worker bees also use the cells in honeycomb to store nectar, which they convert to honey, and to store pollen, which they pack inside a cell by head-butting. Nectar, or honey, is a carbohydrate food source and pollen is a source of protein.

Honeybees head-butting pollen into cells. Pollen is a source of protein for bees. / image © Andrey Davidenko / 123RF

#FAQ2: How do bees make honeycomb?

Bees build honeycomb from wax secreted by their abdominal glands, which is passed along the legs to the mouth and moulded into hexagonal cells. The honeybee builds row upon row of geometric six-sided cells, each exactly the same size, in a precise interlocking hexagonal array.

#FAQ3: Why is honeycomb made of hexagons?

Marcus du Sautoy, on BBC’s The Code, explained why bees choose a hexagon rather than any other shape to build honeycomb. ‘The bees’ primary need is to store as much honey as they can, while using as little precious wax as possible,’ says Marcus. He describes honeycomb as an amazing piece of engineering, but asks why bees have evolved to produce this hexagonal pattern? ‘Actually they don’t have too many choices,’ explains Marcus.

The light shining through this honeycomb reveals the precise geometric sides of each hexagonal cell. / image © Olena Kornyeyeva / 123RF

To produce a regular-shaped interlocking network, bees can only choose three shapes: triangles, squares or hexagons. A hexagon requires the least amount of wax to build, which makes it the most economically efficient shape. ‘It is a solution that was only mathematically proven a few years ago. The hexagonal array is the most efficient storage solution the bees could have chosen,’ says Marcus. ‘Yet with a little help from evolution they worked it out for themselves millions of years ago.’

You can watch Marcus explore the mathematics of honeycomb in Behind the beehive on the BBC’s The Code.

#FAQ4: How do you keep baby bees out of the honey?

So how do beekeepers extract honeycomb that has only honey and not larvae or pollen? The answer is simple: by confining the queen to one area of the hive.

The queen is the egg-layer. She spends most of her life laying eggs inside the cells of honeycomb, which become female workers or male drones, or potentially a new queen. A beekeeper uses a ‘queen excluder’ to trap the queen inside the brood chamber of a hive.

A handy harmless queen excluder. The slots are big enough for workers to pass between but the queen is too large to get past.

This is a sheet of slotted plastic or a metal grid with holes large enough for worker bees to crawl through, but too small for the larger queen to pass. Unable to climb above the brood chamber, the queen cannot enter the main honey stores of the hive and lay eggs.

There are different types of hives, but most have a brood chamber (the nest containing the queen and larvae) and supers (boxes that store honey). The most common hive used in the UK is the National hive. Here’s one I built earlier.

This is the hive I built at New Year. You can see it is made of different-sized boxes. The deep bottom box is the brood chamber and the two shallow boxes above are the supers.

The queen excluder is placed over the brood box to keep the queen in the nest and prevent her from laying eggs in the honey stores. You don't want to eat honey with bits of baby bees, yuk!

With a queen excluder fitted between the brood chamber and supers, the queen can only lay eggs that hatch into larvae in the brood chamber. This leaves the supers baby-bee free and full of honey!

#FAQ5: Why do bees make bee-free honey?

So why do worker bees leave the cosy brood nest and the court of the queen to climb past the queen excluder into the supers and make us lovely bee-free honey? I want to believe it is out of the goodness of their tiny bee-sized hearts. Not true. It is all about instinct.

Honeybees have an instinctive drive to climb upwards and to fill whatever space they find with comb. If you place a super with empty frames on top of the brood, worker bees will instinctively climb up and start to build comb. The comb in the super is usually pollen-free too. Workers store this source of protein where it is most needed in the brood chamber.

Honeycomb showing capped and uncapped honey. Uncapped cells glisten with ripening nectar. Capped cells contain honey covered by white wax. Beekeepers harvest honey when all cells are capped. / image © Laurent Dambies / 123RF

So there you have it. That’s how beekeepers extract only honey-filled honeycomb and no mystery bits.

#FAQ6: How do you get the bees to leave the honey?

One final question remains. How do you get the worker bees out of supers so that you can nick their honey? In the height of summer, one hive is home to around 50–60,000 honeybees with many of these individuals busily working inside supers or guarding them. Beekeepers use a process called ‘clearing bees’ to make the bees leave the supers before the honey is taken off the hive.

I’ll cover clearing bees in my next post, which is all about the hunny! My hive partner, Emily, and I extracted the honey from our hive last weekend. You can read about our exploits in her Adventuresinbeeland’s blogHunny time and Bringing home the hunny.

This post is dedicated to Helen and Damien, who both enjoy ‘bee honey’.

All images on this post, with the exception of the hive, were taken from 123RF. Until I get a macro lens, you won’t see honeycomb as sharp with my pink camera!

Find out: How to extract honey

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