Transforming Nectar into Honey

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
In the hive, the bees concentrate the nectar to the point that it will resist bacteria and molds and so keep until it is needed. “House bees” pump the nectar in and out of themselves for 15 or 20 minutes, repeatedly forming a thin droplet under their proboscises from which water can evaporate, until the water content of the nectar has dropped to 50 or 40%. The bees then deposit the concentrated nectar in a thin film on the honeycomb, which is a waxy network of hexagonal cylinders about 0.20 inch/5 mm across, built up from the secretions of the wax glands of young workers. Here, with workers keeping the hive air in continuous motion by fanning their wings, the nectar loses more moisture, until it’s less than 20% water. This process, known as “ripening,” takes about three weeks. The bees then fill the honeycomb cells to capacity with fully ripe honey and cap them with a layer of wax.