- Honeybees feast on nectar and pollen in the warmer months and rely on stores of honey to make it through the winter.
- Honeybees typically consume honey in colder months, when they are about to swarm, and in emergencies.
- Taking honey from hives will generally not harm the bees as long as they are left with enough honey to get them through the winter.
We all love honey. It’s sweet, sticky, and delicious, and can be good for you, too.
But what about honey bees — do they eat the honey they make? How does that work? And is it harmful to take honey from the bees if they need it for food?
Let’s dive into everything you need to know about bees eating honey.
Do Bees Eat Honey?
The short answer is yes: bees eat honey. Well, at least honeybees do.
Think of a hive’s honey stores as a pantry for bees. The bees produce honey throughout the warmer months and then store it in a honeycomb for winter, like humans canning their fruit and veggies harvest for cold weather use.
This makes a lot of sense when you think about it. During the warmer months, bees feast on fresh nectar and pollen from flowers. But once the colder, darker months hit, there typically aren’t any flowers around. Without the hive full of nutritious honey, the bees would starve.
Instead, they plan for tomorrow by storing as much food as possible. These honey stores help the bees survive winter, plus any emergencies that pop up.
How Do Bees Make Honey?
Honey bees collect nectar from flowers and then process it using a special enzyme in their digestive systems. This enzyme helps turn the nectar into honey.
Once the nectar is processed, it’s placed in a honeycomb. Then, worker bees flap their wings to create a warm breeze that cures and dries the honey. Over time, this drying process reduces the nectar’s water content, resulting in thick, delicious honey.
Once the honey is complete, the bees use beeswax to cap off the honeycomb and store the honey until needed.
When Do Bees Eat Honey?
Honey bees don’t eat honey all the time. Typically, they’ll stick with feeding on nectar and pollen during the warmer months when food is abundant. To bees, honey is more of a long-term storage item or a source of emergency food, only to be used in certain circumstances.
So let’s talk about when bees do eat honey.
The coldest months of the year can be hard on the honey bees. Food is scarce in the landscape, with most sources of nectar going dormant or dying in the cold.
Plus, there’s the cold weather itself for the bees to contend with.
Did you know honey bees form what’s called a winter cluster? When the temperature drops to around 57 degrees Fahrenheit, all the remaining worker bees gather around the queen bee and vibrate their bodies. This creates a bubble of warmth that keeps the queen and the rest of the colony alive.
The center of a winter cluster where the queen stays is typically kept between 90 to 97 degrees Fahrenheit. In a winter cluster, the whole hive works together for one purpose: staying warm and staying alive.
The worker bees put in a lot of hard work for the hive’s survival in the coldest temperatures, so they need to stay fueled up. This means they begin to consume the honey stored in their honeycombs.
Thankfully, honey is packed with carbohydrates for energy, plus all the nutrients the bees need to make it through winter.
When They’re About To Swarm
The typical honeybee hive houses tens of thousands of bees, and can even surpass 100,000 bees at the peak of the warm season. When the hive gets on the larger side, it can become overcrowded, prompting the bees to prepare to swarm.
A swarm happens when the queen bee leaves the hive with 40 to 60 percent of the adult bees in the colony by her side, looking to start a new hive. The bees clump together in a ball, often around a tree branch. If you’ve ever seen a swarm of bees, it’s not a sight you’ll soon forget.
That said, swarming doesn’t usually happen all of a sudden — it’s generally planned in advance. Sometimes the bees will eat from the original hive’s honey stores to fuel their move.
Finally, honeybees might use their honey stores during an emergency situation; for example, if their regular food sources become unavailable because of drought or other extreme weather.
In this case, the bees might be willing to dip into their honey storage to survive. But this won’t carry them through the long term, especially if the hive has strong numbers and many bees to support.
Which Bees Eat Honey?
First, it’s important to remember that not all bees eat honey, only the ones that produce honey. There are over 20,000 kinds of bees in the world, and most don’t make or eat honey. It’s mostly honeybees that make honey, plus a few other varieties of bees, like tropical stingless bees from Australia.
For our purposes, let’s just stick with honeybees and talk about which honeybees do and don’t eat honey:
Worker bees: Female worker bees make up the vast majority of the hive’s numbers and are also the biggest honey consumers. Worker bees do everything from foraging nectar to guarding and maintaining the hive to caring for the queen and the colony’s young. They’re also the ones responsible for keeping the queen warm in the winter cluster during the winter months.
- Drone bees: These are male bees whose only purpose is to mate with the queen. They don’t contribute to the colony's work; instead, they stick around the hive eating honey. This is one reason drone bees are only kept around seasonally to repopulate the hive.
The Queen Skips Honey for Royal Jelly
The queen bee is exclusively fed royal jelly. Royal jelly is a milky glandular secretion made by worker bees, and it’s highly nutritious. It’s also fed to baby bee larvae during their first few days of life. Once a larva is chosen to become queen, she will also be fed royal jelly throughout her life.
Is It Harmful To Take Honey From Bees?
Not necessarily. The western honey bee produces far more than it needs to get through the colder months, that is why it is used for honey production. Some companies still take all of the honey each harvest whereas we keep enough honey on the hives to get them through the winter.
At Manukora, we always leave plenty of honey for the bees to eat during winter. This is just one way we practice ethical beekeeping, and it’s a set of practices we’re extremely proud to keep.
Plus, we find that nature’s way of doing things is best, resulting in the most decadent, delicious honey imaginable.
Honeybees eat the honey they make but typically save their honey stores for winter survival, swarming, or emergency purposes. The raw honey in the hive gives the bees all the nutrition they need to survive harsh situations, ensuring their survival to make more honey next year.
Head here to check out the Manukora blog for more articles about bees and all things honey!
Stingless bee honey, a novel source of trehalulose: a biologically active disaccharide with health benefits | Scientific Reports
How many species of native bees are in the United States? | U.S. Geological Survey
Beekeeping By the Numbers | American Bee Journal
Winter Clusters Seen with Colors of Heat | American Bee Journal