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Bee Bread- {How Bees Store Pollen}

Each warm season thousands of honey bees leave the hive and work to secure food for their colony.  We know that honey bees collect nectar but they need pollen too.  In fact, bees make bee bread using raw pollen. Fresh pollen would spoil when stored in beeswax cells for months at a time and it is difficult to digest. However, bee bread is nutritious, stable and easily digestible for honey bees.

What is Bee Bread?

Bee bread is about 75% pollen mixed with nectar, honey and bee saliva.  The added saliva and enzymes result in probiotic bacteria and yeasts that break down the protein into an ingestible form.

Bee bread stored in comb by adult honey bees for use later image.

It is primarily used by nurse bees to aid in the rearing of bee brood.  They would be unable to produce food for young without this protein rich substance. The exact composition of this special food changes with different locales as the plant pollens collected are different.

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Honey Bees Collect Pollen

Pollen is collected by foraging worker bees from flowers. It is the only protein source for the honey bee colony.  In addition to protein, pollen also contains minerals and vitamins. But, not all plant pollen is created equal.  In fact, the chemical composition varies a great deal in quality from one plant to another. 

Fortunately, bees gather pollen from many different plants.  When all of these sources are mixed together the bees get a complete protein diet.

When the worker bee visits a pollen rich flower, some of the grains are attracted to the hair covering the bee’s body. This powdery substance is gathered and mixed with a little nectar or saliva to form pellets.

The pellets are then pushed onto the stiff hairs of the corbicula.  The corbicula is found on the hind legs of worker bees.  This structure is a part of the bee body called a “pollen basket”.

The average pollen load of a foraging bees may be up to 35% of her body weight- averaging about 15mg. 

The number of grains needed to make a load varies greatly.  There is much diversity in the size of pollen grains produced by different flowers.

Worker honey bees with full pollen baskets on her legs image.

 Why Honey Bees Can Not Eat Fresh Pollen

As our forager bee flies through the air with colorful baskets of flower pollen, she must become tired and hungry.  You might think she would stop for a snack. 

However, foraging workers do not eat pollen.  Sadly, the bees could not eat this raw pollen even if they wanted to.

The grains have a very tough outer coating.  Also, older bees cannot eat the raw grains because they lack the proteolytic enzymes needed for digestion.

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How Pollen Becomes Bee Bread

Arriving back at the hive, the bee with full baskets seeks out a wax cell.  Usually, a cell near the brood nest is chosen-though other sections of the hive can be used for storage. 

The pellets are unloaded into a honeycomb cell. The hard-working forager returns to the field for another load.

In a while, house bees comes along to inspect the cell.  These female bees use their head to tightly pack the contents of the cell. This removes any trapped air pockets.

A little nectar and saliva containing enzymes is added to the cell contents.  Other foragers return and add more pollen to the cell until it is full. An individual cell may contain many different colors of pollen from a variety of plants.

As the added enzymes react with the pollen, the fermentation process occurs.  This breaks down the pollen grains for easier digestion.

This changes raw pollen that is not very digestible into a protein powerhouse that stores well and can be used as a food source.

As a final step, house bees apply a light covering of honey over the surface of the bee bread. This is why stored pollen often has a shiny surface.

Pellets of bee bread made by honey bees image.

How is Bee Bread Used in the Colony?

The growth and well-being of the colony is dependent on a healthy strong new generation. Middle aged house bees that have not begun to forage are responsible for feeding brood.   

These nurse bees consume bee bread stored in honeycomb cells. This protein rich substance is mixed with glandular secretions to make brood food.  Older larvae may be fed small bits of pollen in the form of bee bread too.

Glass jar of bee pollen and spoon image.

Is Bee Bread Good for You?

We know bee bread is essential for the health and well-being of a honey bee colony.  But, what about humans?  Can we eat bee bread?

Some studies say yes.  Bee bread is reported to have high nutritional value with a misxture of proteins, essential amino acids, omega fatty acids and simple sugars.

Bee bread has been called “Ambrosia” (food of the Gods).  Some people consume pollen and bee bread as part of their diet.

Honey bees have a method of converting raw pollen into bee bread – a stable long term storage protein source.

This is just another way that bees have evolved to be able to survive Winter.  Stored digestible pollen make it possible to begin brood rearing in late Winter when no natural sources are available.

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