Bee Bread

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One of the most nutritious substances in a beehive is – bee bread. This mixture of fresh pollen, honey and bee secretions is a critical part of the nutritional profile of the colony. Here, I take you on a journey into the fascinating story of bee bread-its composition, how it is made and how it influences the hive.

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

Learn why bees transform raw pollen into this digestible form needed for a proper honey bee diet. And, why humans have an interest in it as well.

Composition of Bee Bread

Bee bread is a harmonious blend of several natural substances. Because the primary materials come from diverse sources – the actual nutritional profile will vary.

  • raw pollen
  • honey
  • bee saliva – enzymes

Raw Pollen

The primary building block of bee bread is plant pollen. A powdery substance, collected from flowers by hard working bees, pollen is carried back to the hive in “pollen baskets”.

Honey

We know that bees make honey. It is only natural they would incorporate a little of this miraculous product into the process of making bee bread. Honey contributes sweetness and helps prevent spoilage.

Bee Saliva – Enzyme Action

While saliva from a honey bee may sound simple and perhaps boring – it is anything but! The enzymes present in bee saliva begin the fermentation process necessary to convert pollen into bee bread.

Breaking down the complex structures inside pollen grains makes bee bread more nutritious and easier to digest than raw pollen.

Nutritional Value

Bee bread serves as a nutritional powerhouse for honey bees. Rich in protein, it provides many essential nutrients needed by the colony.

A boost of energy packed carbohydrates is included by the addition of honey. It also contains many macro and microelements such as: iron, selenium, zinc, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium and others.

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Honey bee on yellow flower with yellow pollen pellets on corbicula.

How Bees Make Bee Bread

Honey bees collect pollen from flowering plants all during the warm season. Not all plant pollen is equally nutritious.

Fortunately, bees use pollen from many different sources to meet their nutritional needs. But, they can not use pollen in its raw form. It must be transformed into a stable and digestible substance by a special process.

  • foraging & pollen collection
  • fermentation
  • storage

Pollen Collection

Pollen is collected by foraging workers from thousands of blooming flowers. As the bee lands on a flower, some of the pollen grains are attracted by static electricity to the hair covering her body.

She uses her mouthparts and legs to gather more pollen from the flower – mixing it with a bit of nectar and/or saliva to form small pellets.

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

The average pollen load of a forager may be up to 35% of her body weight- averaging about 15mg. The number of grains needed to make a load varies greatly by source.

Fermentation

Fermentation begins when enzyme rich bee saliva is mixed with pollen. This process breaks down the complex structure of pollen by probiotic bacteria and yeasts.

This process changes raw pollen that is not very digestible into a protein powerhouse that stores well and can be used as a food source. Fermentation continues as the pollen mixture is stored.

(Enzyme rich saliva is a powerful tool for our honey bees. Salvia ends up in honey too and thus the myth that honey is bee vomit! Not true.)

Fermented bee pollen of different colors in honeycomb cells.

Storage

Arriving back at the hive, the worker with full pollen baskets seeks out a wax cell (usually near the brood nest) to unload.

Later, a house bee comes along and uses her head to tightly pack the contents of the cell- removing trapped air pockets.

A little more nectar and saliva containing enzymes is added to the pollen in the cell continuing the fermentation process.

Other foragers return and add more pollen to the cell until it is full-or they run out of pollen to gather. As a final step, a light covering of honey is spread over the surface of the stored bee bread.

This is why stored pollen often has a shiny surface. An individual cell may contain many different colors of pollen from a variety of plants.

Significance of Bee Bread in the Hive

A good supply of bee bread in the hive goes beyond the mere nutrition that it provides to individuals. It is also a stable food source that will last for months.

Brood Rearing

The growth and well-being of the colony is dependent on a healthy strong new generation. Workers serving as (nurse bees) consume bee bread in order to produce food for developing young (bee brood).   

The special brood food includes royal jelly but there are other secretions produced as well. Older bee larvae may even be fed small bits of bee bread directly.

Without this rich protein source, the colony would not be able to rear healthy strong young to take over hive duties as some honey bees die of old age.

Workers in hive with honey and bee bread.

Why Honey Bees Can Not Eat Fresh Pollen

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

Sadly, they could not digest this raw pollen even if they wanted to. The grains have a very tough outer coating – this makes getting to the nutritious part too difficult. 

Also, older adult bees cannot eat the raw grains. Unlike young nurses, they lack the proteolytic enzymes needed for digestion.

Glass jar of bee pollen and spoon image.

Human Consumption

While the primary consumers of bee bread are … well.. bees, humans are also interested in the benefits offered by this nutrient dense food.

Bee bread is rich in antioxidants and may have medicinal properties to support human well being. It is often included in many modern dishes such as smoothies and energy bars.

Research continues to investigate the true extent of the benefits (if any) of this product from the hive. Some studies say yes. 

Pellets of bee bread made by honey bees image.

Bee bread has been called “Ambrosia” (food of the Gods). It is reported to have high nutritional value with a mixture of proteins, essential amino acids, omega fatty acids and simple sugars.

Are the bees on to something? Perhaps. This is another reason that people enjoy eating honeycomb. It often contains fermented pollen.

FAQs

What does bee bread taste like?

Bee bread has a slightly sweet flavor with a bit of a nutty aftertaste. However, it will vary according to the pollen source used to make it.

Is bee bread the same as honeycomb?

No, bee bread is made with fermented pollen. Honeycomb is made from wax produced by worker bees.

How do humans use bee bread?

People consume bee bread in several different forms. It can be added as a topping to salads or mixed in smoothies.

How is bee bread different than pollen?

Enzymes in bee saliva causes fresh pollen to undergo lactic acid fermentation. Bee bread is fermented pollen.

What is bee bread?

Bee bread is made from plant pollen-but it is so much more. In fact, bee bread is about 75% pollen mixed with nectar, and bee secretions or saliva.

A Final Word

Bee bread is obviously a remarkable creations that allows the colony to have a stable protein source. They are able to survive during the cold months and begin the next generation of young in late Winter. However, the possible nutritional benefits of human consumption have a lot of people considering the possibilities.