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.
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
- bee saliva – enzymes
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”.
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.
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.
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
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 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 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
No, bee bread is made with fermented pollen. Honeycomb is made from wax produced by worker bees.
People consume bee bread in several different forms. It can be added as a topping to salads or mixed in smoothies.
Enzymes in bee saliva causes fresh pollen to undergo lactic acid fermentation. Bee bread is fermented pollen.
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.