Each warm season thousands of honey bees 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.
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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 pollen into an ingestible form.
Bee bread is used by nurse bees to aid in the rearing of bee brood. The exact composition of this special food changes with different locales as the plant pollens collected are different.
Honey Bees Collect Pollen
Pollen is the only protein source for the honey bee colony. But, not all pollen is created equal. In fact, pollen varies a great deal in quality.
Fortunately, bees gather pollen from many different plants. When all of these pollens are mixed together the bees get a complete protein diet.
When the worker bee visits a pollen rich flower, some of the pollen grains are attracted to the hair covering the bee’s body.
This powdery pollen is gathered and mixed with a little nectar or saliva to form pellets.
Pollen 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 also called a “pollen basket”.
The average pollen load of a foraging bees may be up to 35% of her body weight- averaging about 15mg of pollen.
The number of pollen grains needed to make a load varies greatly. There is much diversity in the size of pollen grains produced by different flowers.
Why Honey Bees Can Not Eat Fresh Pollen
As our forager bee flies through the air with colorful baskets of 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.
Pollen grains have a very tough outer coating. Bees cannot eat the pollen grains because they lack the proteolytic enzymes needed for digestion.
How Pollen Becomes Bee Bread
Arriving back at the hive, the bee with full pollen 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 pollen pellets are unloaded into a honeycomb cell. The hard-working forager returns to the field for another load.
In a while, a house bee comes along to inspect the cell containing pollen. She uses her head to pack the pollen tightly in 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, fermentation 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.
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 pollen 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 too.
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.
Final Thoughts on Bee Bread
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.