On a warm day, thousands of workers leave the hive in search of food. We know that honey bees collect nectar but they need pollen too. But, fresh pollen would spoil when stored in the hive for months and it is difficult to digest. This problem is easily solved – bees make bee bread using raw pollen. Once the process is complete, bee bread is nutritious, stable and easily digestible for the colony members.
What is Bee Bread?
Bee bread is made from pollen but it is so much more. In fact, bee bread is about 75% pollen mixed with nectar, honey and saliva.
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The saliva from honey bees is full of enzymes. The added saliva and enzymes result in probiotic bacteria and yeasts that break down the pollen protein into an digestible form.
Each plant has a slightly different pollen – so naturally the chemical make up of bee bread varies. It contains many macro and microelements such as: iron, selenium, zinc, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium and others.
Otherwise, these young adults would be unable to produce food for young without this protein rich substance. Well fed nurses are vital for good brood rearing.
Bee Pollen Collection
The process of making bee bread begins with pollen collection. Pollen is collected by foraging worker from many flowers.
In addition to protein, pollen also contains minerals and vitamins. But, not all plant pollen is equally nutritious. The chemical composition varies a great deal in quality from one plant to another.
Fortunately, bees gather pollen from many different types of plants. Plants that rely on insect pollination often produce a heavier, sticky pollen. Other plants have lightweight small pollen grains.
When all of these sources are mixed together back in the hive, the colony has a more complete protein diet.
A worker foraging for pollen lands on a flower. Some of the grains are attracted by static electricity to the hair covering the insect’s body.
She also will use her mouthparts and legs to gather pollen from the flower. It is mixed with a little 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. 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 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.
However, foraging workers do not eat pollen. 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.
How Pollen Becomes Bee Bread
Arriving back at the hive, the worker 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 pellets are unloaded into a honeycomb cell. The hard-working forager returns to the field for another load.
In a while, house bees (adults – not yet working as foragers) come along to inspect the cell. They use their head to tightly pack the contents of the cell. This removes any trapped air pockets.
A little more nectar and saliva containing enzymes is added to the pollen in the cell. 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 process 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, a light covering of honey is spread over the surface of fermented pollen. This is why stored pollen often has a shiny surface.
How Bee Bread Used
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 rearing brood.
Nurses 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.
Is Bee Bread Good for You?
We know bee bread is essential for the health and well-being of the colony. But, what about human health? Can we eat bee bread?
Some studies say yes. It is reported to have high nutritional value with a mixture of proteins, essential amino acids, omega fatty acids and simple sugars.
Bee bread has been called “Ambrosia” (food of the Gods). Therefore, some people consume pollen and bee bread as part of their diet. They believe it is a natural product that promotes good health.
Are the bees on to something? Perhaps. This is another reason that people enjoy eating honeycomb. It often contains fermented pollen.
Because, honey bees can convert raw pollen into bee bread (a stable long term storage protein source) – they are able to survive Winter. This stored protein will be used to start the next generation of young in late Winter.
In the same way, that nectar become honey – (thanks to bee saliva), the colony has a way to gather fresh food sources and make them last a long time. Propolis, royal jelly, beeswax and other bee products produced or altered all contribute to a healthy hive.
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.