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Foraging Bees – Why Bees Gather

As with any living thing, bees require food or forms of nutritional substances.  Unlike us, they can’t go to the store and buy what they need.  They must leave the hive and gather the needed resources in the field.  Then, it is brought back to the hive for use. The individuals that perform this important task are called: foragers. Foraging bees have a dangerous job as they must journey far from the hive and face outside dangers including exposure to pesticides.

Forager Bees – Who Are They?

Honey bees foraging on yellow flowers.

In the honey bee colony, female worker bees are the hard-working foragers.  They number into the tens of thousands during the Summer time.  Each one has a task to perform every day. 

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The first half of their life is spent on duties inside the colony.  They build honeycomb, feed young, take care of the queen and a host of other tasks.

But, the last half of the worker honey bee life span is spent foraging in the field.  Unique body parts such as wings, antenna and legs and knees help get the job done. Every member of the hive depends on the efforts of these foraging bees.  

Types of Foragers

Foragers are divided into two distinct groupings.  Only a small percentage of bees in the hive will have the job of scouting. 

Called scout bees, their job is to find resources needed by the hive.  This might be nectar, pollen, water or even a new home if the colony is preparing to swarm.

Upon finding a rich food source, the scout bees return to the hive to communicate its location.  This is done by dancing on the honeycomb surface and sharing sips of nectar from the source.  The scouts sometimes help lead recruits to the new food patch.

The second group of foraging bees are more reticent.  While they do not exhibit a lot of scouting behavior – reticent bees are hard workers that toil to collect the food and bring it back to the nest.

These honey bee foragers number in the thousands and do most of the hard work. Sometimes they can be seen near the hive entrances, waiting on information about new food locations.

Once found, foraging trips continue in a constant stream as long as the food source is available.

Bee collects pollen from white flower.

Honey Bee Foraging Behavior

These are several resources needed by a colony. Routinely, bees collect 5 things for the hive including propolis, sap and water.

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But, the two most prominent needs are nectar and pollen. Sometimes these can be gathered from the same plant, it depends on the plant species.

Many blooming plants produce sweet nectar, in order to, lure bees and pollinators. Visiting insects help provide pollination for the plant.

As they move from one flower to the next during nectar collection, pollination occurs by the movement of pollen grains.

Plant nectar is the nutrient source for the colony that is related to energy.  This is their carb source. Bees use nectar to make honey. It is stored inside the hive until needed. 

Pollen is rich protein source for the bees.  Pollen foragers collect sticky grains of pollen from flowers. It is just as important as nectar because without pollen no brood rearing could occur. 

Nurse bees consume pollen (or bee bread) and then produce brood food for growing larvae. No pollen means that no young can grow into new workers.

Because the life span of a honey bee is relatively short- it is important to always have some brood coming along for the next generation.

Communicating With Other Foragers

The level of nectar/honey stored in the hive does not seem to have a strong effect on the foraging behavior of individual bees.  Bees continue to work as long as there is food and somewhere to put it.

Pollen collection however is more closely related to colony needs.   A colony with brood present and low pollen stores will stimulate more pollen foraging.

Developing bees give off brood pheromone. These chemical messengers promote more a need for more pollen.

One brought to the hive, fresh pollen in converted into bee bread. Bee bread is full of proteins, vitamins, amino acids and other nutrients and stores well without ruining.

These are the basics of honey bee foraging behavior but genetics play a role too.  There are several races of bees – even within our European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera). Each kind of bee has small difference in some of their behaviors and foraging is no exception.

Navigating to the Food Source

Foraging honey bees can travel several miles from their hive if necessary.  A two mile radius is often given as an estimate. However, they tend to remain close. 

Why fly far away and use up extra energy if food is available nearby? Flying farther to forage also exposes the bees to pesticides and insect predators.

Sense of smell plays a large role in helping honey bees find quality food sources. Nectar foragers often share sips of food to other workers back at the hive. This is in an effort to encourage them to help at the source location.

Forager bees returning to hive entrance with pollen and nectar.

Outside Influences on Foraging

The process of honey bee foraging varies a bit throughout the season.  The needs of the colony change throughout the months and the available food source change.

Genetic and internal factors influence the foraging activity.  But, external factors also play role in what the bees actually gather.  

  • Floral Resources
  • Weather
  • Pests & Disease

The bees can not forage well if there is nothing out there to gather.  Foraging behavior is altered is a nectar dearth is happening.  Not because the needs of the bees has changed but rather nectar availability if not there.

Weather plays a major roll in colony production.  Bees do not fly in heavy rain or high winds.  They are cold-blooded insects that must maintain a certain body temperature for flight to be possible.

You will find some variability among different types of bees when it come to temperature.  For instance, bumble bees can forage in colder temperatures than honey bees. Temperatures play a role in when bees come out of hibernation in late Winter – for those that do hibernate.

Pests and disease also affect foraging bees.  A colony with a varroa mite infestation has fewer healthy workers.  This reduces the number of individuals in the field and their efficiency. Bees are important to our ecosystem and our food network. We need more of all kinds.

FAQs about Foraging Honey Bees

Will foraging bees sting?

In general foraging bees are not defensive. However, if threatened – they will retaliate.

Can foraging bees become nurse bees?

Yes, foragers are normally the older members of the colony but they can revert back to inside jobs and serve as nurse bees.

Why do bees forage?

Due to their ability to fly, bees forage some distance from the hive. This gives them a large area of food resources to visit.

What time of day do honey bees forage?

Mid-day is the busiest time for working honey bees. But, their activity starts early in the morning and slows by late afternoon.

What temperature do bees stop foraging?

There is some variety among different species but most bee foraging stops at temperatures around 55 degrees F.

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