Foraging Bees

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The most important members of the honey bee colony are the foraging bees. They are responsible for collecting food and needed resources for the hive. Without the daily efforts of the forager bee, the colony would not survive. This activity also provides important benefits for the ecosystem. Join me as we examine the hard work of these individuals and the factors that can interfere with their work.

Honey bees foraging on yellow flowers.

An important part of good beekeeping is understanding the different roles of each bee in the beehive. They all depend on the work of the others to reach the ultimate goal – colony survival.

Life of the Honey Bee Forager

As a beekeeper, I am very interested in knowing everything possible about the foragers in a honey bee colony? These female worker bees number into the tens of thousands during the Summer season.

Perfectly designed, the anatomy of these honey bees help them carry out needed tasks. Strong wings, an amazing sensory bee antennae and the bee’s bendable knees allow them to move and function in their world.

Life Span

Living only about 6 weeks during Summer, the first half of their life is spent on duties inside the colony. They construct a nest using sheets of honeycomb made from beeswax. They also serve as nurse bees to feed young and care for the queen.

Once the bee is about 3-4 weeks old, she is ready to become a foraging bee. The last half of her life is spent working outside in the field to gather resources. The task continues for however long the bee may live.

The Foraging Process

How do bees decide when and where to forage? The needs of the colony will determine which resource is most needed.

A small percentage of bees will serve as scout bees. They will search to find rich food sources and then share that information with the field force.

Bee collects pollen from white flower.

Communication

Upon finding a rich food source, the scout bees return to the hive to communicate its location and recruit helpers. This is done by the bees dancing on the honeycomb surface.

A common method of communication is the “waggle dance”. I think we can remember that because of the funny name. The bee dances among the others in a pattern (she does waggle) and shares sips of nectar with other bees. 

Honey Bee Foraging Behavior

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 to gather and somewhere to put it.

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

Developing young give off brood bee pheromones. These chemical messengers signal that more pollen is needed.

However, genetics also play a role in behavior. Some breeds exhibit small differences in behaviors and foraging – even within the same race.

Navigating to the Food Source

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 if possible. 

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

Forager bees returning to hive entrance with pollen and nectar.

Gathering Nectar & Pollen

Routinely, bees collect several resources for the hive (including resins to make raw propolis). But, the two most prominent needs are nectar and pollen.

Bees collect nectar to make honey (an energy or carb source) that is stored inside the hive until needed. But each individual bee only produces a small amount of honey – this is a group effort.

Pollen gathered by bees provides proteins, lipids, vitamins, and minerals crucial for brood development. Sticky grains of plant pollen adhere to the body of bees and is packed onto their pollen baskets.

Once brought to the hive, fresh pollen in converted into bee bread. A substance that stores well in the comb for later use without spoiling.

Factors that Affect Foraging

The process of food gathering varies a bit throughout the season. The needs of the colony change day by day or week by week.

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

  • floral resources
  • weather
  • colony strength (pest & disease)

Available Resources

Bees can not forage well if there is nothing out there to gather. Therefore, their activity is altered if a nectar dearth is happening. 

Very dry conditions can result in flowers that bees like having no nectar. Remember, blooms do not always mean food is available.

Loss of habitat is a factor that affects many types of insects – including bees. With fewer wild resources, they must work harder to find an abundance of food.

Weather Conditions

Weather also plays a major roll in colony activity. Bees do not fly in heavy rain or high winds. Cold-blooded insects must maintain a certain body temperature for flight to be possible.

For instance, bumble bees can forage in colder temperatures than honey bees. Temperatures play a role in when bees become active in Spring and their daily activities.

Colony Health

Pests and disease also affect colony activities. A colony with a serious varroa mite infestation has fewer healthy workers. 

This reduces the number of individuals in the field and their efficiency. This is why beekeepers routinely check or test their bees for varroa mites to promote good health.

Infographic foraging bees help pollinate the world.

How Foraging Bees Help the Environment

Bees are important to our ecosystem and our food network. We need more of all kinds. Also, they aid in pollination of the nuts, and plant fruits that wildlife depends on.

You can help honey bees and native pollinators. Consider adding a small bee garden to your living space. Choose plants that compliment the natural sources (those that bloom at a different time.)

Or, add a small bee watering station (like this clay pot & saucer) and then sit back and enjoy your visitors.

FAQs

Are all foraging bees female?

Yes, in a honey bee colony all of the forager bees are females that developed from a fertilized egg. Males have no stinger and would not be able to defend themselves.

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 nurses.

Why do bees forage?

They must leave the hive or nest to collect the food and other resources needed by the colony.

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.

At what temperature do bees stop foraging?

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

Final Thoughts

Foraging bees are vital to the survival and productivity of the honey bee colony. They perform essential tasks that ensure the health and growth of the hive. Their work in the field helps not only their own colony but helps provide a rich ecosystem to many plants and animals.

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