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Foraging bees are the most important members of any honey bee colony. They are the ones responsible for collecting food and other needed resources. Without the daily efforts of the forager bee, colony survival would not be possible. This activity also provides important benefits for the ecosystem. It is not as easy job. Industrious foragers are affected by many factors that can interfere with their work.
The Role of a Forager Bee
Who are the foragers in a honey bee colony? You might be surprised to learn that it is the female worker bees. They number into the tens of thousands during the Summer season.
Once the bee is about 3-4 weeks old, she is ready to become a forager. The last half of her life span is spent outside in the field. This is not something that they must learn to do – it is instinctive behavior.
Scouting for Food & Resources
Foraging bees are divided into two distinct groupings. It is a dangerous job as they must journey far from the hive and face outside dangers including exposure to predators and pesticides.
- field force
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 second group of foragers are more reticent. While they do not exhibit a lot of scouting behavior – reticent bees are hard workers that toil to collect the needed items.
They 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.
Gathering Nectar & Pollen
Routinely, bees collect 5 things for the hive including propolis, sap and water. 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. Plant nectar is the nutrient source for the colony that is related to energy (carb source).
Bees collect nectar to make honey 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 is a rich protein source. Pollen foragers collect sticky grains of pollen from flowers. It is just as important as nectar because without pollen no brood rearing could occur.
This will be used to produce brood food for growing bee larvae. 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.
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 brood present and low pollen stores will stimulate more pollen foraging.
Developing young give off brood 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
Foraging 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.
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
- colony strength (pest & disease)
- loss of habitat
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.
For instance, bumble bees can forage in colder temperatures than honey bees. But, temperatures play a role in when bee become active in Spring.
Pests and disease also affect colony activities. A colony with a varroa mite infestation has fewer healthy workers. This reduces the number of individuals in the field and their efficiency.
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.
How Foragers Help the Environment
Bees are important to our ecosystem and our food network. We need more of all kinds.
As they move from one flower to the next during food collection, pollination occurs by the movement of pollen grains. These pollinators are responsible for many 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.) Add a small water station and then sit back and enjoy your visitors.
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.
In general foraging bees are not defensive. However, if threatened – they will retaliate.
Yes, foragers are normally the older members of the colony but they can revert back to inside jobs and serve as nurses.
They must leave the hive or nest to collect the food and other resources needed by the colony.
Mid-day is the busiest time for working honey bees. But, their activity starts early in the morning and slows by late afternoon.
There is some variety among different species but most foraging stops at temperatures around 55 degrees F.