Foraging Honey Bees

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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.

Honey bees foraging on yellow flowers.

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.

Living only about 6 weeks during Summer, the first half of their life is spent on duties inside the colony. They build honeycomb, sure as nurse bees to feed young, take care of the queen, etc.

Bee anatomy is designed to carry out these needed tasks. Unique body parts such as strong wings, sensory antenna and legs and bee’s bendable knees to help get the job done.

Once the bee is about 3-4 weeks old, she is ready to become a forager. The last half of the bee’s 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.

  • scouts
  • 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 the bees 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.

Bee collects pollen from white flower.

Gathering Nectar & Pollen

Routinely, bees collect 5 things for the hive including resins to make raw 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). 

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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. 

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.

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.

Forager bees returning to hive entrance with pollen and nectar.

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)
  • 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.

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. But, temperatures play a role in when bee become active in Spring.

Pests and disease also affect colony activities. A colony with a 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.

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.

Infographic foraging bees help pollinate the world.

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.

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.

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