Nectar vs Pollen

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In the world of flowers and bees, two key players stand out: nectar vs pollen. We all know that many plants produce one or both of these substances. And, that bees want them. However, each plays a different role in the life of the plant and the bees. Join me as we examine some of the key similarities and differences between plant nectar and pollen – including what that means for gardeners, beekeepers and all friends of bees.

Honey bee sips nectar from flower and attracts pollen particles to body.

Honey bees collect several resources needed by the colony. This is true of other pollinators too. But, of course, the flowers are not trying to feed the bees – they have a personal stake in this game of life.

Common Ground: Nectar and Pollen

Though these substances are certainly different, they share a common goal. Together, nectar and pollen form the backbone of reproduction for many plants. Plants that rely on insect pollination cannot produce fruit or seed without help.

Differences in Composition

While partners in the pollination process, nectar and pollen are quite different in composition. It is also important to note that the nectar or pollen from one plant may differ from that of another.

This is an important fact when we consider honey bee health and it’s relationship to a diverse diet. It is good for bees to eat food from a variety of plant sources.

Nectar is primarily composed of sugars and water. This sweet liquid is a powerful energy source for bees and other pollinators. Bee are attracted to nectar in the same way that I am attracted to Dr. Pepper. But, nectar is good for the bees.

Pollen on the other hand is a complex blend of proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Granules of pollen are collected by bees as a source of protein for rearing young.

Pollinators visiting nectar rich flowers, honey bee and hummingbird.

Flower Adaptions for Attracting Pollinators

Even a brief study of bee pollination, reveals that nectar is produced by flowers to lure in pollinators. As bees collect the sweet nectar, they accidentally collect tiny grains of pollen.

Pollen is a reproductive agent produced by the “anthers” of the flower. When the bee visits the next flower, some pollen grains fall off and others become attached to the fuzzy bee body. In this way, cross-pollination occurs allowing the plant to produce seed.

This process does not happen by accident. It is the result of millions of years of adaptions to design and behavior that allows bees to help flowers reproduce. But, what is in it for the bees?

Pollen on anthers of a flower and pollen grains covering fuzzy honey bee.

Role of Nectar and Pollen in Honey Bee Colony

Well-intended they may be but the bees are not performing this service for free. They too benefit from this relationship.

Nectar

Nectar is used by bees to make honey. This is the primary energy source for adult honey bees. Honey is also stored in the hive to use during the cold months of the year. Honey bees do not hibernate. They rely on stored food to survive inside the hive until Spring.

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Nectar is collected using the proboscis (straw-like mouth parts) to suck up the liquid into a special organ – the honey stomach.

It is then carried back to the hive and transferred to another bee to begin the honey conversion process. The honey stomach is not a true part of the digestive system of the bee – honey is not bee vomit.

Pollen

Pollen is essential for raising young (bee brood) – the next generation of bees for the colony. Providing the necessary proteins and nutrients, pollen is stored in the hive as bee bread – and used as needed.

You have probably seen bees collecting pollen. Bees have special spikes (hairs) on their hind legs called pollen baskets (or corbiculae). Pollen grains wet with bee saliva and stuck on these pollen baskets as colorful little balls for the trip back to the hive.

Bees making honey and packing pollen in cells, nectar becomes honey, pollen helps rear young.

Significance for Beekeepers & Gardeners

Both beekeepers and gardeners can help pollinators by providing diverse floral resources. Bees need both pollen and nectar.

Some plants produce primarily nectar – others are heavier pollen producers. That is why it is a good idea to create a bee garden with a mixture of plant types. This helps ensure not only good honey production for the beekeeper but also healthy honey bee colonies.

Flowers that Product Both Nectar and Pollen

Here is a short list of only a few of the many plants that produce both nectar and pollen for bees.

  • Lavender (Lavandula spp.
  • Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)-only certain varieties
  • Borage (Borago officinalis)
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
  • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

FAQs

Are there differences in the nutritional quality of nectar and pollen from different plant species?

Yes, there can be significant variations in the nutritional composition of nectar and pollen depending on the plant species.

Do all flowers produce both nectar and pollen?

No, some flowers produce both nectar and pollen but others do not. If they do not need insect pollination there is no need to waste energy on making nectar.

How do bees and other pollinators locate and assess the quality of nectar and pollen sources?

Pollinators use a variety of sensory cues to locate and evaluate nectar and pollen sources, including visual cues such as flower color, shape, and patterns, as well as olfactory cues such as floral scents.

Final Thoughts

In our ecosystem, the story of nectar vs pollen reveals and interdependence between plants and bees. They help each other achieve their life goals – even if they do not do so consciously. We can help by increasing suitable bee habitat and safe foraging conditions for all pollinators.

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