On a warm, clear day you will find thousands of honey bees rushing too and fro from the hive entrance. On a mission to gather all the resources needed by the hive, there is no time to waste. The colony must prepare for Winter before cold weather arrives. But, plant nectar is not the only thing bees collect for the colony.
What do Bees Collect and Bring Back to the Hive?
The female workers have the task of flying far afield to gather everything needed. They only live about 6 weeks during the warm season.
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They literally work themselves to death. Weather permitting, they forage from dawn to dusk until their body parts wear out and flight is no longer possible.
The importance of this task, and the magnitude as well, is why an average colony can have up to 40,000 – 60,000 workers in Summer.
In addition to meeting the daily living requirements of colony members, food must be stored if the colony is to survive Winter.
Things Worker Bees Collect
Let’s take a look at the different things bees collect and bring back to the hive. Each one fills a need for the bee family. The amount needed of each one depends on the status of each individual colony.
- Plant nectar
Foraging Workers Collect Plant Nectar
Nectar collection takes up the bulk of the colony’s foraging budget. Bees visit around 2 millions flowers to gather enough nectar to make one pound of honey.
If an average colony needs 60# of honey stored for winter – that represents a lot of flower visits. It takes a good population of works to get this job done.
Honey bees do not collect honey. Well, not unless they are stealing or robbing it from a weaker colony. Instead, the they convert watery nectar into honey . Honey stores well for months in the comb without spoiling.
Upon finding a nectar rich flower, the worker extends her proboscis and sucks up the liquid into her honey stomach. This special organ is located before her real digestive track. The nectar is carried back to the hive to be made into honey.
The colony will continue to collect nectar as long as it is available in the field and they has a place to store it. This continues in the Fall until the daytime temperatures become too cold.
Pollen Collection is Necessary for Rearing Young
Pollen represents another major collection task. Each colony must have pollen in order to rear bee brood. This is the sole protein source for a colony. Young bees can not be raised on honey alone.
Pollen is collected from blooming plants. Dry pollen is mixed with salvia and pushed onto the pollen basket on the bee’s rear legs. These colorful pollen balls are brought back to the hive and stored in honeycomb cells.
Because raw pollen is not digestible, the colony converts pollen into bee bread. The fermentation process allows the pollen to be stored for a long time without spoiling. It also makes it much easier for the bees to digest.
It is common for bees to collect a lot of pollen in the Fall. This allows the colony to have protein stores in place inside the hive. Frames of pollen are beautiful and often show a rainbow of colors.
Brood rearing starts in late December/January. This is a time when little pollen would be available in the field – even if the bees could fly in the cold weather.
Honey Bees Gather Water Too
With the emphasis on honey and pollen, we sometimes forget that the colonys need another liquid. Bees need water. Water is used in the colony for several purposes including: thinning food, cooling the hive etc.
However, they do not store water in the comb. Each day some foragers are designated as water carriers. They collect water from a water source in the same way that they carry plant nectar.
Upon returning to the hive, this water is not handed off to a house bee. Rather the forager serves as a water tank and travels around inside the hive giving water where it is needed.
The number of foragers involved in water collection depends on the needs of the colony. If more water is needed, some workers will switch from nectar/pollen foraging to water collection.
Propolis Collection for the Colony
Another item bees must collect for the hive is propolis. Propolis is a sticky substance collected from tree buds and conifer plants. This plant resin is mixed with bee saliva and stuck onto the pollen baskets of the worker’s rear legs.
Propolis has many beneficial properties including being antibacterial. The colony uses it to sanitize hive surfaces and to patch holes or cracks to keep out drafts.
In spite of the beneficial qualities of propolis, beekeepers are not always happy to see a lot of it in the hive. It can make routine hive inspections difficult due to sticking down frames and hive components.
Honeydew Collection by Honey Bees
The four previous things are the major items that honey bees collect. Every hive needs nectar, pollen, water and propolis. However, there is one more collection item. In certain conditions, honey bees collect honeydew.
This is a sticky substance that is secreted by sap sucking insects like aphids. Especially when other nectar sources are sparse, bees may collect honeydew just like they do plant nectar. They even make honeydew honey with it. Ants also collect honeydew.
While it does provide a food source for the colony, honeydew is not the best food for Winter storage. It is often high in ash content and can cause dysentery.
Final Thoughts on Honey Bee Foraging
Given the task of collecting everything needed by the colony, the worker bee steps up to the job. It is not only things that bees eat she must gather but other needed material. She dedicates herself to working for the good of the bee family. The colony could not survive from one season to another without the combined efforts of all the worker bees.