Essential Resources Bees Collect

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All during the warm season, busy honey bees collect resources needed by the hive. The colony must prepare for Winter by storing food before cold weather arrives-and use some resources for the present. On warm clear days, thousands of honey bees leave and reenter the hive on their most important mission.

Three shot of bees collecting materials for hive.

The work force of the honey bee colony are its female members. These worker bees are the only colony members that leave the hive to work. As non-reproductive females, they dedicate their lives to the survival of the hive.

What Materials do Honey Bees Collect?

Most of the bees you find in a hive are female workers. Along with an egg laying queen and a few hundred drone bees (males), this unique bee family is able to carry on all the necessary functions of hive life.

For the colony to be healthy and strong, it needs resources. This monumental task falls to the foraging bees who leave the safety of the hive to search out needed materials.

Worker bee collecting nectar from flower.

Let’s take a look at the different things bees collect and bring back to the hive.  Each one fills a need for the family. But, the amount needed of each one depends on the status of each individual colony.

  • Plant nectar
  • Pollen
  • Water
  • Propolis
  • Honeydew

Nectar

Nectar collection takes up the bulk of the colony’s foraging budget. Plant nectar is not honey but is a sweet liquid plants use to lure in pollinators.

Bees visit around 2 millions flowers to gather enough nectar to make one pound of honey. Collected nectar is carried back to the hive where bees use it to make honey.

Upon finding a nectar rich flower, the worker extends her proboscis (tongue) and sucks up the liquid into her honey stomach. 

This special organ is located before her real digestive track. Therefore, the resulting honey is not bee vomit.

Each bee only makes a small amount of honey in her lifetime but working together results in a large amount of stored food.

The colony will continue to collect nectar as long as it is available in the field and they have a place to store it. This continues in the Fall until the daytime temperatures become too cold.

Pollen

Pollen is another important resource collected by bees. It is the sole protein source for honey bee colonies. Protein is required for the colony to rear young or bee brood

Pollen is collected from blooming plants. Dry pollen grains are mixed with salvia and pushed onto the pollen basket on the bee’s hind legs – (scopa or corbiculae). 

These colorful pollen balls are brought back to the hive. I am sure you have seen bees flying around with pollen on their hind legs.

Worker honey bee with pollen in pollen baskets image.

Because raw pollen is not digestible, the bees convert pollen into bee bread using enzymes from their saliva. 

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 stored in honeycomb cells 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.

Nurse bees must consume protein rich food to feed the growing larvae. Thanks to the hard work of the Summer bees, pollen is available inside the comb.

Water

With the emphasis on honey and pollen, we sometimes forget that the colony needs another liquid. 

Bees collect water for the hive. 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.  Water is collect from a nearby suitable bee 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. Or, 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.

Bees using propolis to seal cracks in the hive image.

Collecting Propolis

Another material bees collect for the hive is propolis (plant resins). Propolis is a sticky substance collected from tree buds (such as pine trees) and other 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

All honey bees collect nectar, pollen, water and propolis but there sometime gather another natural material.

In certain conditions, honey bees collect honeydew (no not the melon type.) This is a sticky substance that is secreted by sap sucking insects like aphids.

Especially when other nectar sources are sparse (a nectar dearth), bees may collect honeydew. In some regions, beekeepers may even harvest honeydew honey.

While it does provide a food source for the honey bee colonies, honeydew is not the best food for Winter storage. It is often high in ash content and can cause dysentery in the bees.

Honey bees collecting honeydew from leaf.

Foraging Behavior and Adaptions

When we consider the materials that bees collect, we obviously thing of the things that bees eat. But, other items have value as well. Propolis helps stop up cracks to keep out drafts and sanitize the hive. Water is used to help keep the beehive cooler on hot days.

Bees do a remarkable job of adjusting the work force to search out and collect the resources that are most needed at the time. If the hive is low on pollen, more workers are set to that task.

On a really hot day, more water gatherers are working to provide the resource needed to cool the hive interior. This protects developing baby bees from overheating.

The honey bee can travel several miles for food if necessary but this does require more effort and energy. Closer food sources are preferred – and bees are known for being practical.

These are some amazing tasks for the humble worker bees. They only live about 6 weeks during the warm season.  They literally work themselves to death. 

FAQs

What do honey bees collect from flowers?

Honey bees collect nectar and pollen from flowers. Nectar is used to make honey and pollen is a protein source for brood rearing.

Why do honey bees collect pollen when they have no brood?

Pollen is collected and stored in the honeycomb as bee bread. Collection continues throughout the warm season. It will be used when the colony begins brood rearing in late Winter.

How far do bees travel to collect the things they need?

Worker bees can travel several miles to collect needed resources but closer sources are more desirable.

How can we help bees collect the resources they need?

A great way to help bees is to provide safe drinking water and a multitude of plants that provide nectar and pollen over a long season.

Do different bee species collect different things in the wild?

Absolutely, there is much variation in what bees collect. Some bees collect leaves, twigs and mud to make their homes.

Final Thoughts

In addition to meeting the daily living requirements of colony members, food must be stored if the bees are to survive Winter. This is a massive undertaking and we must appreciate the communication and organizational system of a honey bee colony.

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