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.
Honey Bees Collect Needed Resources
Most of the members of the colony are female workers. Males (called drones) are in the hive for reproductive purposes but they do no work for the colony. Instead, the workers have the task of flying far afield to gather everything needed to support the hive.
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In addition to having a difficult task, they do not live very long. They only live about 6 weeks during the warm season. They literally work themselves to death. Weather permitting, they forage from dawn to dusk until their body parts (such as wings) wear out and flight is no longer possible.
The importance of the collection jobs, 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. The honey bee can travel several miles for food if necessary but this does require more effort and energy. Closer food sources are preferred.
Things Worker Bees Bring Back to the Hive
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. But, the amount needed of each one depends on the status of each individual colony.
- Plant nectar
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. These carbohydrates help them have the energy they need for survival. Each bee only makes a small amount of honey in her lifetime.
If an average colony needs 60# of honey stored for winter – that represents a lot of flower visits. It takes a good population of workers to get this job done. They also need good weather and good food sources to visit.
Honey bees do not collect honey. Well, not unless they are stealing or robbing it from a weaker colony. Instead, they convert nectar into honey. Why do they do this? It is because honey stores well for months in the comb without spoiling. The water content in fresh nectar would spoil quickly.
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.
Collected nectar is carried back to the hive to be made into honey by the house bees. 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 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 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 and stored in honeycomb cells.
Because raw pollen is not digestible, the colony converts 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 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.
But thanks to the hard work of the Summer bees, pollen is available inside the comb. This enables nurse bees to consume protein rich food and feed the growing larvae.
Water is Brought to Hive
With the emphasis on honey and pollen, we sometimes forget that the colony needs 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.
Another item bees must collect for the hive is propolis. 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 May Be Gathered
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.
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.
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. The honeycomb must be built, food stored, cracks stopped up to keep out drafts and more.
The foragers dedicate themselves 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.