Essential pollinators that play a vital role in our ecosystems, but – what do bees eat? They need energy and must be able to sustain themselves and ensure survival of the colony. Let’s dive into the world of honey bee nutrition and learn about their primary dietary habits.
The story of how bees gather nectar to make honey and store it for Winter is a fascinating tale. Of course, honey bees consume honey but that is not all.
Bee Diet: The Basics
Honey is the primary food source for adult honey bees. But, the diet of honey bees depends on three substances:
Nectar is the primary energy source for bees. Blooming plants secrete sweet nectar, as an aid to attract pollinators. This nectar plays a vital role in bee nutrition.
But fresh nectar has a high moisture content – making it unsuitable for long term storage. So, honey bees convert it into a more stable form – that we call honey.
Pollen is a rich source of protein for the colony. Young adult worker bees consume more pollen than others in the hive. This enables them to produce food for developing bee brood.
However, not all bees in the hive eat pollen. Older adults who are not feeding young do not need this extra protein.
Honey bees collect water as it is needed. It is not stored in the honeycomb of the hive for future use. Water is used to thin thick honey and control the humidity and temperature inside the beehive.
Nectar Collection and Processing
Honey bees work hard during the warm months. Every day thousands of female workers leave the hive to collect resources for the colony.
Bees help flowers and flowers feed bees. They have a long standing relationship due to the need for pollination. As foraging workers gather sweet nectar from flowers, they may enjoy a sip if they are hungry.
But in general, bees do not eat raw nectar. As it is collected, the bees store it in a special structure called the “honey stomach”. Then it is taken back to the hive to become honey.
Beyond energy for daily requirements, they must work together to store food for the cold months ahead. Otherwise, the colony will not survive Winter.
Even if some Winter plants bloom, it may be too cold for bees to fly! Stored food is the treasure that sustains the colony until warm weather returns.
Pollen Collection and Use
Many plants depend on pollination in order to produce fruit or seed. Visiting bees often move sticky pollen grains from one flower to the next – accidentally.
But, honey bees do intentionally gather pollen from flowers. You will see it as colorful little balls on their hind legs.
As the foraging bee lands on a flower, she wets grains of pollen with saliva. Then, using her legs, the pollen is shaped into a ball and pushed onto stiff hairs on her hind legs – we call these her pollen baskets.
These are special structures of bee anatomy that help her do her job and return to the hive with protein.
Honey bees eat stored pollen in the form of bee bread. Bee bread is a mixture of pollen, honey and saliva containing enzymes.
Even though they have strong mandibles – bees do not have teeth to chew up fresh pollen grains.
This fermentation makes digestion of the pollen protein easier. It also keeps the protein from spoiling while it is stored in the comb.
Once adults reach the age to become field bees -their jobs inside the hive are done. They are no longer capable of digesting pollen. From that time on, adult members of the hive only eat honey and nectar.
Honey Bee Dietary Needs
A variety of nutritional substances are needed to ensure healthy honey bees. Much like we humans, they need carbohydrates, proteins and an array of essential nutrients.
Carbohydrates are energy sources served up in a concentrated form as honey. The carbohydrates in honey are mainly simple sugars like glucose and fructose that are easy to bees to metabolize.
This gives them all the fuel they need for flying, foraging and performing hundreds of hive activities.
A range of nutrients including vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and anti-oxidants round out the nutritional needs of our bees. All work together to result in a healthy bee population.
Other Food Sources for Honey Bees
Sometimes, honey bees receive food from non-flower sources.
- beekeeper feeding
Honeydew is the sweet secretions of other insects such as aphids. These insect secretions are collected in the same manner as nectar. It can be made into honey – in some parts of the world Honeydew Honey is quite popular.
Impact of Food Availability
When bees are located in an area with limited food sources, they may experience gaps in their nutritional needs. A common example is the bees of migratory beekeepers who pollinate crops for farmers.
If the hives stay in one place too long with only one type of flower nearby, they may not get all the various nutrients required and be in poor health.
This same issue applies to other pollinators too. Honey bees and Bumble bees are closely related and they have a similar diet. Diversity is the key to good health.
Queen Bees Eat a Special Diet
All young bee larvae eat royal jelly for the first 3 days. After that time, they consume bee bread and honey.
However, if the colony is making a new queen bee, some of the female larva are selected as future queens and fed a special diet.
For years, we thought queen larvae were only fed “royal jelly”. Royal Jelly is a milky secretion produced by the hypopharyngeal glands located in the sides of the head of young adults.
We know royal jelly is on the menu for developing queens. But, it may not be the only thing that helps a female larva become a queen.
Adult queens do not eat honey as a rule. They are fed the most nutritious substances possible. Royal jelly and similar foods are so pure they result in very few waste products from the queen.
This special queen bee food contributes to her longevity. Queens can live much longer than workers.
Honey Bees Do Not Eat Insects
Honey bees do not eat meat. They do not prey on other insects. However, they are not “strict” vegetarians.
If the colony is nearing starvation, workers will eat bee eggs and larva. This is a last ditch effort to use any resources available to save the colony.
Diversity in Bee Species
While this guide focuses mainly on honey bees, it is important to remember that the world of bees is very diverse. Thousands of solitary bees, bumble bees and others have their own lifestyles and eating habits.
The role played by nectar and pollen in the diet of other bees may not be similar to that of the honey bee colony. Understanding and appreciating this diversity is essential for anyone interested in the world of bees
Of course, honey bees make and eat honey. But, there are thousands of bee species that do not make or eat honey.
You may see honey bees feeding on cracked ripe fruit and think that they are destroying your grapes. In fact, the proboscis of the honey bee is not usually strong enough to pierce fruit skin.
But, they will take advantage of sweet fruit juice when available. If weather conditions cause fruit skins to break or some other bee has opened the peel, the honey bees will partake too!
Honey bees can not live without honey. It contains the micro-nutrients and full nutrition that they require to be healthy long term.
Yes can feed honey to wild bees but it is best to avoid doing so. Some types of bee diseases can be spread through feeding honey from unknown sources.
Responsible beekeepers do not harm honeybees by harvesting honey. They know how much stored honey is needed for winter and take only the excess.
Yes, bees can get stuck in sticky honey – though that rarely happens inside the hive. If it did, they would have thousands of sisters to help free them.
You bet! Beekeepers often help hungry hives in times of need by feeding sugar water. It is often made from cane or beet sugar or corn syrup.
Sometimes, a beekeeper may feed a pollen supplement or sugar water to a colony that is low on natural food stores. But, extra feeding is not always necessary.
Honey and pollen are the big winners in the store of things that bees eat consistently. You can help bees and other pollinators by creating nectar and pollen rich food sources in your backyard.
A diverse food source of different plants helps provide all the nutritional needs for honey bees. You can even get the kids involved be making wildflower seed bombs. It can be a great family project.