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The Truth about What Bees Eat

Like any living creature, insects need food for nourishment. Honey bees are special in that – they are not hunters that prey on other insects. So, What do bees eat to sustain life and prosper? Honey may be your first answer but the truth is more complex. Let’s explore the basic facts about food collection and the foods that bees have in their diet.

Worker honey bee eats honey from a comb image.

What do the Bees in Your Backyard Eat?

Among the thousands of different species of insects, you probably have many different kinds in your backyard. Of course, honey and bumble bees are the most easily recognized.

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Both of these insects have a similar diet – even though their lifestyles are quite different. Every day members of the colony collect food sources needed to sustain life.

Beyond energy for daily requirements, a honey bee colony has a special need. They must work together as a unit to store food – or the colony will not survive Winter.

Unlike most insects, the honeybees over winter as a large group. During the cold days of Winter, few flowers are in bloom to provide nectar. And even if something is in bloom, it may be too cold for the insects to fly!

Stored food is the treasure that sustains the colony until warm weather returns. How is this done? Where do they get the carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals needed for survival and growth? It is all about planning and honey bees are pretty good planners.

Collecting Nectar and Pollen from Flowers

You will see many types of insects collecting nectar and pollen. It is not only bees who search out these food sources.

Even members of the wasp family enjoy a bit of sweet nectar. That’s why they want to share a sip of your cola at the Summer picnic.

As foragers gather nectar from flowers, they may enjoy a sip if they are hungry. But their primary goal is to return to the hive and convert the nectar into honey.

Many blooming plants provide pollen or nectar to insects and some provide both. But, not every flower offers food for hungry insects. Some plants do not need bee pollination.

Honey bee gathers pollen for colony to eat image.

Bees that Eat Honey

Though we see many insects collecting nectar, honey bees are the main consumers of true honey. It is the primary food source for adults.

Without stored honey to eat over Winter, the colony would die. Plant nectar has a high moisture content, it is not suited for long term storage.

This is nectar is converted into thick, low moisture honey. Honey is a perfect food for over-winter storage.

They also eat insect secretions and in some cases make it into honeydew honey (or at least a honey-like substance). Honeydew is the sweet secretions of other insects such as aphids.

Bumbles also produce a small amount of honey from collected nectar. It is stored in little structures called “honey pots” in their nest.

However, storing honey in large amounts is not a practice that other types of insects use for survival. Only honey bees produce honey in large amounts.

Yellow pollen stored as food for honey bee colony in comb image.

How Bees Eat Pollen

Pollen is a protein source. Many types of bees collect pollen but wasps do not. They are hunters and prey on other insects for their protein needs.

Bumbles collect pollen and mix with with nectar and honey to be fed to their developing young.

Honey bees eat pollen in the form of bee bread. Bee bread is a mixture of pollen, honey and saliva. This fermented substance makes digestion of the pollen protein easier.

Young adults may consume more pollen than others in the hive. This enables them to produce feed for the brood in the colony. Pollen is collect during times of plenty and stored for use later.

However, not every member of the colony eats pollen every day. Older adults who are not feeding young do not need this extra protein.

Honey Bee Diet

You may be surprised to learn that the diet of individuals in a colony can vary a lot over time. The exact diet on a daily basis depends on the species, age of the bee and availability of food resources.

Baby Honey Bee Diet

Developing bee larvae consume brood food that is produced by nurses. Brood food refers to secretions from special glands located inside their mouth.

Honey bee larvae eating brood food produced by nurse bees image.

Nurse bees consume large amounts of pollen to enable productions of different types of food. They make the proper mix depending on the needs of the larva that are being fed.

Worker bee larva are fed according to their future role. If the colony wants to make a new queen, a special diet is used.

Once adults reach the age of a forager, they are no longer capable of digesting pollen. From that time on, they only eat honey and nectar.

Diet of Queen Honey Bees

All young larva eat royal jelly for the first 3 days. After that time, worker larva consume bee bread and honey until the larval stage ends.

If the colony is preparing to swarm, or needs a new queen for any reason, some of the female larva will be fed a special diet.

For years, we have called this special queen food “royal jelly”. Royal Jelly is a milky secretion produces by the hypophrangeal glands of young adults.

Adult queen bee fed a special diet image.

Now researchers are questioning the exact composition of the food fed when rearing queens. Is royal jelly truly the compound responsible for queen development?

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.

Feeding Sugar Water

Do bees like sugar water? You bet! Beekeepers often help hungry hives in times of need by feeding sugar water.

Not intended to replace natural nectar or honey, It will keep the colony alive until natural food becomes available.

Honey bees gathering water to use in the hive image.

Other Resources Bees Consume

Insects do drink water. Honey bees need water to maintain their colony. Water is collected as it is needed. It is not stored in the hive.

Water is used to thin thick honey and control the humidity and temperature inside the hive. Along with good hive ventilation, a sufficient water source is important for any beehive.

Even non-beekeepers have fun providing water for insects. Some enjoy making they own garden bee waterer and seeing which insects come to drink. You will find many types of insects, butterflies, wasps and other pollinators visiting your water source.

Most Bees do Not Eat Meat

Honey bees do not eat meat. Even though they do not prey on other insects, 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.

Wasps however are not bees, they are predators – meat eaters. Wasps such as Yellow Jackets and others eat meat – other insects and even honey bees!

Carpenter Bees Destroy Wood

Honey bees do not eat wood. However, some types of bees will bore into wooden structures to make nests. This can be quite destructive. Carpenter bees are a big problem around my old barn.

Do Honey Bees Eat Fruit?

You may see honey bees feeding on cracked 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!

Things Bumble Bees Eat

Actually, bumbles eat most of the same things as honey bees. They collect pollen from flowers as a protein source. And, they collect sweet plant nectar.

Due to their larger size, bumble bees are often more efficient pollinators than others. They also have a longer tongue that can reach deep down into tube-like blooms!

What do Bees Eat When We Take Their Honey?

Continuing to work as long as there is food to collect, a bee colony can fill several boxes of honey in a season. This is much more stored honey than most bee colonies need for winter survival.

Beekeepers add extra boxes to the hives. After the colony has filled boxes for themselves, we get the extra honey harvest.

Conscientious beekeepers know how much stored honey is needed by their colony for winter. We take only the excess. This assures the honey bee colony of having enough food for winter.

Most members of the insect family share some common food sources. However, there is a lot of diversity as well.

Given good foraging conditions, honey and pollen seems to be the big winners in the tale of things that honey bees eat consistently. But other insects will appreciate some nectar and pollen rich food sources in your backyard.

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