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The Honey Bee Diet
Like any living creature, bees need food for nourishment. What do bees eat to sustain life and prosper? We see them enjoying flower nectar and collecting pollen. Is this the sum of their diet? While we may envision every member of the hive – sitting around drinking honey cocktails – the true store is more complex. Let’s explore the basic facts about food collection and the bee diet.
Every day honey bees and other insects work to gather food resources. They must intake the required materials to sustain life.
Beyond energy for daily requirements, a honey bee colony has a special need. They must work together are a unit to store food for the cold months of winter.
Unlike most insects, the bee colony over winters as a 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 bees to fly!
Stored food is the treasure that sustain the colony until warm weather returns. How is this done? Where do they get the carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals needed for survival and growth?
The members of the colony that bring food to the hive are called foragers. The female worker bees gather both pollen and nectar for the colony. Both of these food resources are collected from flowers and other blooming plants.
What do Honey Bees Eat from Flowers?
You will see many types of insects collecting nectar and pollen. 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 honey bees gather sweet 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.
Making and storing honey in large amounts is not a practice that other types of bees use for survival. Only honey bees produce honey in large amounts.
Do Bees Eat Honey?
Do bees eat honey? Yes, they sure do. Without honey to eat over Winter, honey bee colonies would die.
They must have a constant source of food to keep warm and survive the cold months of the year.
Nectar from blooming plants is used to make the Winter stores of honey. But plant nectar has a high moisture content, it is not suited for long term storage. Nectar would spoil.
This is why honey bees convert nectar into thick, low moisture honey. Honey is a perfect food for over-winter storage.
Some plants require insect pollination. They lure pollinators to their flowers by secreting sugary nectar.
Honey bees also eat honey dew and in some cases make it into honey (or at least a honey-like substance). Honey dew is the sweet secretions of other insects such as aphids.
Do Bees Eat Pollen?
Absolutely, bees eat pollen. However, not every type of bee eats pollen every day.
Carbohydrates give bees energy but bees need protein too. Protein is necessary for bee larval development .
No pollen in the hive means no new baby bees. Pollen is collect by the bees during times of plenty and stored for use later.
Just like fresh nectar, fresh pollen would spoil. The honey bee colony solves this problem by making bee bread with the pollen.
Bee bread is a mixture of pollen, honey and bee saliva. This fermented substance makes digestion of the pollen protein easier.
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!
Diet of Baby Honey Bees
The exact diet of a honey bee depends on the species, the age of the bee and the availability of food.
Developing bee larvae consume brood food that is produced by nurse worker bees.
Young adult worker bees eat pollen (or bee bread) to encourage the production of “brood food”. Brood food refers to secretions from the glands inside the mouth of nurse bees.
These glands are able to produce several different types of brood food. Nurse bees make the proper mix depending on the needs of the larva that are being fed.
Very young larva are fed a royal jelly mixture at first, then the composition changes. Worker Bee larva are fed according to their future role.
When new adult worker bees emerge from their cells, they consume large amounts of pollen. This protein boost enables the young adults to develop glands necessary for feeding baby bees.
Once worker bees reach the age of a forager, they are no longer capable of digesting pollen. From that time on, the bees only eat honey and nectar.
Developing Queens are Feed Differently
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.
Queen bees share the same genetic base as workers. But when fed a special rich diet , they develop into sexually reproductive females.
All young bee larva eat royal jelly for the first 3 days. After that time, worker larva consume bee bread and honey until the larval stage ends.
Developing queen larva continue beyond the first few days with their special diet.
What do Queen Bees Eat?
Honey bee queens do not eat honey as a rule. They are fed the most nutritious substances possible.
Developing queen larva are 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 adult worker bees.
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 queen bees but it may not be the only thing that helps a female larva become a queen. Regardless of the early diet, the queen honey bee is always fed a special mixture of food.
Will Honey Bees Eat Sugar Water?
You betcha they will. Honey bees can survive on sugar water. In fact, in times of need, beekeepers can feed honey bees sugar water. This mix of cane sugar and water mimics nectar as much as possible.
It is not intended to replace nectar or honey. Sugar water does not have all the essential vitamins and minerals found in nectar. It will keep the bees alive until natural food becomes available.
Do Bees 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.
Even non-beekeepers have fun providing water for insects. Some enjoy making they own garden bee waterer and seeing which insects come to drink.
Do Bees Eat Meat?
No, honey bees do not eat meat. They are vegetarian – though they may steal a sip of your cola if left setting outside.
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!
Do Bees Eat Wood?
Honey bees do not eat wood. However, some types of bees will bore into wooden structures and can be quite destructive. Carpenter bees are a big problem around my old barn.
What do Bees Eat When We Take Their Honey?
Honey bees are very productive. 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 honey bee hives. After the bees have filled boxes for themselves, we get the extra honey.
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.
What do Bumble Bees Eat?
Actually, bumble bees 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 other bees.
They also have a longer tongue that can reach deep down into tube-like blooms!
Recap of the Bee Diet
Most members of the insect family share some common food sources. However there is a lot of diversity as well.
The needs of the colony or the individual solitary bee family determines which types of food are eaten.
Given good foraging conditions, honey and pollen seems to be the big winners in the tale of things that bees eat consistently. All of these insects need energy and protein in some form.
For our honey bees, this means that they enjoy eating honey and pollen (or bee bread) as their major food source.