What do Bees do With Pollen?

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Honey bees depend heavily on pollen for their survival. Though when asked “What do bees do with pollen?”, many folks are unsure. Recognized as important pollinators for many blooming plants, bee visits benefit the bees and the plants that can now produce more fruit. In this post, I explore the true story of pollen and bees and why it is so important to our honey bees.

Honey bee worker covered with yellow pollen grains from flower.

I am sure you have seen worker bees flying around with colorful balls of pollen on their hind legs. A complete diet for bees (things that honey bees eat) will include pollen from many different sources. Honestly, the role of pollen in bee colony life is as important as that of honey.

Why Bees Need Pollen

Honey bees are gatherers not hunters. They do not eat other insects for protein (as wasps and hornets do). Plant pollen provides essential proteins, lipids, vitamins, and minerals necessary for rearing young bees.

A continuous source of new bees during the warm season, bees do not live for a very long time. No protein means no baby bees.

How Honey Bees Collect Pollen

Honey bees exhibit highly efficient behaviors when seeking out and collecting pollen for the colony. They also have special adaptions that help them transport needed resources back to the hive.

Pollen Foraging

Bees rely on a combination of visual and olfactory (smell) cues to help them find pollen in the field. Bees see flowers much different than we do. This is nature’s design to help lure in pollinators.

Close up of honey bee with pollen packed on back legs.

Pollen Baskets (Corbiculae)

Once the foraging bee lands on the flower with pollen. She uses her body, legs and mouthparts to gather the pollen grains. Saliva is added to create a sticky ball of pollen.

This then packed onto her “pollen baskets – or corbiculae. These concave areas with stiff hairs on the hind legs of bees are a specialized honey bee body part – designed for this task.

During a single foraging trip, the bees may visit hundreds of flowers until she feels her pollen load is full. Then, she returns to the hive.

Communication

Foraging for pollen continues throughout the warm season. The rate of pollen foraging depends on the needs of the colony and the availability of pollen in the field. Boasting advanced method of communication, honey bees dance to share the location of rich pollen sources with other colony members.

Bee pollen stored as bee bread in the honeycomb cells.

Pollen Storage in the Hive

Upon arriving at the hive, foragers visit wax honeycomb cells and deposit their pollen pellets. Now, the house bees (younger workers) take over the final storage process.

In it’s raw, fresh form pollen would be hard for bees to digest. And, full of nutrients and some moisture, raw pollen will spoil and degrade in nutritional value very quickly. Therefore, this raw material must be transformed into a substance called – bee bread.

Fermentation & Preservation

The addition of honey and bee saliva to the pollen mass triggers a natural fermentation process. This is important because it breaks down the hard outer covering of the pollen grains.

The fermentation process also produces beneficial lactic acid, which acts as a preservative, preventing the growth of harmful bacteria and fungi. Therefore, we call pollen stored in the comb – bee bread.

Pollen is stored in a well organized fashion. It is common to find it in wax cells near the brood nest region of the hive.

Role of Pollen in Colony Dynamics

Nurse bees rely heavily on a good supply of protein to fulfill their tasks of brood care. These young adults are responsible for producing special food to feed growing honey bee larvae.

They possess special glands in the head/mouth region that produces food for bee brood. But, they must consume protein to activate these glands.

Proper nutrition is very important to have a colony that is healthy and strong. Healthy workers are more efficient and production. They are also less susceptible to early death and various pests and diseases.

Pollen engorged nurse bees feeding young in the hive.

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Beekeepers Often Feed Protein

Sometimes beekeepers collect pollen from the bees during times of plenty and feed it back to the colonies during learn times.

To do this well, you have to understand how to store the pollen without allowing it to spoil. It is also a value-added product that beekeepers sell for a profit if they are doing beekeeping as a farm or business.

Personally, I’m very concerned about proper storage of fresh pollen. It molds very easily. Instead consider using a protein supplement such as Bee-Pro from Mann Lake. It can be used in this DIY pollen feeder. Or you can use my recipe for pollen patties.

Honey bees collecting pollen from a dry feeder.

FAQs

Do bees make honey with pollen?

No, bees do not use pollen to make honey. Honey is made from plant nectar. Raw honey may contain a few grains of pollen that have not been filtered out but pollen is not used in honey production.

Why do bees need pollen?

Pollen is a necessary protein source that bees need in order to rear young.

Where do bees find pollen?

Pollen is a component of plant reproductionPlants with heavy pollen need help from pollinators: bees, bats, butterflies, moths etc.

As the bees gather nectar- sticky pollen, inside the flower, is moved accidentally by the fuzzy bodies of bees. But, pollen is also gathered purposefully for use by the colony.

Final Thoughts

Now I am sure you better understand why pollen is so important to bees. While it is not used in making honey, it does support strong healthy colonies – needed to make a good honey crop. Give the bees a helping hand.

While planning your garden this year, choose some flowers that provide pollen. You will be helping our important honey bees rear young. And, the indirect pollination services may boost your vegetable garden production.