Why Do Bees Collect Pollen – What is it Used For?
Have you ever seen a honey bee flying from flower to flower carrying pollen? Most of us have seen honey bees (and other bees too!) collecting pollen. It is often noticed as colorful balls attached to the rear legs of the bee. But, why do bees collect pollen – do they use it to make honey ? Not at all!
How Do Bees Use Pollen?
Pollen is the protein source for the honey bee colony. Without protein no young bees could be raised and the colony would die.
Only a continuous source of new bees during the warm season allows the colony to survive. No pollen=no baby bees. Bees use protein rich pollen to feed baby bees. Worker bees eat pollen to produce brood food for growing larva.
Pollen (as the only protein source) is so important to healthy honey bee colonies. However, sometimes weather conditions prevent the honey bee colony from collecting enough pollen.
This can be a special problem in late Summer or early Fall. During this time, honey bees store pollen for use during Winter. If the beekeeper notices a lack of natural pollen being collected, a pollen substitute is offered to the bees.
Do Bees Use Pollen to Make Honey?
Ok, this is the misconception. Because we know that bees have a great interest in pollen, some people think it is used to make honey. But no, bees do not directly use pollen to make honey.
Honey bees make honey and so do Bumble Bees to a lesser extent. We know that honey bees collect nectar from blooming plants. This plant nectar is converted into honey and stored by the bees for use during Winter.
The nectar to honey story is old news. Even most children understand that real honey comes from honey bees.
What does pollen have to do with the bees major goal of honey production? Bees do not use pollen to directly produce honey.
However, without an ample supply of pollen the colony would not survive. Yes, it’s that important.
Where Do Bees Find Pollen?
Where does pollen come from? Pollen is produced by flowers and it necessary for fruit or seed production. Some plants can self-pollinate or use the wind to carry pollen from flower to flower. But this doesn’t work for every type of flowering plant. These plants have a cool way of getting help in moving pollen around.
Some flowering plants produce sweet nectar to attract honey bees and other pollinators. The sticky pollen is moved from flower to flower – accidentally by the fuzzy bodies of bees.
By moving particles of pollen from flower to flower, bees help the plants produce fruit. They don’t do this purposely of course. (Well – not as far as we know anyway :).
I enjoy watching the bees coming into the hive with a heavy load of pollen and trying to guess which plant was the source.
I often see bright yellow pollen from dandelion flowers, pale green pollen from Red Maple and bright red from Henbit flowers.
Mason Bee House
Honey bees are not the only pollinators. If you have a vegetable garden that does not produce a good harvest, perhaps you need more pollinators.
For those of you who can not have a honey beehive right now, mason bees may be a good option. Many gardeners keep various types of bug houses for Mason bees and other pollinators.
Pollination is very important to modern agriculture. Large fields of crops require many pollinators and honey bees fill that role very well. They live in large colonies and can be transported.
Gardeners who live in areas without any pollinators have to resort to desperate measures such as a pollination wand. Can you imagine?
It sounds funny but it is a serious problem. And I sure don’t want to be going around my farm with a wand!
How Bees Use Pollen to Make More Bees!
Surely it can not be that important ! What can this fuzzy dust do for honey bees? And its not just honey bees. Other bees, wasps and even spiders use pollen.
Pollen Collection Is a Time Sensitive Project for Honey Bees
Bees continue to need pollen during the cold months of the year. Brood rearing will slow down or stop for a while but some pollen will be used. Yes, even here in the South we have cold temps and the occasional snow storm. But, we also have warm days throughout the winter.
Our honey bees are blessed to leave the hive and fly on afternoons above 50 degrees. And my bees may find a very small amount of pollen from a blooming dandelion located in a warm corner.
Honey bees collect pollen during the warm months here in South Carolina to be used later. It is during the late winter and very early Spring that the stored pollen is most important.
After months of little brood rearing activity our bees use pollen to raise young.
While Winter still rages outside the hive, brood rearing slowly begins. Stored pollen is eaten allowing nurse bees to feed brood. This food is essential for new bees.
Even in the South, not much pollen is available for collection in late December/ early January.
Because pollen is not readily available when the bees start to rear brood, they rely on stored pollen. Any hive that fails to store extra pollen during the Fall is at risk.
Nurse bees must consume bee bread (pollen and salvia,enzymes etc.) as a stimulus to produce royal jelly for very young bees.
Pollen – Not Just An Allergen
Sometimes pollen “gets a bad rap”. The itchy eyes and stuffy nose associated with pollen leaves us complaining about the yellow dust. However, pollen is viewed different by beekeepers.
In fact, the fine pollen from wind-pollinated plants is the main culprit of your allergies. Honey bees prefer larger pollen particles.
How Do Bees Collect Pollen?
Pollen is a component of plant reproduction. In most cases it is necessary for seed development. Plants with heavy pollen need help from pollinators.
Pollinators such as bees, butterflies, moths, ants, hummingbirds etc. aid in the pollination process.
A honey bee lands on a pollen producing flower. She wets the dry pollen with juices from her mouth and packs it onto the stiff hairs of the hind legs. (Sometimes pollen is sticky too !)
We call these hairs “pollen baskets“. She continues to pack pollen on her baskets until she is ready to return to the hive.
Sometimes pollen is collected accidentally. As the fuzzy honey bee is searching for nectar, dry pollen particles stick to her body and hitch a ride to the next flower.
Pollination Is An Accident
As bees transfer pollen inadvertently, the flowers are fertilized. But the bees are not intentionally pollinating flowers, they have another mission – rearing young bees.
The healthiest bee colonies will harvest pollen from a variety of blooming plants. This practice helps them provide the most complete nutrition for the baby bees.
You can help honey bees and other pollinators. Plant flowers that bees like. Not all blooming plants produce nectar or pollen.
Planting areas of your yard with pollinator friendly flowers will be of great benefit to the bees. Food diversity is a good thing. Lots of flowers will provide lots of different types of proteins.
Bees Storing Pollen – Planning Ahead
Honey bees are designed by nature to store resources when they are plentiful. As the summer and fall grow to an end, the busy bees pack away nectar/honey to serve as food during winter.
But as we see, it is not just nectar that is collected.
Fall is a major time when honey bees collect pollen. Bees continue to collect pollen until cold weather arrives.
Especially in the early morning, you will see them working.
As they wet the pollen and packed it on their corbiculae (stiff hairs on the hind legs), they pay you little attention. You will see them working with extra energy as if they know Winter is coming.
I love to see a worker bee carrying pollen into the hive in October. This lets me know that the hives are preparing for winter.
A smart beekeeper will check their colonies for pollen before winter sets in. A hot summer with little rain may result in low pollen storage.
How Bees Store Pollen
Pollen is a natural protein source full of nutrients and some moisture. It will spoil and degrade in nutritional value. The wondrous honey bee has a way to deal with that problem.
A worker bee brings pollen into the colony. Once inside, she goes to a honeycomb cell in a certain area of the comb near the nursery area.
She rakes the pellets off her hind legs into the cell. Using her front legs, she grooms all the pollen from her body.
She solicits a drink of nectar from another house bee and returns to the field to collect more pollen. We must add one more step to the pollen storage procedure.
A worker house bee will firmly pack the pellets into the honeycomb cell. During packing, enzymes are added to the pollen.
This process causes the pollen to undergo a lactic acid fermentation.
The end result will be a product that is less perishable and more easily digested by the bees.
A small amount of honey is sometimes placed atop the pollen cell. We call the end product “bee bread”.
Nurse bees use pollen as a food source enabling them to feed young larva. Most of the pollen collected by the bees is eaten by older brood (over 3 days old) and young adults.
The young adults (nurse bees) consume pollen to produce food from glands in their mouth for the youngest larva. As larva age their diet will change as well.
People Collect Bee Pollen Too
Sometimes beekeepers collect pollen to feed back to the bees during times of drought. The natural pollen must be stored properly to prevent mold.
This is not easy to do. That is why many of use rely on pollen supplement when I bees need them.
Many people also choose to consume bee pollen. It is believed that bee pollen contains many substances that promote good health.
Proper collection methods are necessary to prevent mold due to the high moisture content of fresh pollen.
Whether collection is aimed at feeding bees or humans care must be taken. Beekeepers must collect carefully to avoid stressing the colony and causing a pollen shortage for the bees !
As an educational activity, I have collected pollen from my bee colonies. I was curious to learn what types of pollen my bees bringing to the hive.
It is possible to identify pollen source by color. But there are so many pollen source out there it is not easy.
At local events, children (young and old) enjoyed touching and smelling the dried pollen. They are many educational opportunities involving the study of pollination.
I own a small plastic pollen trap exactly like the one pictured here. It is a little flimsy ! However for occasional use it performs well. Don’t even try to use the little gold hooks that come with it. I use a stretchy bungee cord and attach it to the front of the hive. I have had mine for many years and it is still functional.
You have to be careful when collecting pollen from any colony. Never collect too much pollen and leave the colony in a deficit.
Bees Use Pollen In Late Winter To Prepare For Spring
During late Fall in South Carolina, my honey bees have generally been taking a break for a few weeks. For most colonies, the queen has stopped laying eggs or at least only a small number.
This is okay, we do not want the bees to be too populous. They might eat all their stores and starve before Spring.
As winter solstice passes and the daylight hours lengthen, a magical thing starts to happen inside the hive.
The bees know spring is coming. The queen bee will start to lay a larger number of eggs each day. This gradual buildup will continue as the weeks progress.
Young bees need pollen for development at a time when there may not be pollen outside to collect. Thankfully , the numerous bees collecting pollen last fall have some in storage to use.
If the colony experienced a large pollen deficiency , the colony may be in trouble. Late winter/early spring days can be windy and cool.
Some trees (red maple) may produce pollen during winter but the weather may not allow flight.
Beekeepers Help Colonies Lacking Pollen
This is an opportunity for a beekeeper to provide pollen for hungry bees. Some beekeepers collect and store natural pollen to give back to their bees during times of need. I think this is great.
However, I’m very concerned about proper storage of fresh pollen. It molds easily if not stored properly and I am not as good at making bee bread as a worker bee.
Moldy pollen is a bad thing. Beekeepers who collect fresh pollen often use a food dehydrator to dry it for storage.
A well tested pollen supplement is the easiest way to provide pollen to your bees for most beekeepers. I have tried several formulas and my current favorite is “Mega Bee”.
Mega Bee comes as a dry yellow powder . Another good choice is Bee-Pro from Mann Lake.
A protein patty is made with it using honey or syrup for use inside the hive. Or you can feed it to the bees dry. I prefer the dry feed method.
This time of year, I always put a couple of cups of pollen sub outside in a protected place.
Bees Collecting Pollen From My Feeder
I really wanted one of those nifty pollen feeders but they cost $100. So, I found one of my empty Tidy Cat Plastic litter pails, washed & dried it thoroughly and hung it up under my shed. Your dry pollen sub must be protected from rain.
By late afternoon, the bees were having a wonderful time. I enjoyed watching them for a few minutes.
The busy bees collecting pollen were not concerned about me watching. Their focus was on the job.
I was able to stand very close and watch them roll around in the powdery substance. Then each worker would groom herself making ready for flight.
Away they would go back toward the bee yard, little yellow pollen pellets on their hind legs.
While looking through those seed catalogs, choose a few pollen producing flowers.
If you have honey bees in your area, this can be a great activity for the family. However, be sure to place the pollen bucket well away from your home or play area as it will be buzzing for a few hours.
Happy Bee Lovin’ – Beekeeper Charlotte
this post has been updated with bee wonderfulness
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