What do Bees do With Pollen?

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It is a common site to see bees buzzing from bloom to bloom in the flower garden. They are looking for plant nectar to carry back to the hive – but that’s not all. Bees also need pollen. It is easy to see the colorful pellets on their hind legs. What do bees do with pollen? Honestly, the role of pollen in bee colony life is as important as that of honey.

Honey bee worker covered with yellow pollen grains from flower.

Pollen is required by the colony. It is the only protein source that honey bees eat. Without protein no young bees could be raised and the colony would eventually die.

Why Do Bees Need Pollen?

Pollen provides valuable fats and proteins needed by bee brood and adults too. Bees do not eat other insects for protein (as wasps and hornets do). Honey bees are gatherers not hunters.

A constant supply of new bees is a must during the warm season. Individual honey bees do not live for a very long time. During the Summer season, adult workers only live about 6 weeks.

They truly work themselves to death gathering food and doing work for the hive. As adults die, new adults must be available to take on colony responsibilities.

Only a continuous source of new bees during the warm season allows the colony to continue daily tasks. No protein means no baby bees.

Nurse Bee Nutrition

Young adult workers (that have not graduated to field work yet) serve as nurse bees. They have special glands in the head/mouth region that produces food for bee brood.

But, they must consume protein to activate these glands. This special brood food provides all the nourishment needed for developing bee larvae.

A serious task as growing larvae need constant feeding. The nurse bees will visit the cells in the brood nest many, many times.

Pollen engorged nurse bees feeding young in the hive.

Do Bees Make Honey with Pollen?

Some people think bees make honey with pollen. But no, the colony does not use this protein source to make honey. Honey is primarily made from plant nectar.

But, pollen does play a role in honey production. Ample protein allows the feeding and rearing of new a large population of adult bees. These will be the work force during the honey flow or time of abundant nectar.

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Why do Honey Bees Need Pollen?

Pollen is one resource collected by honey bees and stored inside the hive in wax comb cells. It is stored in the hive for use during times when it is not possible to harvest fresh protein.

In late Winter, brood rearing begins before natural sources are available. Any colony with a shortage of stored protein may experience a set back in population buildup.

Honey bee collecting pollen from white flower image.

How do Bees Gather Pollen?

It is the task of female workers to gather food in the field. When the worker bee lands on a flower. She wets the dry pollen with juices from her mouth.

Then it is packed onto the stiff hairs on the hind legs called “pollen baskets”. Isn’t it wonderful that the bee has specialized body parts for these tasks? She continues to gather until she is ready to return to the hive.

The workers continue to bring in pollen throughout the warm season. The rate of pollen foraging depends on the needs of the colony and the availability of pollen in the field.

Flower Pollination is an Accident

Pollination does occur as a result of bee foraging. But the bee pollination is not done purposely.

Sometimes pollen is brought back to the hive 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.

How Bees Store Pollen in the Hive

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.

Fall is a major time to focus on pollen foraging. Bees continue to gather it until cold weather arrives. Watch a hive, especially in  the early morning, you will see them working.

But, this raw protein source would also spoil before it was needed – so the bees have a way to preserve it.

Bee pollen stored as bee bread in the honeycomb cells.

What is Bee Bread?

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.

Our wondrous honey bee has a way to deal with that problem. She makes bee bread by adding enzymes to the raw pollen and packing it in wax cells. Now the colony has stored pollen for Winter – and a stable easy to digest protein source.

Where do Bees Find Pollen?

Pollen is a component of plant reproductionIn most cases it is necessary for seed development and pollen grains must be moved to another flower.

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. Plants with heavy pollen need help from pollinators: bees, bats, butterflies, moths etc.

Many flowering plants produce sweet nectar to attract honey bees and other pollinators. Some plant families produce so much nectar they are considered “honey plants” by beekeeper.

As the bees gather nectar- sticky pollen, inside the flower, is moved accidentally by the fuzzy bodies of bees.

Honey bees find pollen sources accidently when foraging for nectar. But, they also send out scout bees to search for needed food sources.

picture of honey bees collecting pollen substitute

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Beekeepers Often Feed Protein

Some beekeepers harvest natural pollen from the bees to give back to their hives during times of need. However, I’m very concerned about proper storage of fresh pollen. It molds easily if not stored properly.

Instead consider using a protein supplement such as Bee-Pro from Mann Lake. If can be used in this DIY pollen feeder. Or the beekeeper may use this recipe for pollen patties.

In Closing

Now that you understand why pollen is so important to bees, you can help. While planning your garden this year, choose a some flowers that attract bees with both types of food.

You will be helping our important bees rear young. And the indirect pollination services may boost your vegetable garden production.