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What do Bees do With Pollen?

What do bees do with pollen? We know that honey bees use plant nectar to make honey. But, they also collect pollen. Why? It is an important protein source necessary for colony life. The role of pollen in bee colony life is as important as that of honey. Pollen is needed for new bees to be raised.

Honey bee collecting pollen from yellow flower image.

Why Do Bees Need Pollen?

Plant pollen is the only protein source that honey bees eat. They do not eat other insects as wasps and hornet do. Without protein no young bees could be raised and the colony would eventually die.

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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.

Honey bee collecting pollen from clover image.

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

Foragers collect pollen from millions of blooming plants. It is brought back to the hive but not fed directly to bee brood. This raw protein is not in a form digestible by young bees.

Nurse bees (young adults that have not began to forage) consume proteins. This causes special glands in their head/mouth to produce “brood food” secretions .

This special brood food provides all the nourishment needed for developing larvae. This is a serious task as growing larva need constant feeding. The nurse bees will visit the cells in the brood nest many, many times.

Why do Honey Bees Collect Pollen?

Honey bees collect pollen because it will be needed during times when collection is not possible. Fewer plants bloom during the cold season.

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.

Collection continues throughout the warm season. The collection rate depends on the needs of the colony and the availability of pollen in the field. But, at any time of the season, a certain percentage of bees will be gathering pollen.

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Do Bees Make Honey with Pollen?

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

What role does pollen play in honey production?  Ample protein allows the feeding and rearing of new adult bees. Thousands of individuals are engaged in this important task. When the current work force begins to age, new bees will be needed to finish the job.

A honey bee collecting pollen with red pollen on her pollen baskets image.

Where do Bees Find 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: bees, bats, butterflies, moths etc.

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.

Many flowering plants produce sweet nectar to attract honey bees and other pollinators. Sticky pollen, inside the flower, is moved accidentally by the fuzzy bodies of bees.

Therefore, the bees help the plants produce fruit.  They don’t do this purposely of course. (Well – not as far as we know anyway :).

Free secrets of beekeeping link image.

How do Bees Collect Pollen?

Honey bees are one of many types of pollinator insects. It is the task of female worker bees to gather food in the field.

The worker bee lands on a flower.  She wets the dry pollen with juices from her mouth and packs it onto the stiff hairs of the hind legs. 

We call these hairs or spikes on the worker bees hind legs pollen baskets“.  She continues to pack it 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.

Bee Pollination is an Accident

Pollination does occur are a result of bee foraging. But the bees are not intentionally pollinating flowers, they are collecting a valuable protein source.

The healthiest bee colonies will harvest pollen from a variety of blooming plants.  This practice helps them provide the most complete nutrition for their young.

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 of pollen collection.  Bees continue to gather it until cold weather arrives. Watch a hive, especially in  the early morning, you will see them working.

picture of a honey bee with pollen on back legs on a yellow flower

What is Bee Bread?

Full of nutrients and some moisture, raw pollen will spoil and degrade in nutritional value very quickly. Also, in it’s raw, fresh form pollen can be hard for honey bees to digest. 

How can the colony store pollen for Winter – and have a stable easy to digest protein source? Our wondrous honey bee has a way to deal with that problem. She makes bee bread .

picture of honey bees collecting pollen substitute

Beekeepers Often Feed Protein to Colonies

Some beekeepers collect and store natural pollen to give back to their bees during times of need.  They may use a food dehydrator to dry it for storage.

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 the colony.

A well tested protein supplement is the easiest way to provide this needed food to your bees. One good choice is Bee-Pro from Mann Lake.

Some beekeepers make protein patties for their colonies-especially in late Winter or Early Spring.

There are also many types of dried pollen substitute feeders available. You can also construct a feeder from pvc pipe. Check out this post. – How to Make a Pollen Feeder.

Why Pollen Matters to Bees – Final Thoughts

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

It is fascinating to learn more about what bees eat and how they function in the ecosystem. They need both nectar and pollen and we can help.

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10 Comments

  1. Pete Jones says:

    Bee storing pollen.
    I have a shop for working on motorcycles and just recently, I have noticed a honey bee storing pollen in a bolt hole on a motorcycle. It had been storing pollen for a while without notice to me, until one day I happen to see the bee fly into the small hole. Looking inside, I could see the bee doing its thing, packing the pollen into place. I have never seen this happen before. Even after closing shop overnight, the bee keeps coming back during the daytime. I have covered the holes up but the bee keeps returning. Is this natural? With all the doors to the shop closed, I notice the bee outside looking for a way in.

  2. Pete. Are you sure this is a honey bee? It sure does not sound like honey bee behavior. Bees live in large social colonies. I wonder if this is another type of bee that resembles a honey bee.

  3. Azalia Smith says:

    I really enjoyed your article (and the photos), it answered many questions. One thing I noticed under “People Collect Bee Pollen Too” that must be a typographical error is you wrote, “The natural pollen must be stored properly to permit mold.”

    I have a question, if I purchase a small, beehive box for honey bees and place it in my yard, can I just leave it alone and let the bees live their lives? (I have a small acreage and will plant bee friendly perennials and sunflowers for them and I am already getting a Mason bee house.)

  4. Kristie Jean Canaan says:

    I have a question. Is there a high number of casualties when moving bees to pollinate crops, as a business?

  5. Yes, especially if the bees are moved a long distance. Another problem is when the bees are placed on farms that only have 1 thing in bloom. Acres and acres of the same food source is unhealthy for bees. Just as if we were to eat the same one food all the time.

  6. Thanks – typos and me have a long term relationship LOL – No Azalia, unfortunately if bees did move in – without beekeeper intervention they would most likely die. This is due in large part to the Varroa Mite which is a honey bee pest. Planting many different kinds of pollen and nectar producing plants will be a great thing to do! Best Wishes.

  7. Will Long says:

    Hi Charlotte, I have two questions about treating for mites. I live in Birmingham AL and got my first hive last year. I have one hive ( two Deeps and a supper w/ queen excluder and sugar syrup on top) I have never treated for mites and am wondering if it to late to do so this year ( 2/13/21 as I wright this) The question……. is it too late in the winter to treat for mites? What type treatment would you suggest? Also, the bees have “glued” the entrance reducer in place so that limits the options available to me. THANKS for your time!

  8. Honey bees feed at my hummingbird feeders, and drink from my water fountain and birdbath. Dozens of them at a time, at all hours of the day. They don’t appear to be carrying pollen on their legs. Are they just lazy bees gathering nectar and not carrying out any pollen gathering or pollinating?

  9. No they are not lazy at all. They are looking for nectar and your area must have a limited supply right now. Bees don’t only collect pollen – actually they collect more nectar. That is what is used to make honey – pollen is protein used to feed baby bees. You can tell when a forager is carrying nectar. It is really quite interesting to see what they collect. https://carolinahoneybees.com/things-bees-collect/

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