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Why Do Bees Need 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. This is just one more fascinating fact about honey bee life for us to learn and explore.
Pollen is a protein source for the honey bee colony. In fact, it is the only protein source that honey bees have to eat. Without protein no young bees could be raised and the colony would die.
Honey bees do not live for a very long time. During the Summer season, adult workers only life about 6 weeks. 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 survive. No pollen=no baby bees.
The plant nectar collected provides energy. But it is not enough nutrition to rear baby bees.
Pollen is not fed directly to the bee brood. The protein must be in a form that the young bees can digest.
In order to make this possible, nurse bees consume pollen. 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. Growing larva need constant feeding. The nurse bees will visit the cells in the brood nest many, many times.
Pollen is Stored Inside the Beehive
Pollen collection is underway throughout the season. Though you will see more pollen collected during certain times.
This collection rate depends on the needs of the colony and the availability of pollen in the field.
At any time of the season, a certain percentage of bees will be gathering pollen. Like honey, pollen is stored inside the hive for use later.
In late Winter, brood rearing begins before natural pollen sources are available. Any colony with a shortage of stored protein may experience a set back in buildup.
Do Bees Make Honey with Pollen?
Some people think bees use pollen to make honey . But no, bees do not directly use pollen to make honey.
Honey bees make honey from plant nectar. And, so do Bumble Bees to a lesser extent.
A honey bee colony does need an ample supply of pollen in order to produce a good honey crop.
What role does pollen play in honey production? Ample protein allows the feeding and rearing of new adult bees.
When the current work force begins to age, new bees will be needed to finish the job.
Where do Bees Find Pollen?
Where does pollen come from? Pollen is produced by flowers and it is 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.
Some flowering plants produce sweet nectar to attract honey bees and other pollinators. Pollen is also inside the flower.
This 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 :).
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.
Honey bees are one type of pollinator. Female worker bees are the pollen gatherers in the field.
The worker 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.
We call these hairs or spikes on the worker bees hind legs “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.
In fact, you are not likely to experience a bee sting while watching pollen foragers. They are very focused on their task.
Bee 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. Remember, 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.
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 when honey bees collect pollen. Bees continue to collect pollen until cold weather arrives. Especially in the early morning, you will see them working.
What is Bee Bread?
Pollen is a natural protein source full of nutrients and some moisture. It will spoil and degrade in nutritional value rarely quickly
In it’s raw, fresh form pollen can be hard for honey bees to digest. How can the honey bee come up with a way to 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“.
How Bees Make Bee Bread
The forager bees returns to the hive with full pollen baskets. Once inside, she goes to a honeycomb cell 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.
A house bee firmly packs the pollen pellets into the honeycomb cell. During packing, enzymes from the bee’s mouth are added to the pollen.
Pollen grains and saliva filled with enzymes is mixed together and pressed into the honeycomb cell.
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”. This product will store for a long time.
Which Bees Eat the Stored Bee Bread?
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.
Most of the pollen collected by the bees is eaten by older brood (over 3 days old) and young adults.
Beekeepers Often Feed Pollen to Colonies
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. One good choice is Bee-Pro from Mann Lake.
Some beekeepers make protein patties for their colonies. 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 few pollen producing flowers that attract bees. If you have honey bees in your area, this can be a great activity for the family.
It is fascinating to me to learn more about what bees eat and how they function in the ecosystem. Bees need pollen and we can help.