Almost all bee species eat pollen, as well as nectar, these being their primary food sources. Honey bees create honey from nectar, while pollen is made into bee bread. Pollen is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, as well as protein.
What do honey bees eat?
We all naturally assume that all bees drink nectar from flowers, live in hives and make honey, but actually, of the 20,000 species worldwide, this is true for only a small section of them. The honey bee (aka the European honey bee), possibly the world’s most famous bee, is one of seven ‘honey bee’ species that live like this.
Honey bees collect both nectar and pollen when they visit a flower. Pollen is produced by the flowers as part of the process of reproduction, while nectar is a bribe to insects to visit the flower. When insects settle on a flower or hover over it to drink nectar, they accidentally get covered in pollen. This pollen is then transferred to the next flower they visit, causing pollination.
|Type of Pollen||Common Plant Sources|
|Wildflower Pollen||Dandelion, Sunflower, Aster, Goldenrod, etc.|
|Fruit Tree Pollen||Apple, Cherry, Peach, Plum, etc.|
|Vegetable Pollen||Cucumber, Squash, Tomato, Pepper, etc.|
|Legume Pollen||Clover, Alfalfa, Soybean, Pea, etc.|
|Herb Pollen||Basil, Thyme, Rosemary, Mint, etc.|
|Tree Pollen||Oak, Pine, Birch, Maple, etc.|
Not all insects eat pollen, being only interested in the sugary nectar. However, honey bees use their legs to brush the pollen from their hairs and place it into pollen baskets on their legs. You’ll be able to spot a bee with a full pollen basket, as they look like little orange or yellow saddlebags on their back legs.
Once back at the hive, the honey bee will regurgitate the nectar it has sucked up. This rather unpleasant sounding mixture of nectar and the bee’s internal enzymes is what goes on to become honey. It will be deposited into cells, where it will be fanned by another bee to reduce the moisture content. Eventually, it will be capped with wax.
The pollen, however, does not go into the honey-making process. Instead, it is stored in separate cells and made into what is known as bee bread. Bee bread is pollen, once again mixed with the bee’s enzymes. Raw pollen can go mouldy very quickly. The enzymes added by the bees causes it to ferment and stay usable for much longer. It also makes it more digestible for the bees to eat.
As well as nectar and pollen, and the foods made from them, bee bread and honey, bees also eat royal jelly. Royal jelly is a secretion that comes from glands in the heads of nurse bees, worker bees nursing the young bees, and is fed to all larvae, whether they are a drone, worker or queen.
After having been fed on royal jelly for the first few days, young bees are given bee bread and nectar as they become adults. The honey bees make honey as a food store for the winter, when there are few flowers around, and this is therefore what the bees will feed on once the weather gets colder and they stop flying.
Some bees have also been found to eat fruit, attracted to the high sugar content. Rotted fruit is particularly desirable. They are also more than happy to eat some human sources of sugar, from soft drinks to sugar water. Beekeepers often give their hives sugar in the winter to make up for the honey they’ve harvested.
What do other bee species eat?
Beyond the honey bee, there are a wide range of different species across the world. Though some live communally, such as bumblebees, many are solitary. Solitary bees have less need to make honey or bee bread for their young. Many solitary bees, such as leafcutter bees and mason bees, create little chambers for their offspring and deposit pollen inside for when they hatch.
Most adult solitary bees still eat nectar and pollen. Sometimes bees are thought to be eating a substance when they are actually simply collecting it or digging out their nests. Mason bees and mining bees, for example, create nests by digging chambers out of the soil. Leafcutter bees also cut pieces out of leaves in order to create parcels into which they lay their eggs. The carpentry bee even cuts tunnels into wood.
Some species are plain old thieves, such as cuckoo bumblebees that lay their eggs into other bees’ nests. This means the lazy adults just feed themselves on whatever pollen or nectar they fancy and don’t worry about supplying any for their young.
There are very few bees that eat meat. Carrion bees are one example, that are found in North America. These bees have been found to collect meat like other bees collect pollen, gathering it from carcasses and then regurgitating it once they have returned to their nest.
Why do bees eat pollen?
Nectar is an excellent source of energy, a sugary syrup that gives the insects that eat it a quick hit and rewards them for their visit to a bloom. Yet this fast food lacks many of the critical vitamins and minerals the bees need. Pollen is an excellent source of these, as well as often being the bee’s only source of protein.
|Nutrient||Percentage in Pollen|
How often do they eat?
Bees will eat constantly throughout the day. During winter, many species die off or go into diapause, similar to hibernation.
|Bee Castes||Pollen Consumption Frequency|
|Worker Bees||Daily or near-daily to support colony and larval development|
|Queen Bees||Regularly, especially during the egg-laying phase|
|Drone Bees||Occasional consumption, focus primarily on mating|
Providing pollen for the bees
Pollen is a great source of food for bees and many other species. The best way to provide plentiful pollen is to plant a large variety of flowers in your garden or in pots on your balcony. Native species are particularly beneficial, as more native species of insect are likely to feed on it. Multi-petaled flowers can also be challenging for bees to get into, meaning they can’t access the pollen.
It’s not just flowers that are great for bees; many tree species are excellent as well. Willow flowers early, which provides large amounts of pollen at a time when the bees need it the most. Other plants like ivy can provide pollen towards the end of the summer when there’s little else available. So why not try and put on a pollen picnic for your local bees?