Pretty much everyone knows that bees are critically important pollinators. You’ve probably heard the old admonishment that without them, about half of the crops and other plants that people depend on would cease to exist.
Maybe that’s true, I don’t know, but I do know that things will only get worse without our friendly bees!
But speaking of pollination, it occurs because bees gather pollen as they go from flower to flower, and some just happen to rub off on others. We know that because they have special baskets on their legs to carry it. But just what do bees do with pollen, anyway?
Bees gather pollen because it is a critical food source for the hive, specifically for older larvae and workers. Some worker bees gather pollen and others turn it into bee bread for storage, which is easier to eat and digest.
Turns out, bees aren’t doing the whole pollination thing out of the goodness of their tiny little hearts. Pollination actually happens accidentally because bees want the pollen for themselves!
Pollen is a crucial resource for a beehive and without it, the health of the hive will falter, fail and eventually result in colony collapse. No joke, and no wonder they work so hard…
There are a lot more fascinating facts to learn about pollen and why bees want it so badly, so keep reading…
Worker Bees Gather Pollen for Food
The bottom line is that pollen is food for bees, and specifically it is the most essential source of protein for the entire hive.
Unlike other flying, stinging insects like wasps and hornets, bees are strictly gatherers, not hunters. They don’t chase down and kill other insects or any other creatures to get protein in animal form. Pollen, and a few other incidental items, are all they make use of.
But to get the pollen, bees must collect it, and older worker bees that have “graduated” to field duty, that is work outside the hive, seek out flowers located by scout bees or by their own efforts, and then start greedily gathering pollen from them. Once the baskets on their hind legs are full, they return to the hive.
Pollen is the Primary Food Source for All Workers and Older Bee Larvae
Bees work so hard, tirelessly, in fact, to get pollen because it is essential for the survival of the hive.
That’s because it is pollen, not honey, that is the primary and typical food of all worker bees and older bee larvae. Bees rely on honey more during the winter, but it is the pollen that gets them through most days.
When all the industrious bees that are maintaining the hive, from workers in the form of nurse bees, royal attendants, guard bees, scout bees, and gatherers need food, they eat pollen that has been specially prepared for them by younger workers inside the hive.
The next generation of workers also depends on gathered pollen for food, specifically larvae that are too old to eat the secretions regurgitated by nurse bees that are fed to the youngest among them.
Pollen is constantly consumed in the hive when it’s available, but even once it’s brought in, it isn’t quite ready to head to the dinner table so to speak.
Gathering Workers Don’t Eat Pollen As-Is, They Just Carry It
Before we go on, I should point out that while pollen is a critical foodstuff for the hive, the bees that are gathering it in the field or waiting at the hive don’t eat it as-is.
I guess you could look at it as being against the rules to dip into the hive’s supply, but the actual reason why they don’t do it is because the pollen needs to be processed to make it more nutritious and digestible.
Workers in the Hive Process and Pack Away Pollen as “Bee Bread”
The most fascinating thing that happens to pollen once it’s gathered and dropped off by the field workers inside the hive is that other workers will take it, secrete saliva on it, and then pack it away in little balls, often called pellets.
They form these balls by tamping them with their heads, and the resulting pellet is referred to as bee bread, or sometimes called ambrosia.
This final step is what turns the pollen into that essential food source, because it will have an ideal combination of protein, vitamins, minerals, sugar, and essential fatty acids that bees need to thrive and stay healthy.
The secretions made by the “baker” bee will break the pollen down and make it more digestible by all bees when it’s eaten.
This is why the gathering bees and other bees don’t stop eating pollen as it is fresh from the flower: it’s more efficient and better in the long run for it to be processed first!
Once the pollen has been turned into bee bread, it’s packed away inside its dedicated cells of honeycomb for storage until it’s broken out and eaten as needed.
The individual pellets of bee bread are also sealed with a single droplet of honey in order to add those sugars and further preserve it against spoilage and contamination.
Without Processing, Pollen Can Easily Spoil
Pollen is highly active in terms of microbial life, and most has various strains of fungi and other things already. Left untended, or stashed as it is, inside the hive, it will quickly mold.
Many kinds of mold are highly harmful to bees, and this is why they’re so diligent and quick to process collected pollen into bee bread; it’s the only way to make sure it will keep for a time!
Bee Bread is Highly Nutritious, but Highly Variable Too!
Another interesting fact about pollen, in the form of bee bread, is that the nutritional composition can vary considerably depending on which plant specifically the pollen was gathered from.
The overall health of the individual worker bees that make it also impacts the resulting nutritional profile because their secretions are the ones that add enzymes and other nutrients that all of the bees will need.
Accordingly, a healthy hive that’s gathering from very healthy sources of pollen will be even healthier and grow faster overall, whereas a weaker hive population with crappy food sources is not going to grow as fast or be as healthy. Even the daily and weekly health of the plant itself impacts the quality of the bee bread!
Like every other animal in nature, diet and environment make a huge difference for bees, and nowhere is this more apparent than the impact that the quality of the pollen has on their life!
Pollen is Not Used Directly in the Production of Honey
A common misconception we should squash right now is that pollen is used to make honey. Strictly speaking, it is not: honey is formed from nectar that’s processed and dehydrated prior to storage inside its own dedicated cells inside the hive.
Pollen is not a deliberately added ingredient, although without pollen bees will not have the nutrition and vitality needed to gather and process honey.
In a way, you can say that pollen is still necessary for the production of honey, but it is not an ingredient of honey.
Honey is Used to Preserve Bee Bread, Though!
Conversely, as mentioned above, honey is a necessary ingredient for finished bee bread because it is used to add sugar, and carbohydrates, and also to help preserve the bee bread against spoilage.
In Extremis, Bees Can Eat Artificial Pollen
Beekeepers, when typical food sources aren’t around or when bees are just having a really hard time locating them, may give their bees an alternative diet consisting of artificial pollen.
This artificial pollen is indeed a powder, like pollen, but it’s made from other food ingredients like egg and milk proteins, yeast, corn gluten, and often added vitamins and minerals that bees need.
However, while this will keep them alive and can help jump-start a stressed or recovering hive, these foods invariably lack essential nutrients that bees must have in order to survive and thrive.
It turns out that there is no substitute for the real thing, and a beehive is not expected to survive on a continual diet of artificial pollen no matter how good it’s advertised as being.
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.