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Pollen collection by honey bees

While we normally think of honey bees collecting nectar, an average-size colony may bring in 100 pounds of pollen in a season. Pollen is an essential part of the honey bee diet, providing a wide range of nutrients including protein, carbohydrates, lipids, vitamins, and minerals.

Although a tough outer coating protects the pollen from environmental stressors, honey bees have enzymes in their digestive tract that split the grains apart at a weak point. The interior is then digested and the empty husks are excreted. Most of the pollen is eaten by nurse bees. They use the nutrition absorbed from it to secrete royal jelly from their hypopharyngeal glands. The jelly is fed to young larvae, including workers, drones and queens. After about three days the jelly is mixed with bee bread—a mixture of whole pollen, honey, and enzymes—and fed to the workers and drones until they spin their cocoons. The queens receive a steady diet of royal jelly throughout their development.

Most bees collect just pollen or just nectar on any trip, but a few carry both at the same time. The pollen is stuffed into hairy receptacles on their hind legs called corbiculae. A single bee can carry about half her own body weight in pollen.

Once back at the hive, the workers stuff the pollen into an awaiting cell. Unlike nectar-carrying bees, pollen-carrying bees have to off-load it themselves. In addition to depositing the pellets from their sacks, they may also groom away any pollen that is stuck to their bodies. The pollen is stored in cells at the perimeter of the brood nest, forming a ring around it. During the brood rearing season, the pollen is stored for only a few days. During the winter it is stored for much longer.

Honey bees usually forage on only one kind of flower on any single trip. This is nature’s way of assuring that plants are cross-pollinated. So a bee going to blackberries, keeps going to blackberries until there are no more blackberry flowers, then she will switch to something else. Honey bees collect pollen even from plants that don’t provide nectar, such as corn. In corn-growing regions, pesticide-contaminated corn pollen is suspected of causing severe health problems within the hive.

Rusty

Comments

Cody Freeman
Reply

hi Rusty, this is Liesl’s husband. she told me about your bee blog and i decided to check it out…Very cool! I think i have learned more about bees in the last 10 minutes than in my entire life so far. Liesl and I have been talking about maybe starting up a bee hive in the future, so i am sure when that time comes we will want your expertise. I was a little confused about something in the Pollen collection article. You said that “bees forage on only one kind of flower on a single trip. This is nature’s way of assuring plants are cross-pollinated.” is that correct? to me it would make sense that if they only gathered pollen from ONE flower type that they would NOT be cross-pollinating.
Anyway, I look forward to reading more about these bees and i am going to start right now.

thanks
Cody

Rusty
Reply

Hey Cody,

Thanks so much for your comments. I would love to help you and Liesl set up a colony of bees anytime you’re ready.

This is really silly, but I just wrote a long answer to your question and it disappeared. Drats! I can’t figure out where it went, so I’ll just have to start again.

I think the term “cross pollination” is the thing that is confusing you. The “cross” part refers to pollination between flowers of the same species, instead of pollination within an individual.

If you shook one flower, and the pollen dropped from the anther (male part) onto the stigma (female part) that would be self pollination. It usually doesn’t produce seed or a fruit.

Cross pollination happens when the pollen from one flower is transferred to the stigma of a totally different flower on a separate plant. The flower has to be of the same species, but it’s a different individual. So, for example, when pumpkin pollen lands on a different pumpkin flower, it will fertilize and make a seed, but if the pumpkin pollen lands in the flower where it came from or on a kiwi flower, for example, nothing happens.

So if a bee went from a maple, to a cherry, to a dandelion, to a mint, to a cucumber, nothing would ever get pollinated because they are all different species (just like a dog can’t “pollinate” a cat.) But if the bee goes from one pumpkin plant, to another pumpkin plant, to another, you will get pumpkins on all of them. Very cool. Anyway, that is what is meant by cross pollination.

If you’re still confused, I’ll try again.

Rusty

Joanna
Reply

Hi again- this entry came up on some of the results in my Googling. I’m finding a LOT of different numbers and if it is annoying to have me all over your site with this then please tell me to stop! Here http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/in868 says a bee can carry roughly 1/3 (35%) of its body weight in pollen. Here http://www.beeccdcap.uga.edu/documents/CAPArticle10.html says the average weight of a honeybee is 120mg and that they can collect 7.6- 8.6 mg pollen. There were several other less scholarly articles with numbers all over the place- “HBs can carry 2g in their corbiculae”, “20 mg of an average weight of 80 mg”. I can’t paste in cites as those were pdfs. There was also a really old article (June 1964 Soc. for Study of Evolution) Kerr and Herling indicating that bee weights range from a low of 81.2mg to a high of 110.4mg. The numbers are similarly all over the place for nectar load/weight but nearly universally indicate that bees can carry much more nectar than pollen- and I’m guessing that’s primarily due to load placement. In any event, I think it’s conservative to conclude that if there is 60mg of a single varietal of pollen than meets the minimum for an average HB- understanding that the average HB will pack at its own discretion. A 2005 article in the J of Apicultural Science indicates a pollen weight of 9.5mg per 10 flowers of a specific rhody (or .95/single average flower). So, for rhodys it would be roughly two good shrubs with 70 or so flowers. Again, apologies for the quasi irrelevance, its just helpful to me to try to think of the two things together- plantings and bees and how many flowers is enough pollenwise/nectarwise. I’m going to go obsess over something else for a moment and leave you be!

Chris
Reply

It is not just the pesticide in corn. You did not mention that most of the corn today grown by our farmers is GMO. Recently, I believe about two years now, the latest genetic modification to corn merged the DNA of a bacteria that dissolves the stomach lining of any insect that takes a bite from the corn plant. If you are correct and bees collect the pollen from corn, our bee population in the USA is in danger.

Chris Y
Reply

This is not true! not all insects are susceptible to the bacterium. There is currently no commercial Bt product in North American soy but it’s quite common in corn and cotton. By the way, bacterium have been used in “chemical form” to combat insects for a lot longer than in gmo field crops. Bt was discovered in the early 1900s. It is not known to harm bees when used in gmo crops http://bit.ly/1l0VXuF and http://bit.ly/1l0W6OG

Sarah W
Reply

What’s the difference between bee pollen and flower pollen? For example, you can buy bee pollen as nutritional supplements. Do the bees do something with the pollen between collecting it and entering the hive which makes the pollen change from simply ‘flower pollen hanging on to a bee’ and ‘bee pollen’?

Rusty
Reply

Sarah,

Bee pollen is indeed flower pollen hanging on a bee. Although bees mix nectar with pollen once it gets in the hive, the pollen collected in pollen traps is basically just pure flower pollen packed into a tight ball. The pollen you buy in stores is collected from these traps, not from the inside of the hive.

Sarah W
Reply

Thanks ever so much for the prompt reply – much appreciated.

Chris
Reply

Hello! Great blog thingy you have here. I have a few hives. Two of them are in my backyard. Both of these hives have, what seems to me, a HUGE amount of pollen stored here in late July. One hive is 2 deeps deep (deep, deep, deep) and the lower hive body is almost all pollen with a little brood on some of the center frames. Can the bees get “pollen bound” the way they can get honey bound?
Thanks,
Chris

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

I have heard that they can, although I have never seen it myself.

KAYLA
Reply

HOW DO THE BEES FLY?

Rusty
Reply

Kayla,

The honey bees can fly as long as the pollen load is no more than about half the bee’s body weight.

Linda
Reply

We have 2 hives but only one seems to bringing in pollen. Is common or is that a sign of something wrong in the hive not carrying pollen? Thank you.

Rusty
Reply

Linda,

It’s common. Your two colonies are most likely foraging in different places and coming across different plants. I have colonies doing the same thing.

Pekka
Reply

Hello.
I can not see the queen in my hive. My bees carry pollen into the hive. Does it mean that there is a queen? Now is spring and 10 °C degrees. Could you ask my question, please?
Thank you.
Regards

Melissa
Reply

I noticed that the honey bees were going in and out of some hollow parts of our storm door last year and again this year. I was sweeping under the door and found a lot of yellow pollen under the rug, near the hollow parts. Today, I took a large black tool box off the porch, another place I’d seen the bees going in and out of and there was pollen spilled from the box-quite a bit. Why wouldn’t they take the honey to the hive?

Rusty
Reply

Hi Melissa,

It doesn’t sound like you’ve got honey bees but some other type of bee, and it sounds like they are losing part of their pollen load as they go in and out of their nest. Bees have trouble picking up pollen unless its on a flower, so I doubt they would even try to retrieve it. Honey is made from nectar, not pollen, so the two things aren’t related.

Eddie
Reply

Just a quick question or two:

Regarding royal jelly,,, isn’t it only fed to larvae that is being ‘groomed’ to become a queen? Hence the name ‘ROYAL jelly’? Or do I have it wrong?

Also, if a bee is coming in without the pollen bags visible, does that mean they are carrying nectar instead of pollen?

Rusty
Reply

Eddie,

1. Royal jelly is feed to all brood for about three days. Afterward, the drones and workers are transitioned to bee bread but the queen continues to receive royal jelly.

2. A bee coming in with empty pollen baskets may be carrying nectar or water or nothing. Many bees come home empty, including guard bees, undertaker bees, bees returning from an orientation flight or a cleansing flight, or bees that just didn’t find anything to bring home.

Katrin
Reply

How long does it take for the bee to take pollen from one flower? How many sec?

Rusty
Reply

Katrin,

It depends on the type of bee and the type of flower. Some bees spend several seconds, some native bees spend less than a second. Other times a bee may spend several minutes on one flower. There are many variables. When you’re trying to photograph them, none of it seems very long.

Jon
Reply

Will bees continue to collect pollen in a colony that has gone queenless? In other words, is the collection of pollen an indicator that there is a queen laying eggs and young to feed?

Rusty
Reply

Jon,

Surprisingly, sometimes excess pollen collection is a sign of queenlessness. I recently wrote an article about this exact question: Can a colony collect too much pollen?

JoAnn
Reply

Today we watched a honey bee collect nectar from dozens of hosta flowers and then she went back to each one and sit on the outside of the flower at the point where it attaches to the stem.

I have never observed this before. What would the reason be for doing this?

Craig
Reply

I bought a nuc one month ago. After I made the transfer the colony adapted right away. Time was early May on Long Island NY. About 25% of the field bees were loaded w/ pollen. It’s now week four lots of activity but no more bees w/ pollen. Is that a problem?

Rusty
Reply

Craig,

You may be in the midst of a nectar flow. If so, your bees may be concentrating on nectar accumulation. They communicate with each other and know what they need to collect. Long Island in May no doubt has ample supplies of both nectar and pollen, so I wouldn’t worry about it.

lane
Reply

When the bees take the pollen from a flower does the flower produce more pollen after the bee takes the pollen?

Rusty
Reply

Lane,

No, the flower has its full complement of pollen when it first opens, and it doesn’t produce more. The plant may produce more in other flowers, of course. But plants produce way more pollen than they need because they “know” that the pollinating insects will take some for their own use. Flowering plants and pollinators evolved together, and they take care of each other.

Belinda Knox
Reply

Hello – i recently spent some time in Hampshire and saw two bees on the same flower. I wondered why they can happily sit on the same flower gatheirng pollen. There were lots of flowers around. How do they interact with their fellow worker bees normally. Do they share etc. Also are they likely to work in pairs all the time. Are they also territorial sometimes about the pollen – or are they merely programmed to pick up that precise pollen?

Rusty
Reply

Belinda,

Look at the photos on my homepage. About halfway down you will see six honey bees sharing a flower. Bees select the flowers that are providing the most nectar or pollen. Newer flowers generally have more, and the time of day is important as well. I’ve seen many species together on one flower, but I’ve also seen bees chase each other away. Different bees behave differently, just like people. No, I’ve never seen them work in pairs. Territoriality often goes with the species. Wood carder bees, for example, are extremely territorial. The type of pollen selected is also governed by species: some collect only one type, but some collect many types.

meenu
Reply

Hi Rusty

Is there a particular time of the day when bees collect nectar or pollen from a flower? or in other words is there any preference of honey bees to collect nectar at some particular time of the day and pollen at some other time of the day? At what time do they collect most nectar?

Rusty
Reply

Meenu,

It’s more a matter of the flowers. Certain plants release nectar or pollen at certain times of day, but not others. It varies with different species. So the honey bees learn which plants to visit at which time of day. When those give out, they move onto others. So it’s really the plants that govern the schedule and the bees go along with it.

meenu
Reply

Thanks very much for the prompt reply Rusty.

meenu
Reply

Thanks
Cheers
Meena

Ken Roden
Reply

Hi Rusty. When the bees loaded with pollen return to their hives do they evacuate or drop or splatter like brown droplets on their way?
thanking you Ken

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

I’m not sure what you’re asking, but I don’t think bees carrying pollen would defecate as they approach the hive. More likely, they would do it as they leave the hive. Since bees, especially winter bees, leave the hive in order to defecate, I would think that sets up a pattern. But hey, I’m guessing here. Normally, no feces is seen around the hive except in winter and early spring, so it just seems like they do it away from the hive. Based on my truck, I would say they do it fairly far from the hive.

JESKATI KIPANGULA
Reply

Hi, I want to know exactly time in a day as honeybees do forage.

Rusty
Reply

Honey bees will forage from morning until evening, as long as it is light outside, not raining, and above about 50 degrees F.

Mike
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I’m new to this, so I apologise if this is the wrong place to ask or if this has been covered elsewhere. I started my hive from a nuc about two months ago. I first observed bees carrying lots of pollen into the hive. As we got a little farther into spring, the pollen collection seemed to drop off a bit, but the bees were still carrying in pollen. I figured this is probably normal for this time of year. Then a couple of days ago, the pollen collection seemed to stop abruptly. It became very hot and humid a couple of days ago. So, my question is, are the bees now carrying water or devoting their energy and resources to collecting water instead of pollen? Or, would pollen production by the plants drop off because of heat and humidity? What happens when it gets really hot in July and August with regard to pollen collection?

Rusty
Reply

Mike,

The amount of pollen collected by bees is determined by their need for it and its availability. Pollen collection does ebb and flow with the seasons. In the hot summer there is less, but brood production begins to slow down as well. Also, it could be that you are in a nectar flow and many of the foragers have turned their attention to nectar rather than pollen. There are many variables, so it hard to pinpoint just one.

Liz Downey
Reply

I enjoy ready your comments and advice. I am a new beekeeper. Fascinating creatures. So far, nary a sting. Yet.

Freya
Reply

I’m doing research on bees and came across your website twice now. You have some great info and it’s wonderful to see that you still reply to the comments on such old posts. Anyways I’m wondering if the bee species Apis mellifera have territories over certain areas or plants (not just male bees. I’m more specifically looking at it between different colonies). It would be great if you could reply ASAP.

Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Freya,

I’ve never heard anything about territorial behavior in Apis mellifera. They do, of course, defend their hives from predators including other honey bees, and they will fight each other at the hive entrances, allowing only “family” to pass into the interior. But out in the field, bees from multiple hives will forage side-by-side. Sometimes one bee will fly at another to get her to move off a flower, but this behavior can be seen between bees of any species. In other words, a honey bee may try to scare off another honey bee or a sweat bee or a bumble bee. It is not species specific. At other times, multiple species will share a flower with no issues.

Males gather in drone congregation areas to mate, so the competition there is usually won by the fastest flyers.

But overall I would say that Apis mellifera colonies do not establish territories over plants or regions. The foragers collect as much as they can as fast as they can, and then move on the next patch.

Freya
Reply

Thanks so much. Yeah I read some information but wasn’t sure. I’m currently doing a study on bees and collected and analyzed pollen from separate colonies of Apis mellifera. I found that bees from separate hives weren’t vising the same plants. Or if they had, pollen from that plant would be seen in much greater quantities in one hive than another. So I assumed that possible territories had been established which would explain why some of the pollen types were not found in more than one hive. Although it seems, from your help, that it might just be that bees from one hive know of the location of a plant that another hive does not know about.

Rusty
Reply

Freya,

Each colony sends out scouts to find food sources. Once a source is found, the scout reports back to the colony and gives directions to the source. So it stands to reason that different colonies forage in different areas.

Meenu
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I am here again with another query. My question is about the buzz around honey bees and sugar. There is a strong belief that if you any sugary (made out of sugar) thing out honey bees will go for it, but I wonder how true it is? From what I have seen is they prefer flowers rather than sugar based food stuff. I have been studying their behaviour from since a while and observed their activity during winters months as well. There were some hives (not very strong and well fed) which showed some attraction to sugar solutions but not for a long time. and the very strong hives (with a couple of honey frames) never went near sugar syrups but honey-water was very attractive to them.

I just want to check with you (Rusty) and all other readers on this forum if they have had some similar observations or some views about bees behaviour towards sugar based food stuff.

I am doing these studies are in relation to my bait development for wasps (Vespula sp.- and they love it) which contain some sugar plus some protein and wasp attractant chemicals (that bees hate going near to) and want to check bees attraction towards it as I heard from a lot of beekeepers that bees gonna go for it but I have never seen them over my bait samples. I haven’t even found a consistent correlation between bees and sugar. some weak hives did go for it but most hives with a couple of honey frames didn’t even go near the plain sugar solutions so I am hoping it would be safe for bees.

Could you please add your views regarding this Rusty. Could you please suggest me some more robust studies to check their behaviour towards my bait samples?

Many thanks for your reply. I would appreciate if anybody else can also add some inputs to my query please.

Meenu

Rusty
Reply

Meenu,

No doubt about it: honey bees will go after sugary foodstuffs, especially in times of nectar dearth. Stories about it abound and many of them have been mentioned here on this website. Honey bees have tried to make “honey” from candy coatings, maraschino cherry syrup, cotton candy, candy canes, coke syrup, overripe fruit, and fruit juice. Sure they prefer nectar, but when nectar is in short supply, any sugary thing will work.

Niki Cutler
Reply

Thank you for this informative blog. We are approaching mid November and I see my bees actively working the catmint (Nepeta faassenii) I hesitate to prune because they seem to be gathering something even though I’m not sure they are new blooms. How do I know if the flowers have “worn out” and given the bees all they can get?

Rusty
Reply

Niki,

Since I don’t know where you are, it’s impossible to say. But I would assume there is not much left in those flowers. It’s probably “wishful thinking” on the part of the bees.

Niki Cutler
Reply

I’m in the high desert near Palmdale California. Nights are in the high 40s, days are in the mid 60s to low 70s. Rabbit Brush nearby (less than 1/4 mile) is in full bloom. I’m thinking if the catmint had nothing to provide, they would go for the Rabbit Brush.

Rusty
Reply

Niki,

I agree. Go ahead and clean up your garden.

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