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Why do honey bees waste pollen?

A beekeeper in Nebraska said she found a hundred or so pollen pellets on her screened bottom board. She said she watched for a long time, but the busy bees completely ignored the fallen pellets. She wanted to know why the bees didn’t pick them up. “If honey bees are so careful to conserve nectar and wax, why are they so sloppy about pollen?”

Pellets are hard to move

The problem honey bees have with pollen pellets is simple: they cannot easily pick them up. It seems like they should be able to, after all, honey bees move all kinds of debris out of the hive, such as dead bees, deformed brood, small predators, pieces of cardboard and wood chips. But for some reason, picking up a pollen pellet, moving it to a storage comb, and dropping it in a cell seems to be an impossible task.

Honey bees have very specific ways of dealing with pollen. In the field, the tiny particles stick to their bodies due to electrostatic charges. The bees then groom the pollen from their bodies. Using all six legs, they eventually stuff the pollen into the corbiculae, where it is squeezed into place by the action of the pollen press on their rear legs.

The movement of pollen in the hive

According to The Biology of the Honey Bee (1991) by Mark L Winston, once the pollen forager returns to the hive, she removes the pellets with her middle legs and drops them into in a pollen cell. This is very different from the movement of nectar in the hive, which is passed from bee to bee before it is stored.

Once the pollen load is removed, the forager leaves the area and house bees of a particular age press the pollen into the bottom of the cell with their mandibles and forelegs. During this step, the workers moisten the pellets with “regurgitated honey and saliva.” Additionally, the saliva contains enzymes that help preserve the pollen while it’s in storage. According to Seeley (1982), these pollen handlers are 12–25 days old with a mean age of 16.3 days.

Lost on the bottom board

But if the pollen pellet should become dislodged from a bee’s leg while she is in the hive, it drops to the bottom where the other bees ignore it. If they need more pollen, they go out and get a fresh supply. According to Dr. Norman Gary in The Hive and the Honey Bee (2015), “to collect a full load of pollen a bee may spend as little as 6–10 minutes.” Who knows? Perhaps collecting more pollen takes less time than trying to retrieve the dropped load.

Personally, I have never seen a honey bee attempt to move a pellet with her mandibles. Similarly, pollen fed to honey bees as supplementary feed is usually pulverized into dust or mashed into a moist cake.

Although I have heard of beekeepers feeding pollen pellets by sprinkling them on a piece of paper above the top bars, these would be munched like a pollen patty, not transported to a storage cell. Furthermore, the pellets would be subject to drying into hard little nuggets with the consistency of gravel.

What is your experience? Have you ever seen a honey bee try to collect a dropped pollen pellet? How do you feed pollen pellets back to your bees?

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

honey-bee-with-pollen
Honey bee with a pollen load. If she loses it, she starts again. Pixabay photo.

Comments

Herb Lester
Reply

Rusty….Enjoy the knowledge you share. Thanks ….Herb

Valeria
Reply

During my last inspection I turned a frame on its side and a few pellets fell out so I popped them onto the landing board thinking the bees would pick them up and take them back in, but they showed zero interest. I decided the reason must be that they are not programmed to collect pollen that way and therefore do not recognise it as something valuable. As your post says, the reason they get pollen on them is due to electrostatic charge and their natural grooming behaviour allows them to transfer it between their bodies and the hive.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

I imagine bumbles would do the same. Solitary bees carry their pollen back in a much looser state, only taking time to groom off their loads once at their individual (protected from predators) nests.

Thanks, Glen

TamBee
Reply

I feed my bees back their pollen…I’ve seen them eat it.

Rusty
Reply

How do you feed it back?

Tom
Reply

In the spring and early summer before the mite population increases, I remove the bottom board with pollen on it and dump it on the hive entrance. The pollen disappears soon after that so I’m assuming the bees take it because it doesn’t end up on the ground in front of the hive.

Anna
Reply

We had a speaker from the Beltsville bee lab at our last meeting and he informed us that colonies will not use pollen that is older than ~10 days. In the midst of their research studies, the scientists noticed that full pollen frames would be left untouched. The bees would consume pollen that had been freshly collected (within 10 days or so) but leave the older pollen alone. Apparently the longer the pollen was in the frames, the more it deteriorated. So the bees would always use the fresher pollen. Interesting, yes?

Rusty
Reply

Anna,

Yes, very interesting. So what do bees do for protein over the winter months if they won’t eat the stored bee bread? What is the point of even storing it? I see lots of stored pollen in fall and I see empty frames in spring, so where did it all go? Please tell us more.

Anna
Reply

I don’t know the answers, I will see if we have his contact information. Maybe they use it despite their preferences? I’ll see what I can find out.

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