what do bees eat

What Do Bees Eat?

It’s easy to forget that insects need to eat—unless they’re mosquitos, in which case we are the food. It would seem that the feeding habits and diets of insects are extremely offbeat to ours. When you really look into it, though, you’ll see we’re not so different after all.

So, what do bees eat? They, like us, need to take in certain nutrients and minerals to function, and for the same reason. Food is energy, and bees—the seemingly busiest bugs of them all—need lots of it. Since their work is what gives us our food, I think bee food is worth looking into.

What Is the Average Diet of a Bee?

Most bees are vegetarian, but there is a group of bees—called vulture bees—that feed on rotting meat. Fortunately for everyone concerned, vulture bees are by no means average, so I won’t go into detail about that.

Honeybees eat pollen, nectar, and honey, but their diet plans are largely dependent on what type of bee they are, and their age. Remember that the majority of bees don’t make honey, though. If we want to get technical, honeybees are just as much an exception as vulture bees are.

bee covered in pollen
A bee covered in pollen – CC Image courtesy of forestwander-nature-pictures

Still, let’s focus on the honeybee. They are the most common after all.

Larvae are usually fed honey and royal jelly. Potential queen bees are fed only royal jelly so they will fatten and grow faster. Drones and workers eat peasant food—honey, nectar, and pollen.

Drones are bigger and can eat up to three times more than the workers, though. Maybe that’s why they get kicked out of the colonies; they contribute nothing yet use up most of the resources.

Bees get a number of nutrients from their meals of choice, including:

  • Carbohydrates (from sugars found in nectar and honey)
  • Amino acids (found in protein in pollen)
  • Various vitamins and minerals, including B6, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, pantothenic acid, potassium, phosphorus, riboflavin, sodium, thiamine, and zinc
  • Lipids
  • Water

It makes sense that bees take in the same nutrients as we do, because we harvest their honey, a product of nectar, and it’s widely considered one of the healthiest foods we can indulge in.

honeycomb

There is another similarity between us and them. Their health is dependent on the quality of what they eat and their environment plays a big role. There are some pollens that aren’t as healthy for bees.

Pollens that shorten bee lifespans:

  • Ambrosia (ragweed)
  • Kallstroemia (Mexican poppy)
  • Typha (cattail)

Pollens that slightly prolong bee lifespans:

  • Baccharis (desert broom)
  • Haplopappus (terpentine bush)
  • Taraxacum (dandelion)

Pollens that have the greatest positive effect:

  • Ephedra (Mormon tea)
  • Mixed pollen
  • Populus (cottonwood)
  • Prosopis (mesquite)
  • Rubus (blackberry)

Pollens that are toxic to bees:

  • Aesculus californica (California buckeye)
  • Heliconia
  • Ochroma lagopus (balsa)
  • Spathodea campanulata (flame of the forest)
  • Zigadenus

There are more plants that are toxic to bees because they have alkaloids in their nectars, and in some cases, it’s the same plants that are toxic to us. These include azalea, azure, black hellebore, Chinese alangium, Chinese bittersweet, jimson weed, plume poppy, happy tree, and tea.

How Do Bees Collect Food?

Both nectar and pollen are found by means of foraging flowers. In bees that produce honey, it’s the workers (females) that are responsible for finding and collecting food for the colony.

bee on lavender

When collecting, a bee uses its long, tube tongue (proboscis) to suck nectar out of plants. Once they have it, the bees store it in their honey stomach, which is separate to their digestive stomach.

Honey stomachs can hold up to 70 milligrams of honey. To fill this capacity, a bee might have to visit thousands of flowers in a day.

Once their honey stomachs are full, bees return to the hive and hand their nectar over to younger worker bees, who receive it through their mouths and then store it away (as honey) in wax cells. One beehive can produce as much as 200 pounds of honey in a year.

Pollen is gathered either by pollen foragers—who actively seek pollen—or nectar foragers that end up coated in it.

When bees zoom through the air, they become charged with static electricity. When they land on flowers, they knock pollen off it, which then sticks to their fuzzy (and electrically charged) hairs.

They then use their hind legs to scrape the pollen off themselves to store in their pollen baskets (corbicula)—little pockets on their legs. They can now safely transport it back to the colony, where the pollen will be stored in wax cells for future use.

Sometimes, when food is scarce, colonies of bees may actually go to nearby hives to steal food from other bees, especially if the colony is weaker.

pollen collecting hairs on leg of bee
These tiny leg hairs help to trap and collect pollen.

We can compare this to humans going out to the store to buy food, carrying it home and storing it in our pantries or fridges for when we’re hungry.

How Do Bees Choose Which Flowers to Visit?

Bees fall into three categories:

  • Polylectic bees collect pollen from a variety of plants
  • Oligolectic bees have a limited range of plants to choose from
  • Monolectic bees only harvest pollen from one type of plant species

The latter naturally has no choice in which plants they harvest. With the first and second type, bees have intelligent behaviors that ensure they get the best food. When foraging for nectar, bees typically use sight and smell to find it.

Bumblebees have learned to copy successful foragers. They watch other bees and then follow them to flowers that are similar in color, particularly. This imitation is not absolute, though. If bees know that certain flowers taste bad, they won’t go to them—even if other foragers do.

bumblebee

Research from 2013 uncovered that bees don’t only use their sense of smell to find pollen—they sense electric fields around flowers. Their static not only leads them to flowers they can feed off, but it also tells them if other bees have visited it before them.

They use these electric fields to tell flowers apart as well.

It’s not always up to the bee though. Plants need bees for pollination just as much as bees need plants for pollen. Plants have evolved to look and smell appealing to bees to increase the chances of bees approaching.

Bees will generally be attracted to bright, sweet-smelling flowers.

Why Do Bees Always Want to Land on My Food?

When I was a child I was told that bees loved sweet things, and so they’d try to eat whatever contained sugar. It made sense, since most encounters with bees involved me trying to protect my sodas and ice cream from them.

This isn’t false, it’s just slightly more detailed than that.

When bees forage, they’re not just on the hunt for sweet things. They’re searching for the nutrients—protein, sugar, and water primarily—that they get from flowers or plants.

Even though bees are known for their hard work, they can be quite lazy. If they sense an easy or even temporary food source, they won’t hesitate to sample it.

bee on flower

Human food abounds, and they help themselves to it, to have something to show for their efforts when they return to their hives. This isn’t always a good thing—because the hive might reject their harvest, rendering their efforts futile—but bees don’t really have the foresight for that.

There’s also a risk that food which is left out by humans has been contaminated with diseases by other colonies that sampled it. If a bee takes this food home, it could infect their whole hive.

If you want to help bees out by leaving snacks for them, the best thing to do would be to plant flowers that make them happy. Otherwise, you can leave sugar water, or just plain water, out for them.

It’s important to remember that bees can’t swim, though. If you want to quench their thirst, you’ll have to set up a landing for them so that they have easy access to the water without the risk of falling in.

Will Bees Eat Anything Else If They Begin to Starve?

Starvation is a problem for bees. Not only do they run out of food in the winter, and are left unable to forage, there are other factors beyond their control that leave them hungry.

Climate change is a big one. Weather changes have caused plants to grow outside of their usual seasons and bees have not adjusted to this. This spells less food all around for the bees, but it also makes it more difficult for them to find.

Industrialism has also interfered with the bees’ food sources. Deforestation has destroyed a lot of their natural habitat, and humans have decreased the amount of food available for bees to eat.

Pesticides sprayed on plants are a massive problem, as they poison bees who attempt to harvest nectar or pollen from the contaminated plants.

Colony collapse disorder can also lead to starvation, as the general idea behind a colony is that the workers take care of the hive. If they no longer supply food to the rest of the colony, those that can’t forage will go hungry.

One other possible cause of starvation in drones is that when food is scarce or rationed within a hive, the workers drive them out of it. Since they do not contribute to the standing of a colony, workers consider them a waste of resource and evict them.

honeycomb with bees

This typically happens in the winter, which worsens the situation for the drones.

What Happens If Bees Starve?

Researchers have found that if bees are desperate enough, they might turn to toxic foods in desperation. It’s even been hypothesized that this could be why bee populations have dropped so dramatically in recent years.

The idea is that in countries which have seen a reduction in plant diversity, bees have been forced to eat foods they would otherwise reject. This could make them unhealthier, weaker, and significantly impact their survival.

Summary

Bee food is fascinating because a bee’s diet is so important to ours. It’s been estimated that a third of the food we eat was pollinated by bees. Without them, starvation could become a massive problem for humanity.

If we make an effort to understand what bees eat, we could replace the resources we have taken from them. So, the next time you see one buzzing about, remember that it’s probably just looking for its lunch.

If you want to help, plant some appealing flowers in your garden, and give them a spot where they can drink water—sugary or otherwise. You never know how big a difference you could make for the bees.

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