What Do Honeybees Eat?

What Do Honeybees Eat?

Honeybees eat honey, right? Well, yes, but that’s just part of the story. Bees need Carbohydrates (from nectar or honey), Protein, Fats, Minerals (from pollen), Salts, and Water. If you look at a frame of bees you will see that it has a pattern to it. There will be honey on the top and sides, bee bread (a fermented mixture of pollen and honey), and then brood in the center. This bee bread is what the nurse bees eat in order to make royal jelly. This jelly is actually very similar to milk from mammals, and it is fed to all the bees, not just the queen. The nurse bees make this protein-rich substance from special glands and feed it to both the larva and the foragers.

Communal Stomach

Interestingly, once bees become foragers they no longer can digest pollen, they must be fed jelly from the nurse bees. This feeding communicates to the foragers whether or not there is enough pollen coming in which tells them if should be focused more on nectar or pollen collecting. When you observe bees constantly touching each other they are communicating and sharing in so many ways. Part of this is a feedback loop making sure that the whole colony is aware of its needs so that they can act as a unit. If there is not enough pollen stores then the nurse bees will slow jelly production. As the foragers come in they ask for jelly and if there is not enough then it’s like our stomach telling us we are hungry and we need to eat. So then, when the foragers go back out they collect more pollen. If there is not enough pollen then the whole colony will suffer that hunger and growth will slow.

holding a piece of pollen comb
This is a cross-section of comb filled with pollen

As beekeepers we need to be aware of the food stores in our colonies so that we can be a part of that feedback loop. We can offer supplemental food when necessary. Plant more flowers that have food they need or place our hives where good forage is. Gardens and farms that don’t use pesticides or areas near wildflowers are optimal. Understanding bee nutrition will help you be a better beekeeper and a better steward of our planet as well.

Where Will Your Bees Find Food?

This week I want you to start thinking about what your bees are going to be foraging on. Bees aren’t like cats and dogs. You can’t just feed them a bag of bee food. They are going to be flying through your neighborhood and your garden to forage for food. What are they going to find? Do your neighbors spray every weed the second if flowers? Are you next to farmland or citrus groves? What about the trees planted on your street, or the vegetable gardens in your neighbor’s back yards? What water sources are nearby? Are there plants that bloom for a few weeks and then nothing for a year?

These are things to be aware of, because without proper nutrition, your colony may not survive. Yes, there are times when you may need to provide supplemental sugar syrup or pollen substitute, but you don’t want it to be the norm.

Just like you, your bees need a varied diet. Nectar is the energy source of bees, but pollen contains the building blocks, and not all pollen is created equal. It is better to have a variety of flowers available than a single monocrop. The good news for us here in Arizona is that mesquite is one of the most nutritious pollen sources for bees. Yippee! We have lots of those all over. Another of the top pollen sources is Mormon Tea, which is a wild plant that grows throughout the desert as well. These two plants don’t bloom all year, though, so bees need flowers that bloom at other times of the year as well.

Just like you, your bees need a varied diet. Nectar is the energy source of bees, but pollen contains the building blocks.

Cricket Aldridge

Take Notes

One of the easiest and best ways to know what your bees are eating is to keep a notebook, planner or text app on your phone to take note of what is blooming every week of the year. This way you will know when you may need to supplement feeding, or what to plant that is blooming when other things aren’t. You can make a huge difference to bee populations by planting the right things.

If you are a hiker, then take a photo of plants that are blooming. Sometimes you can find those plants in a nursery, or just come back later and collect seeds. I just did that this weekend. The bees were going crazy (and so was I) for the Desert Lavender. I looked it up online. I searched “desert plant that smells like lavender,” and after looking at the photos and descriptions, I determined that it was definitely Hyptis emoryi. And guess, what? It is propagated by seed. So I’ll be back to collect some of that in a couple weeks.

Don’t forget to look down as well. If you look closely in your yard or on the trail you’ll see that bees absolutely love visiting those tiny flowers on what we often call weeds. Some of these tiny flowers grow in such abundance that you’d be surprised how much food bees can get from them. This adds to the variety in their diet, which translates to a healthier hive. When you see bees on a flower you don’t know the name of, find out more about it and put it in your notes. You are building your own beekeeping guide that will be better than anything you can find online. Your future self will thank you. Other beekeepers will thank you.

Some great resources to deepen your knowledge

Randy Oliver on Honeybee Nutrition (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

Honeybee Nutrition, by Dr. Zachary Huang

You can get your very own downloadable beekeeping planner to help you keep track of your world. Print a whole year or a week at time.

beekeeping planner