What Bees Eat: Bee Hierarchy and What Bees Eat During Winter

What Bees Eat

Everyone knows that honeybees produce honey, but what is it that nourishes our buzzing buddies? If you're just getting started in the beekeeping industry, or you're interested in helping your local bee population, you may be wondering what bees eat. While the simple answer is a combination of pollen and nectar, the real answer to the question of what bees eat depends on a few different factors, namely, what stage of life is the bee at and what is its social standing?

Bees have a very complicated social structure, and a bee's diet heavily depends on where they rank. Although this ranking is a large factor, is it certainly not the only variable that determines what a bee eats. A bee's diet also depends on its natural surroundings. Bees are known to be attracted to more than just flowers because in addition to pollen, bees require a great deal of nectar in order to constantly fly in and out of the hive and provide enough food for the entire colony.

When the number of flowers runs low, bees will gather sweet nectar from fruits, vegetables, and even plants. Here, we'll review the different stages of bee life and illustrate how a bee's diet depends on which stage it's in, what its social standing is and even what time of year it is.

Larvae

One of the most fascinating aspects to bee hierarchy is that it all starts in the larvae stage. What a bee is given to eat depends on whether or not it will become a queen or a worker. Did you know that bees make something called bee bread? While imagining a bee baking a loaf of bread in a tiny oven is a fantastic thought, bee bread is actually a mixture of honey, pollen, and a minimal amount of royal jelly that is fed to the colony of bees destined to be workers.

What Bees Eat

Royal jelly is a secretion that comes from long glands that are on the side of a young honeybee's head. This royal jelly is rich in protein, and while worker bee larvae get some of the spoils, the queen bee larvae get the lion's share. In fact, if a larva is destined to become queen, it is only fed vitamin-rich royal jelly throughout its life. When bees move beyond this stage into maturity, they will also eat honey.

Becoming A Queen

While all honey bees eat some royal jelly, what separates the queens from the workers is that queens only eat royal jelly (and honey later in life), consisting of pollen and a variety of chemicals, royal jelly can be thought of almost like mother's milk. It has B-vitamins, fertility stimulants, and all the necessary dietary supplements to cause a queen to grow, on average, up to twice the size as a regular worker bee.

All of this nutrition in a single substance gives the queens a remarkable amount of energy, allowing a single queen honeybee to produce up to two thousand eggs each day. In addition to an energy boost, royal jelly also gives the queen a good deal of longevity.

What Bees Eat

The average lifespan of a honeybee queen is up to 5 years, which is very impressive given their size. It is easy to see that the true health of a hive depends on the success of the workers. If the workers are unable to collect enough pollen, then they are unable to create enough royal jelly to feed future queens, and eventually, workers. The interesting aspect of this feeding hierarchy is that because worker bees are not fed a steady diet of royal jelly, they are not given the right levels of nutrients for reproduction purposes.

Aside from simply growing the queen bee, the royal jelly acts as a sort of population and power control. In this unique way, it is also compelling to note that by feeding the worker bees a sub-par substance, they are being kept malnourished because the pollen they are consuming is less nutritionally rich than royal jelly. No matter how you look at it, the nutritional differences between bee classes is a magnificently complicated system from day one.

Flowering Plants

When bees are fully developed, the workers fly out and collect pollen and nectar for the hive. Think of pollen like a solid, protein-rich meal before a game and nectar like a sports drink sustaining you throughout it. Honeybees typically collect nectar and pollen from several sources of flowering plants, and the list can seem exhausting. If you're not sure what your local plant-life is like, here are some terrific flowers you can plant to attract honeybees:

  • Sunflowers
  • Blue Giant Hyssop
  • Goldenrods
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    Asters
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    Milkweed
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    Dandelions
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    Clover

Luckily, honeybees aren't too picky, so any combination of the above flower is almost guaranteed to make a hive happy. It is important to find out what native plants are in your area, however, since non-native plants tend to produce less nectar and are therefore less valuable for the bee.  A good rule of thumb is to also think about ease-of-access to the pollen.

Flowers that have a more flat surface, for example, are easier to pollinate. It's also important to note that bees can't see color, but they are attracted to certain colors that are easier to differentiate from the surrounding green foliage. Some important colors to remember are blue, purple and yellow.

What Bees Eat

Fruit And Vegetables

When there is a shortage of nectar to drink, bees will do something incredible and turn to fruit as a sweet alternative to keep them buzzing about. During the summer months, especially, honey bees have been known to swarm around fruit trees in an attempt to have as much food and energy as possible. Honey bees will eat a variety of fruits including plums, peaches, pears, tangerines, watermelons, strawberries, apples and even grapes.

What Bees Eat

Honey bees also have an interesting relationship with vegetables. Bees have a role in pollinating squash, peppers, tomatoes and much more. While fruits and vegetables don't make up a majority of a honey bee's diet, it shows how wide-ranging a bee's diet can be.

Nuts

Honey bees can find pollen in a surprising variety of sources, including nuts. In fact, almond trees and bees have a unique relationship in that almond trees can provide nutrient-rich pollen to the bees and the trees require cross-pollination from bees to grow. The list of nuts that depend on bees ranges from brazil nuts, almonds, chestnuts, cashews, and walnuts.

Plants

What about bees in forests? When flowers, fruit, and nuts are scarce, bees must get creative in their search for both pollen and nectar. When faced with this scarcity scenario, honey bees have been found on leaves and other plants with extra-floral nectaries. In the absence of flowers or other sweet fruit, these extra-floral nectaries are a sweet liquid that is secreted by plants that act as an excellent source of energy for honey bees in a pinch.

What Bees Eat In The Winter

While nectar ends up being a larger component of a honeybee's actual diet, the pollen is very important during the winter months. The winter is an incredible time to study the differences in the major bee species. A bumblebee colony, typically foraged in holes and dug out in the ground, dies during the winter. Only the queen survives, filling its stomach with honey and nectar while it hibernates until the warmer months.

Honey bees, on the other hand, maintain their colonies all year round. The worker honey bees do a football-like huddle around the queen, ensuring that she will stay warm. They then make sure that there is a constant supply of honey so all the bees can maintain enough energy to work together and keep the hive warm enough to be hospitable. There have been studies that honey bees can consume up to thirty pounds in one winter season to maintain their energy levels.

What Bees Eat - Conclusion

Hopefully, this illustrates the simple-seeming, yet complex, answer to what bees eat. For those thinking about beekeeping, or anyone else, it's important to know what bees eat. If you are starting a bee colony, look up what kinds of flowers and vegetation grow around you. Echoing the natural habitat will benefit a bee's ability to extract pollen and leave you with a beautiful, flourishing garden.

The important takeaway is that bees and humans have an incredibly symbiotic relationship. If we can provide them with abundant sources of food, then they, in turn, will continue to pollinate and help produce the foods we love. There area number of catastrophic scenarios that have been theorized if the bee population were suddenly to go extinct and the fact that these scenarios are even a remote possibility is something that we as a society need to address.

Our reliance on pesticides needs to change, or we need to find a method that keeps both bees and food safe. We must make a shift in the way we share the planet with pollinating insects. If not for their sake, then for the future of proper diets around the world.

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