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An adult bee’s diet is primarily made up of three types of food. Honey, Nectar and Pollen. In this post, we will discover how each of these food groups provide essential nutrient to a bee.
Where does nectar come from?
Nectar actually begins in the leaves of plants. The plant draws in carbon dioxide and water and produces sugar using the energy from the sun. This process is called photosynthesis. The sugar flows through the plant (think sap flow from a Sugar Maple tree). The nectar flows through the plant and feeds it. Roots, stems, leaves, flowers and fruit use this sugar supply to grow.
Excess sugar water is secreted in the base of flowers where bees and other pollinators like butterflies and hummingbirds can drink it.
How do Bees Use Nectar?
Worker-foraging bees collect nectar by sucking droplets with their proboscis (a straw like tongue, see figure below). The nectar on its own provides immediate energy in the form of carbohydrate sugars. Excess nectar is stored in the bee’s stomach until it gets back to the hive.
Once back at the hive, the nectar is passed from bee to bee. An enzyme in the bee’s stomach turn the sugar into a diluted honey. This passage also helps remove some of the excess water.
The un-ripe honey is then stored in comb cells where worker bees fan it with their wings to evaporate the rest of the excess water until it becomes honey.
For more information on how honey is produced check out my post The Canning Bee: Why Honey Doesn’t Spoil
Honey is used as a stored food. This is the bee’s winter stockpile for times of the year when flowers are not in bloom.
The bees keep honey in comb cells capped with wax for future use.
Just as gardeners might can or freeze excess vegetables from the summer harvest to enjoy throughout the winter, bees essentially do the same. They work all spring and summer so they have plenty of food to make it through the fall and winter.
As you probably remember from 6th grade Biology class, in a flower blossom there are male and female parts. The male part is called the stamen and produces a sticky powder called pollen. The female part is called the pistil and has a sticky end (stigma) which is capable of collecting pollen. Think of the pollen as sperm in the reproductive process. The pollen leaves the male and is received by the female to produce fruit.
The problem is that plants don’t mate. That’s where bees come in.
Pollen provides healthy fats and proteins to bees. It rounds out their otherwise sugar/carbohydrate based diet. Worker-foraging bees collect pollen in pollen baskets, a type of collection device on their legs, to take back to the hive so that non foraging bees (young nurse bees, drones etc.) can benefit from the protein and fats as well.
In the collection process, bits of pollen stick to the bee and is distributed to the female parts of the blossom as the insect moves from stamen to pistol. This fertilized the flower and makes fruit production possible.
Once the pollen is brought back to the hive it is packed into brood cells usually around the perimeter of the frame. When needed, the pollen is then mixed with honey to produce Bee Bread. Nurse bees consume the most bee bread as it helps them to produce Royal Jelly to feed growing larvae.