Why Do Bees Collect Pollen?

Honey bees collect pollen because it is necessary for the health and survival of the colony. Bees collect pollen and mix it with nectar or honey to make bee bread, the main food source for honeybee workers and larvae.

Bee bread provides the protein, minerals and other nutrients needed for healthy brood production. It is crucial for the development of young bees and adult bees, including the queen. Without pollen, bees could not make bee bread – and without bee bread, the colony would not survive.

Bee collecting pollen from a purple flower
Photo Credit: Mark Allison

What Do Bees Do With Pollen?

Bees do two important things with pollen. One is essential for their survival and the other is necessary for the survival of many species of plants and trees.

1. Use It For Food

Pollen collected by bees is transported back to the hive and stored in cells because it is an essential food source for developing brood and the colony. 

Once the cell is about three-quarters filled, the pollen is conditioned with nectar and glandular secretions from the bee, helping turn it into bee bread, the main source of food for both worker bees and larvae.

2. Pollinate Plants

Bees pollinate (fertilize) flowers using the pollen they gather from the stamen of the plant. They collect pollen on their legs and body from the flowers they visit. 

During each flight, the forager bees practice plant fidelity, collecting only one type of pollen as they fly from flower to flower on the one type of plant or tree. As pollen is carried from one flower to the next, pollination takes place.

Do Bees Eat Pollen?

Not all honeybees eat pollen. Forager bees that gather pollen do not eat it themselves. This is because, when they transition to foraging, they stop producing the enzymes necessary to digest pollen. 

All the other bees, including the queen and the developing larvae, eat bee bread, which is made from pollen using a fermentation process to make the nutrients more readily available.

How Do Bees Collect Pollen?

Pollen is collected by forager bees, who are the most mature bees in the hive. Before they leave the hive to forage, they have performed all the other tasks within the hive that are necessary to keep the colony functioning well. 

These tasks include feeding the larvae, cleaning and building comb, producing and storing food, and guarding the hive entrance.

Once their flight muscles, exoskeleton and stinger are fully mature, they become foragers, collecting food for the hive. Foragers keep doing this until their wings wear out and they’re unable to fly anymore.

Pollen is produced by the stamen, or male part of the plant. As foragers move across the flower, the pollen sticks to the statically charged hairs on their legs. 

As they clean themselves, the pollen is mixed with nectar and pushed down their bodies into the pollen baskets located on their back legs.

Foragers carry the pollen back to the hive in the pollen baskets on their back legs. Once at their hive, the pollen is transferred to worker bees, who pack the pollen into empty cells near the brood and stored honey.

How Much Pollen Do Bees Collect In A Day?

Bees can collect up to 35% of their body weight in pollen each foraging trip. In one day, they can visit up to 5,000 flowers! In a single year, a typical-size honey bee colony collects up to 57kg (125 lbs) of pollen!

However, the exact amount of pollen collected by bees in a day depends on several factors. These include:

The Season

In the warmer months, there are more plants in flower, and therefore more for the foragers to gather pollen and nectar from. Warmer weather means more foragers will leave the hive and more pollen gathered. In the colder months, there are fewer plants in flower and fewer opportunities for the foragers to leave the hive.

The Type Of Flower

Each flower has different types and varying amounts of pollen. For bees, some pollen types are more nutritious than others. In addition, the nutritional value of the pollen gathered will vary from day to day, depending on the health of the flowering plant.

The Needs Of The Colony

The nutritional needs of the colony vary from season to season. Coming into the colder months, more food will be collected and stored to sustain the colony during Winter. In Spring not as much pollen is stored because space is needed for the queen to lay her eggs in.

How Do Bees Pollinate?

Bees pollinate (fertilize) flowers using the pollen they gather on their legs and bodies from the flowers they visit. The pollen adheres to the statically charged hairs on their legs and bodies. 

Pollen comes from the stamen (male part) of the flower. Bees walk across each flower, carrying pollen from the stamen to the pistil (female part), before carrying pollen from one flower to another. 

During each flight, the forager bees practice plant fidelity. In other words, they collect only one type of pollen at a time as they fly from flower to flower on a single species of plant or tree.

Pollination allows the plants to produce seeds and therefore reproduce, ensuring the survival of the plant species.

How Do Bees Get Pollen Off Their Legs?

Forager bees get pollen off their legs with the help of the worker bees within their hive. The bees use their legs and tongues to transfer the pollen from the forager bee to the worker bee. 

During the transfer, pollen is mixed with glandular secretions to prepare it for storage in the hive. The worker takes the pollen into the hive and stores it inside an empty cell.

How do bees store pollen?

Pollen is collected in the pollen baskets on the back legs of foraging bees as they brush against the anthers (or male parts) of flowers. Foraging bees don’t eat pollen because as a forager they no longer have the required enzymes to digest it.

At the hive, foraging bees brush off the pollen where it is collected by worker bees. The worker bees then use their heads to push the pollen into open cells for storage.

The pollen is then turned into bee bread, by mixing it with nectar and salivary secretions to make the nutrients more readily available.

Pollen is the primary protein source for the hive, making it incredibly important for honeybees. It is stored in cells uncapped, forming a ring between the brood nest and honey stores.

It’s stored here because it is easily accessed as food for the developing eggs and young larvae. Frames that contain pollen exclusively occur when pollen is plentiful.

In spring, when brood is actively being reared, pollen is used up quickly. However, in fall (autumn) it is kept longer so there is enough to eat during the winter months.

Do Bees Collect Pollen And Nectar At The Same Time?

Most bees collect only pollen or nectar on any foraging flight, but a few carry both at the same time. A bee may source and carry nectar if she becomes hungry whilst foraging for pollen.

Whether bees collect pollen or nectar is determined in part by what is most needed by the colony at any particular time, as well as how much of each is available. 

The pollen is packed onto the hairy areas on the bees’ hind legs, called corbiculae, whereas nectar is sucked from the flower by the bee and stored in her special honey stomach.

Summing Up… Why Do Bees Collect Pollen?

Bees collect pollen because they need it to make bee bread. Bee bread is the main protein source necessary for healthy brood and young larvae production and is also an essential part of the diet of the queen and adult bees.

If you’re a beekeeper, you’ll need to ensure your garden has many different flowering plants and trees to provide your colony with pollen. Not all pollen is equally nutritious for bees, so it’s best to provide a variety of flowering species so they have access to a variety of pollen sources.

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