Bee colonies are known for producing the deliciously sweet and sticky substance that we call honey. While humans eat honey, what exactly do bees eat? Bees require proteins and carbohydrates along with lipids, vitamins, minerals, and water to survive—just like most living creatures. Here, we take a closer look at the life cycle of a bee to better understand bees’ diet and how their eating process works.
The bee larvae are fed royal jelly. This is a milky secretion from the hypopharyngeal gland (say that three times fast!) of young worker bees, the kind that help make hives. So, what is it exactly? Royal jelly is made up of two-thirds water with proteins, sugars, lipids, vitamins, and minerals. It is a white substance produced by young, female worker bees. It is comprised of pollen and chemicals from the glands of worker bees.
After about three days, only those larvae that are deemed worthy to become a queen bee will continue to consume the royal jelly—which, interestingly enough, they will exclusively live off of for the rest of their lives.The reason for this is because the royal jelly helps the Queen Bee develop and reproduce. It creates changes such as larger mandibles, production of working ovaries, food glands, and wax glands. Additionally, Queen bees grow to be quite large and have enhanced longevity, which is important because they are responsible for keeping the Queen bee legacy in the beehive. They will need to reproduce for the hives and keep things running and working smoothly. But enough about the queen bee! Let’s talk about some other bees in the colony.
Nectar and Pollen
A huge portion of honeybee diets consist of pollen and nectar, which they continue to collect and store. Pollen is fermented into “bee bread”, which provides protein within the hive whereas nectar is used for honey production, which is rich in carbohydrates. This is achieved through repeated storage, evaporation, and fermentation. The larvae feed are feeding on exclusively honey and bee bread until they begin to pupate.
Nectar and pollen are both seasonal resources in the hive, and their storage sustains the colony during the winter when food is scarce. In times of inadequate food supply of nectar and honey, a colony of bees have been observed many times to eat and collect juices from ripe fruit, such as apples, plums, grapes, peaches, and pears. This is why you may sometimes see these insects buzzing around your fruit when you're out and about—especially in the summer!
In addition to very ripe fruit, honeybees will collect pollen and nectar from a variety of flowering plants. Some examples are milkweed, dandelions, clover, goldenrod, and a variety of fruit trees. Only worker bees will venture out and forage for pollen and nectar. When they are out pollinating, they are consuming as much nectar from each flower as they can possibly hold. After this, they will return to the beehive and pass the collected nectar to another worker. This worker bee will hold the nectar on her tongue until the liquid evaporates, creating the actual honey. Now that is quite a process and much different from how honey is harvested for humans!
Supplementary Food by Beekeepers
During lean periods or to stimulate productivity, beekeepers may sometimes offer colonies protein in the form of “wheast”, which is a combination of brewer’s yeast and soybean flour. Cane or beet sugar may also be used to pump up the carbohydrates. And much like humans, bee colonies also cannot live without water. Water is an important part of bees’ lives, as well as for the sustainability of the hive's life. Water is collected by bees and is used to dilute thick honey. It's also a critical component to maintain a good temperature and humidity within the beehive. Without it, the beehive risks falling apart and even melting.
Bees are such unique and complex creatures that have found their own extensive processes in order for their survival. As bees make honey and reproduce plants by pollinating, we can't forget to give these little ones a shoutout for all that they do. Check out our other blogs to learn more about the importance of bees and how these tiny bugs contribute to our ecosystem.