Nectar, Pollen and Pollen Substitute: Keys to a healthy colonly

Worker bee with yellow pollen in its corbicula(pollen basket) on a hive entrance.

In this blog I will talk about nectar, pollen and my theories on how honey bees utilize pollen/substitute patties and dry pollen substitute. So why do honey bees collect pollen? It would be hard to ask this question without asking why they collect nectar. Honey bees collect nectar from the nectaries of plants, which are glands that produce nectar. A honey bee uses her proboscis (mouthparts) to lap up nectar from flowers. There are some flowers in which the bee’s proboscis is not long enough to extract nectar, one example is the honey suckle flower. With this flower, bumblebees will chew a hole in the base of the flower to extract nectar, honey bees will secondarily visit the bumblebee’s hole to extract what nectar is left. With other deep flowers, the honeybee’s proboscis is not long enough to reach the nectar and more adapted insects such as Lepidoptera can take advantage of the nectar source or vertebrates, such as hummingbirds, can take a drink.

Worker bee cleaning, you can see the proboscis in this picture.

So what is nectar? Nectar is comprised of approximately 20% sucrose, 79% water and 1% other substances (vitamins, minerals, pigments, etc). Sucrose is also a very important product of photosynthesis in plants and is vital as an active messenger that relays information on the energy status of individual tissues. Honey bees use the enzyme invertase to catalyze the breakdown (hydrolysis) of the disaccharide sucrose in the honey stomach. It is broken down into two main monosaccharide’s glucose (dextrose) and fructose (levulose). These two monosaccharaides are more easily digested by honey bees. There are also some other sugars involved but these two are the most notable. They then distribute this “transformed” nectar around the edges of the brood nest to evaporate moisture from it. They will increase the rate of evaporation by fanning the nectar until the moisture content is 18.6% or less. If the moisture content is below 17%, it should not crystallize but this also depends on the amount of glucose in the nectar. Once the moisture content is low enough, the bees will cap the honey for storage. Honey is the bee’s main source of carbohydrates.

Transforming nectar to honey, this frame shows nectar and capped honey. This is a frame from a honey super.

Now that we know what nectar is comprised of we can start to look at pollen, its nutritional value and how it’s collected. So when talking about pollen you think, “where does it come from?” Pollen comes from the male reproductive structure called the stamen. The stamen consists of a filament and an anther. The pollen is on the anther. The movement of this pollen to the stigma (female reproductive structure) is pollination but that is another topic in its own. So how do bees collect pollen? It all starts when a worker bee flies near the flower. The movement of indirect flight muscles (visit my blog on Insect flight for more information) causes a buildup of static throughout the bee. Conveniently the bee’s entire body is covered with tiny hairs including the compound eyes so when the bee lands on a flower there is a static-cling effect where the pollen jumps onto the hairs on the bee. From here, the bees use their front legs to groom the pollen onto flat depressions surrounded by curved spines on the tibia of the rear leg. This depression is called the corbicula or pollen basket. It takes approximately 8-16 minutes for a bee to fill its pollen baskets. Once the pollen basket is filled the bee will return to the hive. Drones (male bees) lack this pollen basket and do not collect pollen.

This shot shows a worker bee that has generated static cling from flying and landed near dry pollen substitute, you can see the pollen substitute on the small hairs on the bee.

A worker going into the entrance of a hive in CA in the fall with loaded pollen baskets. There is still a lot of pollen still stuck to the hair on the bees also.

Heres some trapped pollen from one of my hives in PA. It is a sundance bottom trap.

What do bee’s use pollen for? Pollen is a bee’s main source of protein and is necessary for queen vitality and brood production. Pollen consists of proteins (chains of amino acids), lipids (fats), minerals, and vitamins. Before bees use pollen, they add nectar to the packed pollen and it goes through lactic acid fermentation. This process changes the properties of the pollen and allows the pollen to be stored in cells for a longer period of time without deteriorating like natural pollen in a cell would. At this point, it is now called bee bread. An interesting fact about pollen vs. bee bread is that regular pollen lacks vitamin K but once it has gone through lactic acid fermentation vitamin K is present. Why is this important? Vitamin K is important because it aids in protein biosynthesis (manipulating amino acids into new proteins). This may be important for royal jelly quality?

A variety of color in pollen coming in. This shot was from spring in PA.

Here is a shot of bee bread from the fall in one of my hives from PA.

Back to pollen vs. bee bread: I have always thought lactic acid fermentation occurred once the pollen was placed in the cell. However, recent studies show that there were traces of lactic acid bacteria in the honey stomach indicating that bee bread is possibly fermented in the honey stomach. To me this made a lot of sense because I always wondered, “Where does a pollen patty/pollen substitute go, what do the bees do with it?” But if they are fermenting it into bee bread (in the honey stomach) and utilizing it right away, it would be hard to detect except where you see increased amounts of royal jelly in the 2-3 day old larvae cells). I will go off topic a little here to talk about royal jelly to explain my previous statement. Royal Jelly is a protein-rich secretion that the worker bees feed to 2-3 day old larvae of drones and workers. The royal jelly also contains lipids, vitamins hormones, minerals, enzymes and other life-sustaining compounds. The queen is fed this substance her entire life and it is the single reason how she became a queen in the first place. Royal jelly contains royalactin which is the single protein that triggers the development of ovaries in a diploid egg which then eventually transforms into a queen. This is why pollen/pollen supplement feeding is important for queen vitality. The queen needs a constant supply of protein rich (many different amino acids) royal jelly. Where is royal jelly made and what bees make it? The worker bee’s hypopharyngeal gland in the head is the production plant of royal jelly. Though this gland is not developed soon as they emerge, the gland develops to full size within 6-12 days depending if sufficient pollen is in supply for the worker bee to utilize. Therefore if there is not a sufficient amount of pollen, the whole colony is malnourished as well as the most vital part, the queen. This is also the reason many times why a colony will not re-queen itself properly; there is an insufficient amount of protein rich pollen to support the cells. Now back to the dry pollen supplement.

Larvae with lots of royal jelly in the cells, notice the pollen at the top also. It is always good to look for pollen/bee bread in the brood nest.

On this frame you see very little unsealed brood and there are no young larvae being reared. You can attribute this to very little pollen or nectar source available. These colonly would benifit from a pollen substitute at this time.

But then what happens when bees are fed dry pollen substitute? If you have been in a yard when they are being fed dry pollen substitute you can open a hive and see the pollen packed into the cells. I would guess the bees are saving this pollen until they have enough nectar/water to convert the powder into “bee bread.” Once converted it is used in the same way as a “wet” pollen patty. I have included some images of bees with pollen and dry pollen substitute on their corbicula.

Dry Pollen substitute packed into the pollen basket of a worker bee.

Dry pollen substitute feeder for commercial use, they hold approximatly 30-34 lbs of dry substitute.

Heres a worker bee face deep in a small pile of dry pollen substitute, you can also see the start of a pellet on the hind let in the pollen basket.

Written By: Rob Snyder

Rob Snyder has written 58 post in this blog.

I currently work out of the Butte County Cooperative Extension in Oroville, CA as a Crop Protection Agent. I received my B.S. in biology from Delaware Valley College, PA. There I attained a majority of my entomological knowledge from Dr. Chris Tipping and Dr. Robert Berthold. After graduation, I was an apiary inspector for 2 years at the Department of Agriculture in Pennsylvania. In my third year there, I still inspected some colonies but I mainly focused on The Pennsylvania Native Bee Survey (PANBS) where I pinned, labeled, entered data and identified native bees to genus species. Leo Donavall assisted me in learning the basics on positive Identifications of the native bees. Around the same time I began working on coordinating kit construction and distribution for the APHIS National Honey Bee Survey. I was also fortunate to conduct many of these surveys with fellow co-worker Mike Andree and Nathan Rice of USDA/ARS throughout California. All of these experiences have led me to where I am today, working to assist beekeepers in maintaining genetic diverse colonies resistant to parasites while reducing the use of chemical treatments in colonies. The BIP Diagnostic Lab at the University of MD is in an integral part of this process by generating reports in which we can track change and report to beekeepers vital information in a timely manner which may influence their treatment decisions.

  • Ramachandra V Bhat

    Thank you very much for your detailed and scientific explanations regarding nectar,pollen and pollen substitutes for healthy bee colonies.

    I am a bee keeper for the past decade in the western ghats of South India. I started bee keeping as a hobby and currently have half dozen bee colonies. In our western ghat area ,we receive approximate average annual rainfall of 60 inches spread over a period of 3- 4 months (i.e.. June to September).In this heavy rainfall area, we have the natural bee hives of Apis indica/cerana mostly in the hollow trunks of trees or abandoned anthills The honey season extends from November to May.

    I am on a short vacation visit of about three months to Santa Barbara. On the very first day of my visit to the butter fly park at Goleta during my morning walk. I was thrilled to see a bee flying and sitting on my palm which event I was happy to video capture in my mobile. I could guess that was Apis mellifera as it was little bigger in size than our A.cerena.

    On going thru internet I was glad to know that “Bee Keepers Association “exists in Santa Barbara as in India.Incidentally,I was the founder secretary of our local ‘Bee Keepers Association.
    Now can any body help me whether it is possible to get a colony and the bee box for about two and half months during which period I would love to enjoy the company of bees. If the colony is available on rental basis, what would be the rent and what will be the terms and conditions? I am put up with my son at the Beach Drive ,Goleta,where sufficient pollens supply of ecalyptus and other flowers is available .By the by my son is studying at UCSB ,Santa Barbara

  • Rob Snyder

    You can probably join up with someone in the beekeeping association and assist them with their hives. That would be the best way to observe some hives in the area.

  • Victoria Ranua

    Could you speak to nectar vs. nectar subsititutes (sugar syrups and high fructose syrups) and naturally collected pollen vs. protein substitutes (pollen-based patties, or non-pollen-based patties) and how each one affects colony health? And how diversity in the diet does or does not matter to colony health?