What Do Honey Bees Eat?

Honey bees collect pollen, nectar, and water as primary food sources and use them as building blocks for honey, bee bread, and royal jelly.

Pollen is the sole source of proteins (including essential amino acids) for honey bees. A variety of bodily functions, including muscle growth, reproduction, digestion, and immune system functions, require proteins and amino acids. Pollen also provides lipids, sterols, vitamins, and minerals.

Honey bees pack pollen into honeycomb cells and ferment it by adding honey or nectar and lactic acid bacteria (via bee saliva). The resulting “bee bread” (also called “ambrosia”) is preserved and used as food.

Bee bread consumed by nurse bees serves as the basis for royal jelly. Royal jelly is a milky white secretion that is a crucial food for larvae and queen production.

Nectar, a sugary sweet plant liquid, provides carbohydrates that can be converted into energy. Nectar is also the primary ingredient in the production of honey.

Water provides bees with essential hydration that assists in all their bodily functions, including royal jelly production.

The components of an individual bee’s diet from these food sources can vary by its stage of life, the bee’s “job” in the hive, and the season.

Beekeepers sometimes supplement a colony’s natural stores with pollen substitutes and sugar in various forms (in syrup, dry, or as fondant).

Pollen

Pollen is a fine powder comprised of tiny grains that carry a plant’s male genetic material, often referred to as the plant’s sperm. Flowering and cone-bearing plants produce it as part of their reproductive process.

Pollen contains a wide range of chemical substances, including “proteins, amino acids, carbohydrates, lipids, and fatty acids, phenolic compounds, enzymes, and coenzymes as well as vitamins and bioelements.”[1]

Amino acids are the necessary components of proteins. Included in pollen are “essential amino acids” that are considered indispensable and cannot be synthesized by bees (or other organisms like humans).

See our article 11 Best Plants For Honeybees (And 5 To Avoid) for suggestions on plants that will provide pollen and nectar across the seasons.

Honey bees have long been considered herbivores, making pollen their sole source of proteins. Recent research indicates that bees may be omnivores by consuming “microbial meat.” However, even “microbial meat” is pollen-borne.[2]

Bees do not select pollen based on nutritional content. A variety of pollen sources is vital to assure that bees are getting the proper mix of amino acids. This one reason why monoculture crops large growths of only one plant in an area (monoculture crops) can be detrimental to honey bees’ health.

Foragers visit flowering plants and collect pollen on hairs all over their bodies. Much of the pollen is transferred and adhered to their back legs with saliva. These “pollen baskets” are the most apparent pollen you’ll see a bee carry on her return to the hive.

Pollen baskets
Yellow and orange pollen baskets are visible on returning foragers.

Different color baskets indicate pollen from a variety of sources. Our bees typically carry orange, yellow and white baskets.

While collecting pollen, a bee can visit many plants. The bee pollinates by brushing up against a flower’s stamen (the female reproductive part of the plant), transferring the male genetics.

Bee Bread

Foraging bees collecting pollen are at a stage of development where they do not consume the pollen themselves.[3]

Instead, the foragers transfer pollen to comb cells and pack it down. Adding honey, nectar and secreted lactic acid bacteria ferments the pollen into bee bread. This process removes moisture from the pollen, reducing the possibility of mold, and preserves it for future use.

Bee bread
Bee bread packed into comb cells. The various colors indicate the pollen was sourced from different plants.

Younger, developing bees consume bee bread.

Nurse bees tending the brood eat bee bread and spend a lot of time feeding brood.

See our article Honey Bee Life Cycle (Why You Need To Know It) for more information on nurse bees and other worker roles in the hive.

Royal Jelly

Nurse bees make glandular secretion of royal jelly, a milky white substance (“bee milk”). Royal jelly is a complete food source, including water, proteins, sugar, lipids, and vitamins.

Royal jelly is fed to all larvae during their first three days of development and queens during their entire larval stage.

Open brood and eggs
Milky white royal jelly is visible in the cells with larvae.
Waugsberg (talk · contribs) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The need for protein by developing bees is why you will find most bee bread in the brood boxes.

Pollen is very important to the colony in spring and summer as the population swells, and brood is ever-present.

In the fall, as the population declines and the queen stops laying eggs in anticipation of winter, the need for protein diminishes. However, bees will continue to make bee bread to store for future use.

Pollen Supplements

Despite the name, pollen supplements/substitutes do not include pollen but have ingredients to supply the name proteins and other nutrients as pollen.

We do not recommend feeding natural pollen to bees unless it has been irradiated, or you are sure it’s from a safe source. Natural pollen may contain contaminants such as pesticides or diseases like foulbrood. 

Pollen supplements may contain some of the following:

  • Soy flour
  • Brewers yeast
  • Dry milk
  • Dried egg
  • Vitamins (such as A, C, D, Biotin, and Folic Acid)
  • Oils or shortening
  • Essential oils
  • Sugar

Beekeepers can make homemade supplements. Alternatively, you can buy powders or pre-made patties like:

  • Mann Lake Ultra Bee Dry Feed here on Amazon
  • Mann Lake Ultra Bee Patties here on Amazon
  • Mann Lake Bee Pro Patties here on Amazon

Nectar

Plant glands called nectaries produce nectar, a sugar, sweet liquid sought by honey bees.

The honey bee reaches into the nectary using its proboscis (often called its tongue) and sucks out the liquid. While the forager may use some of the nectar itself, excess nectar is collected in the stomach, combining it with bacteria and enzymes.

Upon returning to the hive, the foragers transfer the nectar to house bees. House bees then store the nectar in the comb and convert it to honey. Once the bees determine the conversion to be complete, bees will cap over the honey with wax.

Baggie Feeding For Bees
In this video, one of our bees sucks sugar syrup we placed on the hive. You can see the proboscis at work just as it would on a plant’s nectar.

Honey stores for an indefinite period and becomes the colony’s primary food source during nectar deaths, most notably winter.

As a beekeeper, you need to monitor your hives’ honey stores headed into winter to make sure they have enough to survive.

Nectar Supplements

The best supplement to nectar is white cane sugar. Bees should not be fed brown sugar or molasses, raw sugar, or high fructose corn syrup as these sweeteners may harm them or cause digestive problems such as dysentery.

Bees will feed on sugar is various forms:

  • Dry sugar (unusually placed on paper over frames to keep it from dropping right to the bottom)
  • Sugar syrup made with sugar and water in different concentrations (1:1 or 2:1) depending on the time of year
  • Bee candy either in the form of simple sugar bricks of fondant.
Top feeder jars
Top feeder jars with sugar syrup. A hive box and cover are placed over these feeders keeping them within the hive body.

Bees will typically forego sugar supplements if there is plenty of nectar flow.

Bees may treat sugar the same as nectar. They can store it and make it like honey. However, bees cannot make honey from sugar or sugar syrup. Sugar does not have all the enzymes and properties of nectar needed to make honey.

Since bees cannot make honey from sugar, we do not feed them when supers are on the hive. We don’t want faux “honey” getting mixed in with the real thing!

You may be interested in this article in New Yorker Magazine about bees in Brooklyn, NY making “red honey” with syrup foraged from a maraschino cherry factory.

Water

Water provides general hydration for bees as it does for humans. Bees have other uses for it as well.

Honey bees seem to “prefer foraging at compound‐rich, ‘dirty’, water sources over clean water sources” that provide micronutrients[4] as part of a balanced diet.

By fanning water, bees help control the temperature and humidity of the hive.

Water is a significant component of the royal jelly fed to larvae.

Bees also use water to dissolve crystallized honey for consumption.

Like in humans, water is needed to digest and metabolize food.

During a drought or extended dry period, beekeepers can help their honey bees by providing watering stations. The best water stations are shallow and wide to help avoid drowning.

Conclusion

Honey bees, like other organisms, need proteins and amino acids to develop and survive. Pollen is the only source of these available to bees.

Nectar, with its sugar content, provides bees with carbohydrates that convert into energy.

Honey bees have a fantastic ability to store and preserve food stores indefinitely by converting pollen into bee bread and nectar into honey.

Sometimes, naturally available pollen and nectar may be in short supply. Beekeepers can supplement a colony’s diet with pollen substitutes and sugar. However, it’s important to remember these are supplements, not total replacements.

Let your honey bees forage for food whenever they can.

Additional Reading

The Benefits of Pollen to Honey Bees from the University of Florida IFAS Extension


[1] Komosinska-Vassev K, Olczyk P, Kaźmierczak J, Mencner L, Olczyk K. Bee pollen: chemical composition and therapeutic application. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2015;2015:297425. doi:10.1155/2015/297425

[2] Surprise: Bees Need Meat by Paige Embry, Scientific American, August 23, 2019

[3] Reevaluating Beebread: Part 1 at Scientific Beekeeping

[4] Seasonality of salt foraging in honey bees by Rachel E. Bonan, et al. https://doi.org/10.1111/een.12375

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