We can all bring to mind a little busy bee buzzing around in the summer time, going from flower to flower, pollinating as they go. But what are they actually up to? Well, they are foraging! A colony of honeybees need to forage four main food sources to ensure their hive is happy and healthy; nectar, pollen, propolis and water. Each ingredient has a different function, from food sustenance to bee DIY.
Nectar and pollen are both found in flowers, which is why bees can so often be seen buzzing around them. Nectar is a sweet viscous solution that is excreted from flowers to encourage pollinators to visit them, honeybees (and wild bees) collect it by sucking it up with their long tongue. The honeybees store it in one of their two stomachs which is specifically for storing nectar. Once their stomachs are all filled up, the foraging bees will return to the hive and unload it into the mouth of another bee, who will digest the nectar with enzymes in their nectar stomach and then pass it onto the next bee. This process will be repeated around six times, removing excess water from the nectar, slowly turning it into honey. The honey substance will then be stored in a cell within the hive, where the bees will further evaporate the water by fanning their wings and promoting evaporation. When the honey is at about 17% water and the honeycomb cell is filled, it will be capped with beeswax to preserve it. Different flowers and their nectar sources can change the appearance and taste of the honey that is produced, which is why there are so many different variations of honey available.
Pollen is a fine dust that comes from the anther of a plant containing the male genetic material. When it’s transferred to the stigma, the female part of another plant the pollination process is completed. Plants rely on external activity for pollination, like wind blowing the pollen or pollinating insects. Foraging honeybees and wild bees collect the pollen in hairy pouches on their hind legs called corbiculae, or pollen baskets, which they will tightly pack until they are carrying about half their body weight in pollen. A foraging honeybee will return to the hive and stuff the pollen into honeycomb cells to be eaten. Pollen is the main food source for a colony, providing protein, carbohydrates, lipids, vitamins and minerals.
Another very important material for honeybees is propolis, a sticky substance that a colony will use like glue to ensure their hive is airtight and secure. It is mostly made up from tree sap collected from leaf buds and trees. They store it in their pollen baskets, but because it’s so sticky, it has to be unloaded by another bee back at the hive! The bees will then mix it with enzymes in their stomach along with beeswax and pollen to make propolis. It has strong antibacterial qualities to stop the growth of fungus or unwanted microbes and can be collected by beekeepers and turned into tinctures or extracts to treat skins ailments, or even mouthwash for protection against ulcers and sore throats.
The last ingredient collected by honeybees is water, bees do not store water within the hive so it is just collected as needed. Water is mostly consumed by bees for hydration as they eat a diet of dry pollen, however, it has some practical uses too. Fanning bees use the water for evaporative cooling – the process of spreading water across the brood cells and fanning their wings to create an airflow throughout the hive to regulate the temperature to about 35 degrees. Water is also consumed to make royal jelly as well as to be added back into crystallised honey so it can be eaten.
So, next time you see a honey bee buzzing by, feel free to ogle at the hard work and perseverance of the little insect, but make sure to not get in it’s way, it always has a job to do!