Insect of the Week: Food Collection for Honey Bees

Adapted from pages 187-191 of The Lives of Bees:

Worker bee flying home bearing loads of yellow- green pollen on her hind legs and a load of nectar in her crop (honey stomach). That she is carrying a nectar load is indicated by the distension and translucence of her abdomen.

We generally think of a honey bee colony as a family of bees living inside a bee hive or a hollow tree. A moment’s reflection will disclose, however, the important fact that during the daytime many of the bees in a colony are dispersed far and wide over the surrounding countryside, where they toil to gather their colony’s food. To accomplish this, each forager bee flies as far as 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) to a patch of flowers, gathers a load of nectar or pollen, and then flies home, where she quickly off- loads her food and then heads out on her next collecting trip. On a typical day, a colony will field several thousand worker bees, or about one- third of its members, as foragers. Thus, in acquiring its food, a honey bee colony functions as a large, diffuse, amoeboid entity that can extend itself over great distances and in multiple directions simultaneously to exploit a vast array of food sources. To succeed in gathering the pollen and nectar it needs, a colony must closely monitor the food sources within its environment, and it must wisely deploy its foragers among these sources so that its food is gathered efficiently, in sufficient quantity, and with the correct nutritional mix. The colony must also properly apportion the food it gathers between present consumption and storage for future needs. Moreover, it must accomplish all these things in the face of constantly changing conditions, both outside the nest as foraging opportunities come and go, and inside the nest as the colony’s nutritional needs change with the seasons.

Pollen, nectar, and water are the substances most commonly gathered by a colony’s foragers. But during late summer and early fall, if you keep a close watch at a hive’s entrance, you will also spy a few bees returning home with shiny brown loads of tree resin stuck in their pollen baskets. As discussed in chapter 5, the bees jam this gluey material into cracks and small holes in the walls of their nest cavity, making their home more weathertight and easier to defend. We also saw that they use this resin to coat the walls of their nest cavity because it has antimicrobial properties that promote colony health. 

The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild
By Tom Seeley

Humans have kept honey bees in hives for millennia, yet only in recent decades have biologists begun to investigate how these industrious insects live in the wild. The Lives of Bees is Thomas Seeley’s captivating story of what scientists are learning about the behavior, social life, and survival strategies of honey bees living outside the beekeeper’s hive—and how wild honey bees may hold the key to reversing the alarming die-off of the planet’s managed honey bee populations.

Seeley, a world authority on honey bees, sheds light on why wild honey bees are still thriving while those living in managed colonies are in crisis. Drawing on the latest science as well as insights from his own pioneering fieldwork, he describes in extraordinary detail how honey bees live in nature and shows how this differs significantly from their lives under the management of beekeepers. Seeley presents an entirely new approach to beekeeping—Darwinian Beekeeping—which enables honey bees to use the toolkit of survival skills their species has acquired over the past thirty million years, and to evolve solutions to the new challenges they face today. He shows beekeepers how to use the principles of natural selection to guide their practices, and he offers a new vision of how beekeeping can better align with the natural habits of honey bees.

Engagingly written and deeply personal, The Lives of Bees reveals how we can become better custodians of honey bees and make use of their resources in ways that enrich their lives as well as our own.