European honey bees are kept by beekeepers in many different climates around the world. In Southern Ontario, honey bees are active through the spring, summer, and part of fall, which is when flowers are in bloom and it is warm enough for the bees to fly outside the hive. Through the winter, beekeepers will insulate their colonies as the bees go dormant. Some places, like Australia, European honey bees are active throughout the entire year.
Honey bee foragers collect four things outside of the hive: Nectar, pollen, water, and propolis.
Nectar provides sugar and energy for bees. It comes from flowers and is used to make honey. Foragers will collect nectar by sucking it up with their proboscis and storing it in their honey stomachs until they return to their hive. This is when enzymes are added to the nectar that gives honey its antimicrobial properties and converts the sucrose in the nectar into glucose and fructose. At the hive, the foragers give the nectar to other workers who will deposit the nectar in cells. At this point, the nectar is still too wet to be stored without going bad, so workers will fan their wings over the nectar until it dries out to about 17 % moisture content. The dried nectar is then covered by a layer of wax to keep it clean and dry. Finally, the nectar has been turned into honey, and can be stored by the bees for as long as they need it.
Pollen also comes from flowers and provides a protein source for bees. When visiting flowers, foragers will become covered in pollen which gets caught in the hairs on their bodies. They will then comb the pollen off their body with their forelegs and pack the pollen into pellets that attach to their hindlegs. Back at the hive, pollen is stored in cells. Pollen pellets are placed in cells and packed down by worker bees using their heads.
Water is collected by bees for drinking, but also for temperature and humidity control. Foragers will bring water back to the hive to cool it down on hot days. Worker bees will also fan their wings at the entrance of the hive to remove the warm air and moisture from the colony.
Propolis is a sticky antimicrobial resin produced by trees to protect themselves against disease. Honey bees collect propolis and use it in their hives for the same reason. They will coat the walls of their nest with propolis to create a clean living environment. If something is too large to remove from the hive by the bees, they will cover it in propolis to sterilize it.
The importance of native food sources
While some agricultural crops provide a good food source for honey bees and other pollinators, native wild flowers, shrubs, and trees play a crucial part in pollinator survival. There are many native plant species that have different bloom times throughout the growing season. If an ecosystem is diverse enough, there can be continuous nectar and pollen sources available for pollinators. For honey bees and native pollinators, this helps colonies to grow as large as possible and reduces the chances of the colony starving. Having a wide variety of different food sources also provides a more nutritious diet for pollinators. This can help increase immune function to help fight pests and disease. The most valuable food sources come from plants with flowers that produce a lot of nectar. There are many agricultural plants that do this (alfalfa, clover, apple trees, etc.), but there are even more wild and native plants that do this as well (dandelion, maple trees, willow, etc.). Having wildflowers growing around cropland can even increase pollination of the crops. Wildflowers attract wild bees. The presence of other bee species encourages honey bees to forage over a larger area, covering more of the cropland. Native forage species benefit the environment as well by providing habitat, soil and water retention, and carbon storage.
For more information on a ‘Bee-friendly Garden’, visit here.
Royal jelly is a secretion from the hypopharyngeal gland located in the worker bee’s head. Royal jelly is nutritious and high in protein. It is fed to worker and drone larvae during early development, and to queen larvae throughout their growth. This diet is what causes a female larva to become a queen instead of a worker. Adult queens will also be fed royal jelly through out their lives.