Foraging Bees: Honey Bees and Their Foraging Habits thumbnail image

Foraging Bees: Honey Bees and Their Foraging Habits

All living creatures need some form of sustenance to live. For humans, this usually entails buying or making food for yourself and your family. How do honey bees obtain the resources they need to survive? Like us, honey bees work hard to gather food for themselves and the members of their colony. They achieve this through foraging. While the idea of foraging is simple—visit flowers, gather resources, and return home safely—the process includes a lot of details and variables. Who takes on the task of foraging? Why is it so important for the rest of the colony? How does foraging change throughout the seasons or as the colony fluctuates? These questions and more have intrigued scientists and honey bee enthusiasts alike for years. We’re constantly learning more about our small buzzing friends. You can learn more too with this overview of the foraging habits of honey bees.

The Importance of Forager Bees

Honey bee colonies consist of a queen, brood, drones, and worker bees. These worker bees make up the majority of the population and thus work to carry out most of the tasks essential to survival. As such, one subgroup of worker bees works to forage for resources—primarily nectar and pollen. Worker bees will take on the task of foraging when they reach about three weeks old. They continue to forage for the hive for the last three weeks of their lives. Scientists categorize forager bees into two groups: scout bees and reticent bees. The scout bees, also known as persistent foragers, search the land around the hive for safe and reliable food sources. After locating such a source, these bees will return to the hive and communicate the resource’s location to the reticent bees. Once reticent bees receive this information, they will venture out to visit these locations and collect the vital resources there. This system of teamwork and organization streamlines the foraging process, allowing worker bees to gather resources more effectively for the hive.

Locating and Communicating Foraging Spots

This process of locating food sources and sharing that information with others is one of the most crucial foraging habits of honey bees. How do worker bees do it? Forager bees tend to stay relatively close to their hives. Of course, this distance varies based on the surrounding area, colony size, time of year, and other details. That said, the average foraging area for most honey bees extends about two miles from the hive. Despite its proximity to home, this area can be full of dangers. Forager bees contend with toxic pesticides, threats from predators, and other hazards as they work. However, if a honey bee successfully makes it to a good food source, she will bring that information back to the hive and share it with her fellow foragers through the waggle dance. This is a complicated and precise series of movements that includes wing vibration, walking in a circular motion, and angling the body in relation to the sun. The waggle dance effectively communicates where a food source is and how far it is from the hive.

Foraging Pollen vs. Foraging Nectar

Pollen and nectar are the two main resources forager bees search for. Nectar is necessary to make honey, which feeds a majority of the colony. Meanwhile, protein-rich pollen is a staple in the honey bee diet, especially for the brood who will grow into the next generation of worker bees. However, forager bees approach each of these resources differently.

Pollen Foraging Behaviors

One of the primary reasons to collect pollen is to feed the brood. Larvae feast on bee bread—a pollen-based mixture—to obtain the proteins, vitamins, and other nutrients necessary for growth. Without a steady supply of pollen, female larvae cannot become healthy functioning worker bees. As such, the current state of the colony and the brood greatly affect pollen foraging habits. Studies have shown that the presence of a brood pheromone stimulates more productive pollen gathering. After exposure to the brood, worker bees will collect heavier loads of pollen and begin foraging earlier than worker bees who have not spent time around a healthy brood within the hive. Genetic variation also influences pollen foraging. There are various high pollen-hoarding and low pollen-hoarding strains of honey bees. Some studies suggest that high pollen-hoarding strains are more sensitive to the brood pheromone that makes foragers more productive. However, researchers are still studying the cause behind these two different strains of honey bees.

Nectar Foraging Behaviors

Unlike pollen foraging habits, nectar foraging behaviors don’t reflect the current state of the colony, its honey stores, or its brood. However, the presence of a queen and the pheromones she emits can increase the productivity of nectar foraging. That said, the state of the colony does affect nectar foraging habits to some degree. Factors such as various bee strains, the size of the colony, and even preferences such as a certain type of food source or the position of the flower influence nectar foraging.

Exterior Influences on Foraging Behavior

Thus far, we’ve discussed in-colony influences such as the brood, the queen, colony size, and the foraging bees themselves. Foraging habits also depend on exterior influences that exist outside of the colony and its population. Factors such as an abundance of resources, temperature and time of day, pests and diseases, and the availability of certain preferred resources can all affect a colony’s pollen and nectar foraging habits. For example, the presence of Varroa mites in a hive can weaken the worker bee population and hinder productivity. The abundance or scarcity of food also plays a large role in determining foraging behavior. In times of scarcity, worker bees will fly further from the hive than they normally would when nectar and pollen are abundant.

Monitoring foraging behavior allows scientists to learn more about certain ecosystems, including the types of plants within those ecosystems that rely on bee pollination. Furthermore, understanding your honey bees’ foraging habits can help you provide for them when resources are lacking or when other threats affect the hive. Whether you’re an experienced beekeeper or you’re just buying your first honeybee starter kit, this information can prove invaluable to you and your colonies.