bee covered in pollen

Why Do Bees Collect Pollen? The Delightful Day Of A Bee

Have you ever looked out across a field or a meadow of wildflower buzzing with bees and thought, why do bees collect pollen? I’m going to take a detailed look into how and why bees collect pollen and it’s purpose. Bumblebees, solitary bees and honeybees all collect pollen in the UK but for this evaluation, I will be focusing primarily on the honeybee.

Why do bees collect pollen? The short answer

Bees collect pollen, nectar and propolis from flowers and return to the hive. Pollen is stored in ‘pollen baskets’ formed from the hair on the bees hind legs. After entering the hive the pollen is mixed with nectar and water to create bee bread. Bee bread is stored in honeycomb cells within the hive for later consumption.

finding the pollen

Of the three types of bees in a hive, only the female worker bee is equipped to complete the task. A bee will leave the hive and take flight in search of precious resources. But before we can answer why do bees collect pollen we must first look at the fascinating process of how bees collect pollen. The honeybee has several methods of locating and identifying swathes of flowers rich with nectar and pollen.

The waggle dance

If a bee finds a particularly nectar and pollen-rich location it’s in the interest of the whole hive that this lucky find is exploited. Upon returning to the hive the triumphant bee will perform a form of dance. Known as the ‘waggle dance’ this rather astonishing display of dance moves. Performed in a figure of eight this delightful jig carries a very important message.

The vigour of the dancing holds within it a complex code conveying far more than appears. Location and distance are conveyed perfectly with small alterations in the movements of the dance. This mesmerising display is used to locate areas rich in nectar and pollen, water sources and potential new nest or hive locations for when the colony swarms. Interestingly in cases where a worker bee is certain of the validity of a location the speed and energy of the waggle will attract other bees to watch the display and investigate.

Flower vision

Think of all the colours of the rainbow, well imagine there are more. Crazy right? Well for a bee that’s what vision is like. Bees range of vision goes well up the scale into ultraviolet colours, making them perfectly suited to hunt and collect nectar and pollen.

Plants use petals as a form of signal to pollinators. The loud bright colours shout a welcome to all visitors. However, the colours we see are just a small range of the colours displayed in and across the petals of the flower. Ultraviolet targets display clear instructions to the bees above, guiding them in for a safe landing and precious cargo collection. Flowers such as primroses, pansies and sunflowers all have ultraviolet landing strips leading bees directly to their quarry.

finding pollen with an electrical charge

In case the bright colours weren’t enough flowers and bees have another way of finding one another. Flowers emit a tiny negative static charge that can be sensed by the bees overhead. Tiny hairs on the bees legs can sense electrical fields that in turn send a message to their nervous system. Due to the bees positive charge, there is a tiny zap when the bee lands on its target.

why do bees collect pollen
crocus pollen

collecting the pollen

Once a worker bee has settled on a flower the next step is collecting the pollen. This task is completed by using tiny hairs on their legs to collect tiny particles of pollen. These receptacles are called corbiculae and when full can weigh up to as much as half of the bees body weight. Any pollen on the higher legs is brushed down into a ball to ensure nothing is missed. For absolute efficiency the pollen is mixed with nectar and particles of pollen will sit within a bead of nectar on the bees legs.

Why do bees collect pollen? the long answer

We’ve answered how and now we need to answer ‘why do bees collect pollen?’. It boils down to the need for nutrition. Pollen is rich in the protein whereas honey is rich in carbohydrates. Just like humans if we ate nothing but carbohydrates we wouldn’t be feeling too great. This protein is essential in their diet and along with water and nectar makes up the holy trinity of bees nutritional requirements.

It’s hard though because unlike nectar which will later be turned in to honey, pollen contains bacteria and will spoil over time. The worker bees overcome this in two ways first they mix the pollen with secretions from their saliva adding antibacterial properties. Then the pollen will be mixed with a little honey and packed into a cell within the honeycomb. The process of packing is completed by a charming process of headbutting the pollen to compress it down into the cell this is then covered with a final layer of honey. The fermentation process will begin and the end result will be ‘bee bread’ otherwise known as ambrosia.

what is pollen?

Pollen is part of the reproductive system of a flower. The process as a whole is called pollination and is carried out by bees alongside other insects. When a bee lands on a flower it will cover its whole body in tiny particles, the main image is a perfect example. When the bee leaves and continues on to one of the other 1000 flowers it will visit it passes on pollen from flower to flower. When the bee brushes the female part of the reproductive system called the stigma it successfully completes the process of pollination.

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