Winter studies: How honeybees use nectar, pollen, propolis and water

purple crocus bee

My friend Suzanne says, ‘I always know that spring is coming when I see my first big fat bumblebee popping out of a yellow daffodil.’ Last week I saw my first honeybee foraging for luminous orange pollen inside a bright purple crocus. Spring is coming.

In my next winter study post, I’m continuing to look at the collection, storage and use of nectar, pollen, propolis and water by the honeybee colony.

A honeybee sees a flower very differently to humans. As Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum describe in A World Without Bees, the two compound eyes on the front of her head are sensitive to ultra violet light ‘expanding the already vibrant colours of the plant world into an explosion of differing hues, and directing the honeybee towards the area of the plant where the nectar and pollen are stored’. The honeybee’s eyes can see lines that guide her to the heart of the flower in a similar way that ‘the lights of an airfield direct planes to the landing strip’. Here’s what happens when she collects nectar for the colony.

nectar collection infographic

So that’s an overview of how the honeybee collects nectar, processes and stores the nectar as honey, and how the honey is used by the colony. The next flow chart specifically looks at the conversion of nectar to honey.

nectar to honey

Collection and use of water

Honeybees also collect water to bring back to the hive. They tend to collect water from unusual, or what we would consider ‘unclean’, sources such as puddles, drains, bird baths, cow pats and, on occasion, and at the risk of causing annoyance to neighbours, from hanging laundry. The stomach in which water is stored has a valve that microscopically filters and cleans the water that they bring back to the hive.

Water is not stored by the colony so it is collected and used when needed to:

  • dilute honey to be eaten
  • mix with pollen to make brood food (70% water) to feed larvae
  • dissolve hardened granulated sugars
  • cool the hive when temperatures are very high.

The inter-relationship of nectar, honey and water in the honeybee colony

So this is how nectar and water are brought into the hive and stored and/or used. The simple diagram below brings together their inter-relationship in the honeybee colony.


There is a lot more to learn about nectar, water and honey (as shown on the syllabus for module 3 honeybee products and forage!) but for module 6 I’m focusing on honeybee behaviour.

The collection, storage and use of pollen by the honeybee colony

Emily and I enjoy watching our bees fly back home with baskets full of brightly coloured pollen. In January and February this is usually a sign that the queen has started to lay eggs again, because the pollen is needed to feed larvae and young bees who need the protein in pollen to develop their bodies. Throughout the year seeing our bees fly home with pollen is usually a good indicator that the colony is ‘queen-right’, meaning that the queen is present and that she is laying, and if our colony has recently re-queened it can be a sign that the new queen has mated successfully and is laying new brood.


And the different colours of pollen packed into the cells in the honeycomb are not only beautiful to look at, but also give us an idea of what flowers our bees like to visit.

Emily and I use a pollen chart throughout the year to identify the pollen of various flowers brought home by our bees. This tells us what is flowering now and what our bees like to eat.

Emily and me keep a pollen chart in the roof of our hive to identify the different-coloured pollen brought home by our bees.

Foragers use a variety of methods to collect pollen from different flowers. Mark L Winston describes this in The Biology of the Honey Bee according to the type of flower:

Open flowers. The worker bites the anthers with her mandibles and uses the forelegs to pull them toward her body.

Tubular flowers. Workers insert the proboscis into the corolla searching for nectar, and pollen is collected incidentally when it adheres to the mouthparts or forelegs.

Closed flowers. The bee forces the petals apart with her forelegs and then gathers pollen on the mouthparts and forelegs.

Spike or catkin flowers. The bee runs along the spikes or catkins, shaking off pollen onto her body hairs.

Presentation flowers. The pollen is collected by workers pressing their abdomens against the inflorescence, causing a pollen mass to be pushed out of the flowers.’

Honeybees can often be seen in flowers their bodies covered with bright yellow or orange pollen grains, which they then ‘dust off’ and brush into baskets on their hind legs.

Here’s another infographic summarising the relationship between bees and pollen.

pollen collection infographic

And finally, propolis…

The collection and use of propolis by the honeybee colony

Our ladies were too busy sticking propolis on frames to notice we had opened the hive

On a mild day in September 2011, Emily and I visited the apiary while the other beekeepers were away to do some secret beekeeping. We had to work hard with the hive tools to prise open the hive, which was very sticky. When we looked inside our bees were so busy chewing and sticking propolis all over the hive that they completely ignored us!

Propolis, or ‘bee glue’ is a resinous substance collected from sticky buds or tree bark, and seen as shiny blobs on the third legs of foragers flying home. It is most often seen by beekeepers in late summer and in autumn when bees use it to insulate the hive for winter – it makes all the hive parts very sticky and inspections can become difficult.

Here’s why the bees like it though.

pollen collection infographic

Related links
Visit my blog index for more winter study posts.


37 thoughts on “Winter studies: How honeybees use nectar, pollen, propolis and water

      • More good luck wishes to you and your partner in cram. Do you call such studying ‘cramming’ on your side of the pond? If not then my feeble joke seems downright stupid.

      • Thank you so much for your good wishes and sorry for the late reply! (I’m taking a short blogger’s holiday, back to business mid April.) And yes, ‘cramming’ is definitely used on this side of the pond too and is very apt! 🙂

    • Looking forward to seeing those! It’s fun to see the difference between bumbles, honeybees and solitaries foraging behaviour and on different types of flowers. Also makes you realise how many solitary bees are busy pollinating too!

  1. Thanks for writing about propolis…how to recognize it on bees’ legs and when to look for it. I’ve been asking around but no one has ever given me such a clear-cut answer. I’d like to get photos of bees gathering it this year, if that’s possible.
    The pollen chart is new to me as well. I might have to ask about it at the bee meeting today. I’ve never seen or heard of one from this area.
    Thanks for all the great info.

    • I hope you get a pollen chart, it is a really interesting way to find out where your bees have been flying – and sorry for the late reply, I promise to be a more regular visitor later this month 🙂

  2. Another fantastic post and infographics. Can’t believe the exam is only a week away, aarrgh. Will be a relief in a way though, can start reading about other subjects than bee diseases on my commute!

  3. I really like your information that you post for your exam. I am learning so much. I also love those graphics by Keith Whitlock. They are not only great information, understandable information, they are beautifully done.

    I just read in Science today this article. You may find it interesting. The title is Caffeine Boosts Bees’ Memories

    • Thanks, Keith does a great job and he actually (unintentionally) helped my revision by providing an outside view of my revision notes.

      There’s been a lot of research lately on effect of caffeine on bees, thanks for the link! I wonder if we should be feeding our bees coffee instead of fondant… 😉 – and sorry for the late reply, I promise to be a more regular visitor later this month 🙂

  4. A great post and I love your diagrams (there is a typo in the conversion of nectar to honey – 4 which may be WordPress printing). The photo of the different colours of nectar in the cells is beautiful.

    • Thank you! I find writing the posts and creating the infographics help me to revise and learn better, although there I so much to read for each topic I’m definitely doing the BBKA correspondence course next time! Thanks for spotting the typo, I can’t see it on my iPhone so will correct once back at my desk! 🙂

  5. I didn’t know that bees took water back to the hive, that is really interesting!
    I keep a large glazed pot in the front garden with water in it for the birds. I noticed that the bees were using it regularly but having difficulties getting up and down the steep sides so I bought a water plant just for them.
    The plant has large leaves like clover that stand up or float on the water, bees are always wandering around on them and having a drink. Glad to know that I am helping some nearby colony make honey 😀
    Now if only they would leave me a thank you gift! 😉

    • Sorry for the late reply, promise to visit more regularly from mid April after a little blogger’s holiday. I think those bees definitely owe you some honey in water rates! Love to see some photos of bees drinking clover in your garden, that’s most likely honeybees collecting water for the colony to cool the hive or to dilute honey and pollen food stores! 🙂

    • She could be a queen as bumble queens like to find abandoned mouse holes in early spring to build a small nest around them. Or perhaps just a solitary bee? Otherwise, I look forward to hearing what you find out! The bee season starts very, very soon (or has started for some) – and sorry for the late reply, I promise to be a more regular visitor later this month 🙂

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  9. I am with Faulkner County Master Gardeners in Conway, Arkansas. I am writing a post on honeybees for our Facebook Page and stumbled across your terrific infographics. May I have permission to use your images on nectar and pollen? If you agree, I will make sure you receive credit and I’ll share a link to your blog.


    Dawn Jackson

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