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.

NECTAR-HONEY-WATER

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.

p10009021.jpg

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.

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Feeding our autumn bees

Last Saturday was a balmy 16 degrees in London, which is warm enough for bees to fly out. What will they find to eat? At this time of year the forage is scarce for bees and they may have little choice than to collect nectar from ivy. Honey from ivy nectar crystallises very quickly inside the hive and sets like hard candy, which is almost impossible for bees to eat. This can cause starvation if all, or most, of the colony’s winter food reserves are ivy honey.

Emily and I have been continuing to feed both our hives syrup and the bees have been taking this quite happily. Usually, we stop feeding syrup between the middle and end of October, but an unusually mild autumn has tricked our bees into eating their precious honey reserves so they can fly out and forage for more nectar and pollen. We want to make sure that our ladies are re-stocking their larder with honey made from sugar syrup and not from ivy nectar.

I played hookie this weekend and skipped the Saturday afternoon apiary session for an art class at the studio of artist Nick Malone. Painting bees instead of keeping them. Meantime, Emily reported that Lavender’s hive has drunk all their syrup and that a heft test showed the hive has built-up its winter reserves. Rosemary’s hive has not drunk all their syrup but this is not surprising. Rosemary’s hive had good honey reserves even after we extracted the honey crop and has continually eaten syrup throughout late August and September. The colony probably has little room spare to store more sugary goodness.

We have bought two bags of fondant – one for each hive – from our apiary, which I am impatient to put in the roof. It is fun to see bees climbing through the holes in the crownboard to tuck into a mountain of sugar. However, Pat advised that we wait until December to give them fondant, because it is better for them to stay warm inside the brood nest eating up their honey reserves first.

A second spring for bees?

I have been reading the BBC’s Autumnwatch blog and found a great guest post called Mild autumn, second spring by Matthew Oates, the National Trust’s naturalist-in-residence, who reports on the repercussions for our wildlife of November’s record-breaking mild weather.

Matthew says that flowers are enjoying a second spring: ‘dandelions and white dead-nettle prominent along verges, and Aubretia, Kerria, Magnolias, Skimmias and Viburnums blossoming in gardens’. He also comments that this has been a fascinating autumn for insects: ‘Butterflies, moths and dragonflies just won’t stop’. Our bees won’t stop this autumn, it seems! I just hope that they have been finding their flower friends waiting to greet them in gardens and not their nemesis ivy!

When the queen’s away the bees will play…

After waiting a week to find out what our bees did next, it rained. Then it poured. So it seemed the Mystery of the July Queens would have to wait.

Last week Emily and I made the unexpected discovery of five queen cells in Rose’s hive. The jury was out on whether our bees were planning to swarm or trying to replace Queen Rose who was MIA for a second week.

A break in the clouds came and we rushed to the apiary to find we were the only ones mad enough to visit the bees on such a blustery day. I was expecting to find very grumpy honeybees, because our little ladies don’t like the rain. Instead, we found them behaving quite strangely.

Someone forgot her umbrella – instead of flying in and out, our bees were clustered at the entrance of the hive out of the rain.

Emily thought they might be fanning their wings to create warm air vents, keeping the baby bees in the brood toasty and dry.

Fascinated, we lingered a little too long and forgot basic beekeeping 101 – don’t block the entrance of the hive. When we moved away there was a little dark cloud of bees hovering behind us, patiently waiting to enter the hive with their pollen loads. We made them wait in the rain, how awful!

We decided not to disturb Queen Rosemary’s hive in unsettled weather and moved on to Queen Rose’s hive. A ray of sunshine penetrated the dark canopy of the apiary, so we took a look inside hoping that our bees hadn’t swarmed.

Our ladies were there, along with a bright golden New Zealand intruder.

Can you spot the golden New Zealand honeybee among our darker British bees?

I suspect she is one of Albert’s bees who bribed her way into our hive with some good pollen.

Three of the five queen cells were no longer there. I can only imagine the dark turn of events during the week: a new queen, or two, hatched and tore down the cells of her rival sisters in an act of royal genocide. There was no sign of Rose and I suspect her crown has been passed. We’ll miss her – she was a good queen who gave us happy-tempered, hard-working bees. But such is life in the hive.

We found two remaining queen cells heavily covered in workers. I wondered if they were ‘taking down’ these cells, but Emily thought they might be trapping the unhatched queens as an insurance policy should the new queen not survive her mating flight. ‘Trapped queens “quack” in their cells,’ said Emily. ‘To tell the workers to let them out.’

It was then that we remembered beekeeping 101 again – don’t open a hive for a couple of weeks when you suspect a new queen has hatched. A hive inspection could upset a queen returning from her mating flight and, not settled in the hive, she may abscond. Drat! In our curiosity to see if our bees had swarmed or chosen supercedure, we forgot that. That’s why our bees have queens-in-waiting – as insurance against our blunders. Silly beekeepers!

As we finished our inspection we came across yet more strange behaviour. Look what our bees have done, the little weirdos!

A rainbow of pollen on the honeycomb (pink arrow) but why are our bees eating holes through the wax (blue arrows)?

They had eaten tiny little holes through the wax. They are not supposed to do that! Perfectly round, I caught a couple of workers peering at each other through a peephole like these were the best thing ever. Perhaps this is what happens while the queen is away – anarchy. Does anyone know why our bees would do this?

More rainbows of brightly coloured pollen in the honeycomb suggests where our bees get their honey. Blue pollen may be from poppies.

It's a bit blurry, but peer closely and you'll see a worker carrying a basket of blue pollen. This might be from a poppy.

As we closed the hive, someone sped past and dropped a red dollop of propolis on the frames we had just cleaned. The culprit was a blur.

Hey! We just cleaned that. The culprit is caught on camera.

The forecast for the rest of the weekend was rain and more rain, so Emily topped up the feeder with syrup and the usual suspects clambered excitedly to drink manna from heaven.

During our inspection, we noticed that some of our bees had white stripes on their thorax, which wouldn’t rub off with our fingers. We found this same phenomenon on bees flying into other hives at the apiary.

White-striped honeybees that have collected pollen and nectar from Himalayan balsam – more clues about the origins of the honey from our apiary!

When bees forage on Himalayan balsam the white pollen rubs their back and leaves a white stripe that they can’t clean off. This also happens to wasps. So if you see a bee or wasp flying around with a white stripe, you know what flower they have just visited.

Not to be confused with white-bottomed bumble bees.