Learn What Bees Eat and How to Plant a Bee Garden

what do bees eat

A Bees’s primary sources of food are nectar and pollen from plants. They store the nectar in their wax honeycomb and dehydrate it with their wings, transforming it into honey. The pollen is packed into a honeycomb, mixed with nectar and bee saliva, and sealed with a thin layer of honey to transform raw pollen into highly digestible bee bread. Honey and bee bread are a bee’s main source of food in the winter when plants are not flowering. 

Honeybees collect water to help cool the nest on warm days and to dilute honey stores to feed to larvae. Bees will also occasionally eat honeydew, which is the sweet nectar-like secretions of other insects like aphids. They have been known to eat overly ripe fruit and I learned the hard way as a kid they can confuse a soda can with sweet nectar.  

When bees gather nectar and pollen they provide the life-sustaining service of pollination. Three-quarters of all crops rely on pollination to grow, which is done mostly by bees. This pollinated food makes up one-third of all the food we eat on the planet. So you can see without the bees eating, humans wouldn’t eat either.   

How do Bees Know Exactly What to Eat?

Somehow bees know exactly what to eat and feed their young at every stage of their short lives. They can even sense when the surrounding food sources are deficient in specific nutrients and will adjust their foraging patterns to make up for those deficiencies. 

A 2016 Isreal Study of honeybee feeding behavior artificially introduced a diet to bees that lacked just one essential amino acid for one week. After the week was up, they offered the foraging bees three food sources, two missing the amino acid, and one containing it. They found the bees disproportionately chose the food source with the missing amino acid, incredible!      

There is so much about bee behavior that scientists still don’t understand and for me, this inspires awe in their creator. 


What Do Bees Eat the Most?

What bees eat the most depends on their role in the hive family. All bee larvae are fed royal jelly for the first three days of life. Royal jelly is a milky secretion from the head or hypopharyngeal gland of younger worker bees. Larvae that are being reared as a queen for the job of laying eggs are fed a diet exclusively of royal jelly for their entire lives. Larvae that are being raised as worker bees are fed bee bread. 

As soon as a worker bee hatches, it becomes a nurse or house bee and takes care of the newly laid bee brood. Nurse bees eat bee bread which helps stimulate their hypopharyngeal gland to produce royal jelly for the brood. Once a bee matures into a worker bee, she no longer needs the high protein bee bread and switches to a diet mainly of nectar and honey to fuel her busy activities. 

Drones are male bees whose sole purpose is to mate with virgin queens. The process of mating kills the drones, and the majority who do not mate, are kicked out of the hive during winter and freeze or starve. The average lifespan of a drone bee is 90-days. Drones do not gather pollen or nectar and are reliant on the nurse and worker bees to feed them while they are still useful.   


Should I Feed Bees Sugar Water?

Depending on the type of beekeeping you’d like to practice, there may come a time you want to feed supplemental sugar water to your hive. In commercial beekeeping or high-volume honey harvesting, supplemental bee feeding with high fructose corn syrup or sugar water is a common practice by bee farmers

Most backyard beekeepers understand that there is no nutritional equivalent for nectar and pollen. It is the ideal food for bees with more necessary factors than science can even uncover. Bees need nectar and pollen to thrive. But when faced with a colony that will die if they are not fed sugar syrup, most beekeepers will choose to feed the bees until they are stronger. 

Some of the circumstances that could necessitate artificially feeding bees are a small new colony split of bees that needs extra help to get going, a colony that is trying to recover after losing a queen without one ready to replace her, or unexpected weather conditions like an unusually early frost cutting off nectar and pollen supplies before the bees are ready. 

There are two basic sugar syrup recipes for bees—one for Spring feeding and another for Fall feeding. 

  • Spring Bee Feeding Recipe: 1 part sugar to 1 part water. Perfect for bees who need supplemental feeding to raise brood.
  • Fall Bee Feeding Recipe: 2 parts sugar to 1 part water. Perfect for bees who need supplemental feeding to store honey for the winter.   

Heat the water on the stovetop and mix in the sugar until it’s dissolved. Let the sugar syrup cool to room temperature then fill your bee feeders. You can purchase a feeder that attaches to the top of your Langstroth hive, or a separate feeder you place near your hive. 


What Flowers Should I Plant for Bess to Eat?

When asking the question “What do bees eat?”, the answer is nectar and pollen mainly from flowers. One of the best practices you can do to feed your bees is to plant flowers for their use! A wide variety of flowers will work well, but I encourage you to look for both early and late blooming flower varieties that do well in your local area to feed your bees from early Spring to late Fall. Many food sources won’t bloom until it warms up significantly, so giving your bees a jump start with early bloomers is one of the best things you can do for a thriving hive with excellent honey production. 

Early Bloomers

  • Crocus, Snowdrop, Bleeding Heart, and Hyacinth bulbs—provide some of the earliest blooms in January through March 
  • Lenten Rose—named after the Christian holiday Lent, this flower blooms from February to May

Summer Bloomers

  • Peonies—typically bloom from April through June, though these perennials come in early, mid-season, and later season varieties. Plant some of each to keep your bees happy and fed from early spring to late fall.
  • Sunflower—can bloom from July to October
  • Lavender—blooms from June to July
  • Echinacea—blooms from midsummer until Fall
  • Goldenrod—blooms from August to October
  • Bee Balm—bloom from midsummer till early fall
  • Joe Pye Weed—blooms from July to September 
  • Catmint—blooms profusely from late spring to September

Long and Late Bloomers

  • Primrose—blooms in the early spring through late fall
  • Yarrow—blooms in April through November, or year-round if there is no hard frost
  • Calendula—blooms Spring through November, or year-round if there is no hard frost, trim back spent flower for continued blooms
  • Cornflower—blooms May through November
  • Zinnia—blooms from late spring until frost
  • Dahlias—blooms from July until the first frost

Keep in mind these blooming seasons will vary depending on the hardiness zone you live in, so make sure to check what will grow well in your local area. 


Do Bees Eat Fruit?

Yes, bees will be attracted to the fragrance of overripe fruit and will eat it. Especially if they are in a dearth of pollen and nectar to forage from. Bees have been known to land on and eat overripe bananas, apples, grapes, peaches, pears, plums, and even figs. 


Do Bees Eat All Their Honey?

Honeybees are good managers and stewards of the natural resources available to them. They will store more than enough honey to feed all the members of the hive and survive through the winter when it’s too cold to fly and the plants are not flowering. This is why we are able to harvest honey from a hive and the bees will still have enough. A good beekeeper will make sure they don’t take too much honey from their bees, especially in late fall when they won’t have time to replenish if too much is taken. 

After the fall honey harvest, Beekeepers should leave around 60 pounds of honey in each hive, depending on the climate they live in. If it’s a very cold climate with a long winter, closer to 90 pounds is best, or a very warm climate with a short winter, they can leave closer to 40 pounds. 

To determine the weight of a honeycomb, weigh an empty frame or top bar, and subtract that weight from the weight of the comb. Honey weighs significantly more than wax, so for every 7 pounds of honey, there will be about 1 pound of wax. You can use these ratios to get a rough estimate of how much honey to leave in the hive to overwinter your bees.   


Do Bees Eat Bugs?

Honeybees do not eat other insects. They eat the pollen and nectar that come from flowers and make them into honey and bee bread for their consumption. Bees will occasionally eat honeydew, which is a sweet secretion from bugs like aphids, but they do not eat the bugs themselves.  


Do Bees Drink Water?

Not only do bees drink water, but they also use it as air conditioning in combination with their wings to cool the hive during hot summer days. Honeybees need a dependable source of water all year round. But it’s tricky because you don’t want your bees sharing water with pets or livestock, and you also don’t want them to drown. 

You can offer bees a dish or pan of water with rocks, marbles, or other small items they can land on to safely reach the water’s edge. It’s best to establish this water source within 100 feet of your hive when you first acquire bees in it. This way your bees won’t go bothering your pet’s water dishes, your pool, or your neighbor’s yard for water. To make the water more attractive, you can dissolve a little sugar water in it at first. Once they’ve learned where their water is, you don’t have to add sugar.  


What are Bees Most Attracted To?

Bees find bright blossoms such as blue, purple, and yellow flowers most attractive. However, they are also drawn in by the rich scent of nectar. Bees are particularly attracted to Marjoram, Borage, Lavender, and Dahlias, but they love all types of flowers, shrubs, and trees with lots of pollen and nectar.  


How Do Bees Make Royal Jelly?

Royal Jelly is a protein-rich secretion from the glands on the heads of young worker bees or nurse bees. These young worker bees eat a diet high in bee bread, which is protein-rich fermented pollen. This diet enables them to produce lots of royal jelly which they feed to all larvae for the first three days of life, and continue to feed to the queen for her entire life.  


What Do Bees Eat in the Winter?

In the winter when the pollen and nectar aren’t flowing, bees will eat from the honey stores they carefully laid up for themselves. So long as the colony doesn’t need male drone bees for mating, they will be kicked out of the hive at the start of winter so there are fewer mouths to feed and the hive will have a greater chance at survival. The evicted drone bees will starve or freeze to death, but the hive will likely survive through winter and produce more drone bees in the spring. 


What Do Bees Eat in the Summer? 

In the summer bees eat the abundant nectar and pollen from flowering plants and trees. They usually forage between one to three miles from home, but if absolutely necessary can forage up to five to six miles from home in search of nectar and pollen. They bring the nectar and pollen back to the hive where worker bees transform the pollen into bee bread and the nectar into honey. 


What Do Queen Bees Eat? 

The queen bee’s sole purpose is to lay eggs, so she will need the richest diet to support her hormonal growth and reproductive abilities. She will be easy to spot because she is the largest bee in the hive. To support her size and function, nurse and attendant bees will feed her a diet of royal jelly her entire life. She doesn’t have to feed or clean herself, her attendants do that for her so she can focus on her one job, laying eggs. 


What about you, have you fed your bees before or planted flowers for their use? What worked best for your bees and area? Let us know in the comments below. 


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