Food Storage, Bee Style
Honey bees, like us humans, are able to store food for later use. This is, of course, how we get honey: they share some of their reserves with us (or we make them do so). They make honey from the nectar they collect from flowers, by reducing its moisture content from over 80% to less than 18%, which is the magic number below which fermentation stops. By removing most of the water, they also make it possible to store a lot more honey in their comb. Efficiency all around!
But bees need more than just honey for food. They need bread. Well, not regular bread, but bee bread. Seriously, I’m not making this up! Bee bread is a real thing!
During the warm season, bees collect pollen from flowers. To be more accurate, pollen granules actually get stuck to their very hairy bodies. You may wonder why the pollen doesn’t fall right off? Good question! It doesn’t because bees’ hairs have a weak electrostatic charge, from flying, which literally attracts the pollen grains.
I don’t know about you, but if I had a bunch of pollen grains all over my body, I would start to feel itchy. Bees don’t seem to mind it much, though. At least not for a while.
But Isn’t the Pollen Going to Fall Off Once the Bee Takes Flight?
That is another good question! The answer can be found in another amazing tool the bees were given by their Creator. Bees have three pairs of legs. Their hind legs have a pollen basket. Honestly, I’m not pulling your leg! Bees really do have a pollen basket where they deposit most of the pollen grains that get stuck to their bodies while collecting nectar from flowers. You can read more about it here.
After a while, the basket gets full and the bee flies back to her hive with the precious cargo of pollen. Once inside the hive, it unloads the basket, and the clump of pollen is taken over by nurse bees. Nurse bees are younger bees that are not flying out of the hive yet. Their job is to take care of bee larvae, processing nectar into honey and pollen into bee bread. And here we come back to what I was talking about in the beginning: how bees make bee bread.
You see, pollen is a great food for bees, and they like to eat it fresh. But just like the flowers where it comes from, it doesn’t last too long in a fresh state: it molds quite fast, or germs get to it and spoil it. And here comes the amazing part: bees know how to preserve pollen by making bee bread from it!
Here is how they do it. First, the nurse bees pack the pollen clump into a comb cell. They literraly hit it with their little heads until it is compacted into the cell very well, and the air is removed. They coat it then with a thin layer of nectar. They then pack another clump on top, and put another layer of nectar on it. This is how it looks:
Once the bees fill up a cell with this mixture about two thirds up, they seal it and over the next few days, the pollen undergoes a process of fermentation and becomes bee bread. They now have stored pollen in a form that does not spoil for months!
For quite some time, scientists thought that the fermentation process of pollen was necessary in order for the bees to be able to process and absorb it. In recent years, though, it has become clear that the only reason bees make bee bread is to store it for later use. They are perfectly capable of using fresh pollen, and they actually prefer it, just like we prefer fresh vegetables over pickled ones (most of us, anyway).
How Do Honey Bees Learn to Make Bee Bread?
They don’t. Nobody teaches them how to. They are born knowing it, that is, this skill is programed into their brain, like an instinct. It is as if you would be born knowing to read and write! Quite an amazing feat, isn’t it? Here is a video of bees collecting pollen from a sunflower flower:
Next time when you see a honey bee, remember how incredible they are, and try not to be afraid of them. But if you are, read our tips on how to avoid bee stings.