It’s a fact: Bees love eating honey just as much as we do! It’s their preferred form of carbohydrate, and whether they have sufficient stores in the hive heading into winter can make or break a colony. The importance of this sticky, sweet stuff is why we are talking about honey nutrition today; without a good understanding of honey, you can’t make sure your bees are well-fed.
Honey bees need to eat a balanced diet just like we do. Honey provides them with the carbohydrates that give them the energy to go about their busy days. They also need protein, which comes from pollen (if you missed our blog about that, check it out here), vitamins and minerals (blog coming soon!), and to drink fresh water. But, we are here for the honey today, so let’s talk about it!
Besides collecting pollen in their pollen baskets, foraging honey bees also collect nectar from a variety of plant sources. Nectar comes from nectaries, special glands plants use to produce this sugar-filled liquid. Plants have special adaptations to attract honey bees to these resources since honey bees then spread pollen from plant to plant, helping plants reproduce. And honey bees will travel far – up to four miles – to find quality sources of nectar. Plants do their best to make sure honey bees visit them on their journeys.
Flowers have what are called nectar guides, which are petal patterns, sometimes visible to the human eye and sometimes not, that show honey bees where to find the nectar. This is because can see UV light and humans cannot. In many situations, flowers use nectar to provide a sweet treat to pollinators in exchange for spreading their pollen to neighboring plants. It’s a form of symbiosis called mutualism, where both organisms benefit from the relationship. You can read more about this unique relationship in our blog from earlier this spring.
Honey bees look specifically for flowers that have higher sucrose content; they like it sweet! The sugar content of nectar can vary a lot – from 5-75%, depending on the flower – and honey bees will seek out species that have a higher payoff for them, nutritionally.
The honey bee uses its strawlike tongue called a proboscis to slurp up the nectar. They store it in their crop, or, honey stomach, in order to safely transport their load back to the hive.
In the process of transporting and regurgitating the nectar, the honey bee’s saliva combines with the nectar. Within her saliva is an enzyme called invertase that begins to transform the nectar from sucrose into glucose and fructose. However, its transformation isn’t complete until it’s in the hive.
Back at the hive, the foraging bee essentially regurgitates the nectar near the entrance to the hive where another worker bee takes over the process, carrying it to a cell in the comb. Worker bees use their wings to fan the cell, thus evaporating moisture and taking the substance from around 80-95% water (when it’s in nectar form) to the around 17% water content we see with honey.
When the worker bees use their tiny mouths to move the nectar-soon-to-be-honey around the hive, they also add enzymes to the mix:
If the bees don’t work hard to transform the nectar and condense the substance into its thicker form, it can spell disaster. Honey can ferment starting at 21% water content, and fermented honey can kill bees. Once the worker bees are certain the honey is how they want it, they cap the cell for later use.
Honey is a carbohydrate made up of over 181 unique components. While the sugar content does vary based on the honey variety, there is generally more fructose than glucose in honey. Fructose hovers around 38%, while glucose is around 31%, and it’s the high fructose content that makes honey sweeter than table sugar.
Honey also contains vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, organic acids, pollen, fragrance, and flavor compounds. Phew. That’s a lot more than table sugar has going for it, huh?
Additionally, honey has a low pH—generally around 4, making it acidic. It’s also prone to crystallization, which occurs when glucose starts to break down and stick to small particles in the honey, like pollen. While we can easily remove crystals from honey using a pot of water and a stove on medium-low heat, there is a higher risk of fermentation once honey crystallizes. However, it’s less likely to crystallize when kept in the comb, so it’s not as much of a worry for honey bees.
Nonetheless, the honey doesn’t last too long for the bees as they waste no time putting it to good use in the hive.
Each worker bee creates approximately 1/12 teaspoon of honey in her life. That may not seem like a lot, but consider there are thousands of bees in each colony and their numbers turn over quickly, especially in summer. Each colony can produce anywhere from 19.2 kg to 124 kg (or sometimes even more) of honey per colony per year. It really depends on the type of hive you have and what breeds of bees are in your colony.
While honey forms the main diet of fully-fledged worker bees, the brood gets in on the sweet stuff, too. From days 1-3, 18% of the diet of bee larvae is carbohydrates. This switches to 45% in days 4-5 for a total of 59.4 mg of carbohydrates during the entire larval cycle.
Adult bees need approximately 4 mg of utilizable sugar daily. Oftentimes, adult workers consume honey through trophallactic contacts. This just means bees feed each other when they need a boost, further exemplifying how honey bees work tirelessly to take care of their colony. Plus, the mere presence of honey in the hive influences the activities of the colony; nectar flows stimulate hygienic behavior. Hygienic bees are healthier bees. This is just another reason why honey nutrition is so important.
Let’s back up and talk about utilizable sugar. Not all sugar is created equal and bees cannot consume every sugar out there. There are a lot of sugars that are toxic to honey bees, including lactose, mannose, and xylose. As Robert Brodschneider and Karl Crailsheim note in their 2009 article in Apidologie, 40% of the sugars in soybeans are toxic to bees, but bees can consume these sugars and survive if they dilute their consumption with other, tolerable sugars.
What does this mean for you? Honey bees will eat to survive and but don’t always know what’s toxic to them. As long as they have a plethora of quality, tolerate sources of forage nearby, toxicity should seldom cause issues.
There’s a chemical that can be found in honey called hydroxymethylfurfural. This is also found in invert sugars and high fructose corn syrup and develops in any of these substances when they are processed with heat or stored for long periods of time.
What do you need to know?
If you feed your bees stored honey, sugar syrup, or high fructose corn syrup (we don’t recommend this), you should not process it using high heat, and you should replace feed jars every few days to minimize risk to your bees.
Now that you have a brief background into where honey comes from, how bees collect it, and what they use it for in the hive, let’s discuss what you can do to help optimize honey nutrition.
When it comes to taking care of your bees, making sure honey nutrition is optimal is part of your responsibility and there’s much you can do to ensure your bees have what they need. It comes down to monitoring the colony, determining whether to do supplemental feeding, and providing quality forage nearby.
You need to have eyes on your bees to know whether or not they are doing okay. We recommend performing inspections at least once a week in spring and early summer, transitioning to once every other week in summer, once a week in fall, and a couple of times total throughout the winter.
When you inspect your hive, look for the following signs that can indicate if your colony is healthy and well-fed during the busy season:
When it gets closer to fall, check the honey stores carefully. You want to make sure you leave at least 8-9 frames full of honey, if not closer to 12 frames, netting out at about 80-90 pounds of honey heading into winter. Remember, any honey you take for yourself is honey the bees no longer have for their own use.
Here’s a fact: One of the main reasons colonies perish over the winter is due to starvation. Make sure you aren’t a contributing factor to your bees’ demise. A simple solution is to only harvest honey in the spring when your bees are able to access nectar and rebuild stores.
In winter, you can assess how much honey your bees have left by gently checking the overall weight of the hive. You will need to have a baseline at the start of the season to assess any significant and concerning changes. This is how you will determine if your bees need you to intervene or start supplemental feeding right away in the spring.
There are times when growing seasons don’t go the way we want them to, or your bees may struggle to create the honey stores they need to prosper. When the alternative is starvation, you will need to step in and provide them with supplemental feeding.
Reasons to feed include:
A thinner syrup will mimic nectar flows and can stimulate the queen to produce brood. Conversely, a thicker syrup (66% or so) is appropriate for fall feedings, as it doesn’t make the bees work as hard to condense it into their desired viscosity. They need all the energy they can get to prepare the hive for winter. We will discuss supplemental feeding in-depth in an upcoming blog, so let’s talk about the final step you can take to help with honey nutrition: planting for the bees.
You may not be into gardening, and that’s okay, but refusing to pay attention to what grows in your yard is like getting a dog and refusing to buy kibble. Fortunately, there are a few quick steps you can take to ensure your honey bees have quality nectar to create honey from.
Honey bees live on honey and it’s their preferred source of carbohydrate. In order to best help your bees out, make sure they have the resources they need to create this sticky-sweet substance, and prioritize helping your bees have the honey they need to thrive, even if it means less for you. Your bees will thank you by living long (relatively), healthy lives.