Do Bees Eat Honey?
Honey bees are best known for producing honey, their foodstuff comprising sugary plant nectar that they store within wax honeycomb cells in their hive. This thick, golden liquid is harvested by beekeepers for human consumption and use. But do bees actually consume the honey they work so hard to make? Or do they have alternative foods inside the colony? Understanding bee diets provides insight into their biology and behaviors.
This article explores what bees eat both individually and collectively in a colony, covering topics such as:
- The role of honey as stored food reserves
- What components of plants bees consume
- Alternate nutrition sources for bees
- Consumption of honey by different castes and life stages
- Seasonal differences in honey eating
- Comparison of bee bread to honey
- Impacts of honey substitutes in commercial hives
While honey exists mainly as a compact energy store, bees have evolved a diverse diet from many plant sources to meet their nutritional needs. Discover how honey, pollen, nectar and secretions sustain bees throughout the year and enable their essential pollination services.
Honey as Stored Food Reserves
Honey serves primarily as concentrated energy storage within the hive rather than everyday bee food. Reasons it’s reserved include:
- It provides subsistence if floral resources become scarce, like during winter or droughts. Even when unable to forage, the colony has honey.
- Dense honey requires less storage space than sparse nectar. It takes many flower visits to produce, so is valuable.
- Its viscous texture, pH, and antimicrobial content keep honey preserved against spoilage for extended periods.
- The wax capping on honey cells acts as a sanitary barrier.
- Colonies may store 10-60 lbs or more of honey as insurance for lean times. It’s bee survival insurance.
- Some honey reserves may be specifically meant for overwintering rather than current consumption.
Honey is the bee version of non-perishable food stockpiling. It provides backup nutrition if fresh resources fail.
Plant Components Bees Consume
While they stockpile honey, bees also forage on various immediate-use plant products:
- Nectar – Provides carbohydrates (mainly sugars) for energy. Carried in the crop.
- Pollen – Supplies protein, fats, vitamins for bodily growth and maintenance. Carried in pollen baskets.
- Sap fluids – Oozing from plants; contain sugars, minerals, amino acids. Obtained by chewing holes.
- Honeydew secretions – Excreted by sap-feeding insects like aphids. Also high in sugars.
Bees consume these items directly for their own nourishment rather than storing them as supplies. They provide complete dietary components when combined.
Other Nutrition Sources for Bees
In addition to flowers and secretions, bees can utilize other nutrition sources:
- Honey – If flower supplies are scarce, stored honey becomes essential, providing carbohydrates.
- Bee bread – Pollen packed into cells, fermented by microbes into a “bread” with enhanced nutrition.
- Royal jelly – Only fed to larval queen bees. This milk-like secretion has complete nutrition.
- Waste matter – Bees recycle some ammonia-rich bee waste internally to gain protein.
Having alternative options allows colony nutrition to continue even if one source becomes unavailable. Variety helps ensure hive health.
Do Individual Bees Consume Honey?
While the colony stores honey long-term, individual bees will opportunistically take some honey under certain conditions:
- Young adult bees consume honey during the first 3-4 days after emerging when other duties are minimal. This helps develop food glands.
- Forager bees may take small honey meals between flower visits to refuel if nectar is limited. However, this is minimized to conserve stockpiles.
- During winter or rainy periods when flowering slows, more bees may take honey to compensate for reduced outside foraging.
- If the hive is under stress from disease, pest damage, or lack of flowers, bees increase honey eating to sustain functioning.
So while honey exists mainly in storage, bees can and will eat it as circumstances require. It largely serves as emergency backup food. Their individual diets center more on nectar and pollen.
Differences in Honey Consumption
The types and proportion of foods consumed differs across castes and life stages:
- Larvae – Mainly eat royal jelly (if queen larvae) or bee bread (worker larvae). This powers growth.
- Pupae – Do not eat at all during metamorphosis.
- Worker bees – Consume bee bread, nectar and honey. Require variety to perform tasks.
- Drones – Eat bee bread, nectar and honey. Larger nutritional needs than workers.
- Queen bee – Feeds only on royal jelly supplied by workers her whole life, giving great fertility. Does not forage.
While all colony members rely on shared honey reserves in lean times, their dietary preferences and needs vary.
Seasonal Shifts in Honey Eating
Honey consumption by bees changes across seasons:
- Spring – More nectar and bee bread are eaten to fuel growth, egg-laying, and foraging. Honey is primarily left untouched.
- Summer – Peak flower availability allows maximum nectar and bee bread intake. Foraging is in high gear.
- Autumn – Nectar declines so more honey is eaten to prepare for winter. The colony shifts toward preservation.
- Winter – Honey becomes the sole food source since outside foraging ceases. Levels decrease until spring flowering resumes.
When External nutrition is plentiful in spring and summer, stored honey goes mostly untouched. But it becomes essential for winter survival. This cycle allows bees to thrive year-round.
Comparing Honey and Bee Bread
While honey provides carbohydrates, bee bread offers a protein boost. Key differences:
- Bee bread – Made from pollen packed into cells, fermented by microbes. High in protein, fats, vitamins, minerals.
- Honey – Comprised of plant nectar, processed and dehydrated. Carbohydrate-rich with enzymes added.
- Eating – Bee bread is directly consumed. Honey is usually reserved storage.
- Shelf life – Bee bread decays over weeks. Honey remains unspoiled for years.
- Role – Bee bread supports growth and development. Honey offers energy storage.
Together, both prolong colony nutrition during hard times. But they serve different dietary roles.
Impacts of Honey Substitutes
Many commercial beekeepers now use sugary syrups as honey substitutes to feed colonies:
- Allows extracting more honey for sale rather than leaving reserves.
- Can support colonies stressed by pesticides or inadequate native flowers.
- However, syrup lacks the nuanced nutrition and antimicrobial properties of honey.
- Exclusive syrup feeding may impair bee health long-term if relied upon excessively.
- Supplementing when needed provides help, but all-syrup diets should be avoided.
Like human processed foods, sugary honey alternatives may satiate short-term hunger but fail to support complete health over a lifetime. Pure honey has an intricate nutrition profile that synthetic foods struggle to replicate. Moderation is advised.
While humans greedily guzzle the honey bees work tirelessly to produce, bees themselves limit honey consumption to occasional snacking or lean times when other nutrition falters. The nectar, pollen, secretions and “bee bread” gathered from flowering plants comprise the bulk of their diet and provides more thorough nourishment. Yet having honey as a dense reserve offers insurance whenever circumstances limit fresh foraging. This balance allows bees to thrive. Next time you enjoy honey yourself, appreciate that bees don’t take it for granted either! Their ingenuity gave us this sweet gift.