4. Outside Bees, Food and Foragers


Outside bees - Photo P PerryBetween 18-20 days old some workers do guard duties to protect the hive entrance from enemies.Entrance guard bees inspect incoming bees to ensure that they are bringing in food and have the correct hive odour. They work in concert with outer guard bees which hang around near the entrance. Strangers will be rejected or attacked. Outer guard bees may take short flights around the outside of the hive in response to disturbances.

Guards inspecting strangers 

If the hive is in danger of overheating, fanning bees direct airflow into the hive or out of the hive depending on need.

Water carriers obtain water, usually from within a short distance from the hive and bring it back to spread on the backs of fanning bees.
Workers have a crop separate from the nectar crop for this purpose.
They prefer dirty water.

Bees need to drink a lot of water
and it is necessary for making the honey and raising larvae.

Resting in hive Resting while out foraging

When the colony is producing young, new bees go out on orientation flights daily, although they will not start foraging until they are three weeks old. They do this to exercise their wings and to learn the appearance and location of their hive entrance. There could be several hundred bees flying in figure of eight patterns in front of their hive. For several minutes they will fly around within three feet of the hive entrance. The activity looks similar to a colony about to swarm. Gradually activity returns to normal with foragers regularly flying in and out.

Bees will not fly much higher than the height of any obstacle in its path. The bee will learn to fly straight out from its colony at high speed and be most surprised if it strikes a new obstacle such as you standing in the way.  It may lash out and you will receive a sting so be careful when walking close to the front of a busy beehive.

Bees are preyed upon by various birds, woodpeckers (during the winter), wasps, dragonflies, spiders, and other insects specializing in eating bees.
At one of our apiaries we saw a great tit taking bees to feed to its young. That’s nature!

Spider  Great tit 


At 21 days old forager bees are responsible for finding food sources, water and collecting resin for propolis.

These bees forage for nectar and pollen from flowers, plants and trees. Some flowers yield nectar and pollen, others only pollen or nectar.
Bees can fly as far as 7 miles for food; but an average distance would be less than a mile from the hive.
Honeybees have a very powerful sense of smell and so they can find food within a few minutes. They prefer simple, single petalled, perfumed flowers.
They fly 15-20 mph to a food source, and 12 mph returning home laden with nectar, pollen or water (sorry I can’t work in kilometres!).

The bee sucks up nectar with its proboscis and stores it in a honey sac (2nd stomach). She returns to the hive carrying half her weight in nectar and pollen (collected on her hairs). A single bee can visit 60-100 flowers on one collection trip.

Inside the hive, the laden forager communicates her floral findings in order to recruit other bees to forage in the same area. She lets other bees taste the food then dances on the comb in a circular pattern, sometimes crossing the circle in a zigzag or waggle pattern (round dance & waggle dance). The runs and dances point directly towards a good food source and nearby bees learn the odour, flavour and location of the food that they will soon fly off to find.

Tasting nectar

The forager then unloads the nectar to ‘receiver bees’ then off she goes to collect more. These house bees add enzymes to the nectar which break down the complex sugars of the nectar into simpler sugars thus starting the process of turning it into honey. Finally they hold drops of nectar on their proboscis which is waved around to evaporate some of the water.
When the water content is down to about 50%, the nectar is transferred into honey cells where the process of evaporation continues.

During the evaporation process, if the weather is hot and/or there is a lot of nectar coming in (called a ‘honey flo’), the hive needs a lot of ventilation to prevent excess water building up inside. Bee will stand in rows on the honeycomb, fanning their wings to produce a flow of air throughout the hive. Other fanning bees will face inwards at the hive entrance, pushing air in. Quite an exciting thing to see as it means the beekeepr will probably have some honey for himself this year! When the water content is less than 20% it is true honey and the cell is sealed (capped) with impermeable (airtight) wax.

super frame of honey almost full  - Photo P Perry

Honey is the bees’ carbohydrate food.
In cold weather or when food sources are scarce, bees use their stored honey as their source of energy.
A large colony hive could produce more than 100 lb of honey in a good season but would need about 40 lb of that to last them through an average winter. Winter bees.
Bees fly about 55,000 miles to make just one pound of honey, that’s 1½ times around the world!

Pollen sacs on honeybee - Photo Viv BarnesHoneybees also need pollen which is a fine to coarse powder. The pollen grains are microscopic – usually about 15 to 100 microns. Just a pinch of pollen powder contains thousands and thousands of grains.

At the same time as foraging for nectar foragers also pick up pollen. The bee brushes pollen from its body down to its knee joints where it is compressed into pollen sacs. In these sacs a bee can transport about 50 mg of pollen.

Pollen is the protein food necessary for feeding brood larvae.
It is mixed with a small amount of honey so that it will not spoil and packed firmly into comb cells. Unlike honey, which does not support bacterial life, stored pollen will become rancid without proper care.

Bringing in pollen In hive with pollen

A single bee may carry up to 5 million pollen grains in one trip.

Pollen comes in many colours. A colony may use up to 50 lb pollen for brood rearing yearly. 4 million foraging trips are required to collect this quantity.
It is critical for the bees to store a lot of pollen before winter. This protein food will be necessary in the following spring to raise brood when the queen begins to produce eggs again. At that time there may not be a lot of flowers around that they can collect pollen from.