Do honey bees eat fruit?

The short answer is yes. Honey bees, especially in a nectar dearth, find ripe fruit very much to their liking. They have been known to feast on plums, peaches, grapes, apples, figs, and pears. But the issue that causes all the disagreement among beekeepers is whether honey bees will actually drill a hole in a fruit or if they simply use pre-existing breaks in the skin created by a wasp, stink bug, beetle, bird, or some other creature.

I have followed long threads on BeeSource, GardenWeb, and some other forums containing heated debates on whether honey bees are even capable of breaking the skin of fruits. Some beekeepers have placed grapes in a hive, or smeared them with honey, only to find the grapes still intact once the honey was gone. One person found the grapes propolized to the frames.

Certainly honey bees like their fruit very ripe. Fruit is sweet when slightly overripe, but more important in the bee world, it emits a fragrance that the bees can find. With an odor to follow, it is easier for honey bees to pinpoint a source of food, especially one that doesn’t look like a flower. Along with the aroma, however, comes a disintegration of the skin. It certainly isn’t difficult to puncture an overripe peach or pear, although grapes can be trickier due to a tougher exterior.

This subject occurred to me yesterday as I was picking mulberries. Our summer dearth is deep this year, and the bees are everywhere searching and scavenging. The mulberry tree has lots of fruit, some of it overripe, and the honey bees where circling above it and through it, no doubt following the odor. Later in the day, I discovered honey bees slurping overripe blackberries.

What I found amusing in the the forum posts was the existence of two distinct camps. The orchard keepers were saying honey bees drilled the fruit and beekeepers were (as usual) defending their little charges saying they are not even capable of breaching the skin of fruits.

As much as I like to defend honey bees, I find this a little hard to believe. Shown below is a photo of an entrance reducer that was an obvious inconvenience to my bees. When I put it in, it was new and freshly painted. About two months later, when I heard skritching inside the hive, I removed the reducer to find it virtually destroyed. Now tell me that bees that can decommission a piece of wood can’t get through an overripe plum.

Furthermore, we know that honey bees bite when an enemy is too small to sting. Certainly if they can penetrate the cuticle of a wax moth larva, they can also bite through a tender overripe fruit skin.

Then too, we have all seen robbing honey bees tear roughly through capped honey combs, leaving ragged edges and piles of debris. Honey bees aren’t nearly as delicate as some would like us to believe. Although I personally have not seen a honey bee puncture a fruit, I do not doubt those who say they have.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Munched away, paint and all.
Tougher than fruit skin.

Comments

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Don’t know, but I’m in your camp, and that photo looks mighty convincing. Whole lot of other bees don’t have any trouble with biting, from nectar-robbing bumbles cutting into flowers, to “stingless” bees that bite in self defense, to leaf-cutters chopping leaves for their nests etc etc.

Rusty
Reply

Hi Glen,

Good points. Thanks.

cgrey8
Reply

The subject you didn’t touch on is if fruit is eaten, is how does it set with them? Are they OK with it?
Does it give them dysentery?

Do they store it or is fruit ONLY eaten in a dearth and thus what they eat is being consumed, not stored?

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

I don’t think they eat enough of it to make much of a difference. Certainly fruit has lots of fiber which could cause honey bee dysentery if they ate lots, but I think it’s just an occasional thing that happens in a nectar dearth. Summer dearths coincide with ripe fruits, so it’s like having the stars in alignment I suppose. However, I’ve heard many times that if a colony eats enough purple berries (such as elderberries or blueberries) the honey will be purple. I don’t think I believe this, though, because when I squash a blueberry, for example, the insides look green to me, and I can’t imagine the bees would eat the skin.

Ettamarie Peterson
Reply

They do chew wood and fiber board and cardboard but over long periods of time so I am still not convinced they break open fruit. I think they wait until it is cracked first. No scientific evidence, just opinion for now.

Oh, The way to remember queen colors is start with one and 6 and use the first letter of each word of this sentence Will you raise good bees. W, Y, R, G, B or White, yellow, red, green, blue.

Rusty
Reply

Ettamarie,

Fair enough.

Gary Rondeau
Reply

Hi Rusty,
Last year I kept my bees in a location that was loaded with blackberries — common in the PNW from Washington to California. However in this location, that was ALL there was, and when the honey dearth in August arrived with a vengence, all there was left were blackberry pie on the vines cooking in the sun. The bees made “blackberry syrup” out of those berries. The honey was unusual, deliciously berry flavored, and very purple. Those two colonies did not fare well over the winter. One succumbed to yellowjacket predation, the other ended up with a bad case of nosema and then bit the dust in a late season cold snap. I was never thrilled with the location of the hives — just too exposed, and I have no idea if the berry juice honey was part of the reason for the nosema problems — I doubt it. Bees that have nothing else but berry juice to harvest are too stressed for my taste, so I haven’t been back to that location. But the honey was quite exraordinary!

Rusty
Reply

Gary,

Are you sure it was Nosema and not honey bee dysentery? I suspect honey bee dysentery in light of all the berry juice.

boyd young
Reply

If I am remembering correctly, when reading “ABC & XYZ OF BEE CULTURE” there was a section on this subject. The conclusion was that after extensive testing, bees would not consume, pull fruit juice, etc. from sound fruit. Once the peel was damaged, then all bets were off.

Nancy Celani Baker
Reply

Last winter when we were looking at buying our old farmhouse I found a pile of pears that had dropped off the tree. Turns out these are ‘hard’ pears or ‘winter’ pears because they never soften on the tree. You pick them when they start to color up and store them. They ripen slowly off the tree, and can last through Christmas. The pears were almost totally dried, but each one had a hole in it and I saw many bees going in and out. I looked at one of the pears and it was almost completely hollowed out. On nice days there was always activity at those pears. After the Polar Vortex struck though, I didn’t see any more bees around the pears.

Muddyvalley
Reply

One of my hives that I inspected the other day had a section of dark red “honey” that on tasting, tasted just like blackberry. The question I have, is that mixed with other nectar to make honey, or are they making blackberry juice concentrate?

Rusty
Reply

Muddy,

By definition, honey is made by bees from nectar collected from flowers. So it seems juice collected from fruit, processed, and dried by bees isn’t actually honey. Still, if you have just a small section of processed fruit juice, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. The bees, after all, didn’t read the definition so they are allowed a little latitude, especially if they decided on the source themselves and it wasn’t fed to them.

Whether they mix it with nectar in any individual cell, I don’t know.

Renaldo
Reply

Here, they hit the “Reliance” grapes first. Early ripening, high sugar, seedles grape. Then they went to the “Canadice”. Another high sugar, seedless grape which ripens next. When I see a bee butt sticking out of a round hole in a grape, I think that just maybe, she did that herself. When I see twenty of them, I think it’s even more likely. When they went after the “Interlaken”, I picked all the table grapes. They have left the dark skinned grapes alone so far. The red wine grapes are at 20/21 brix as of yesterday. That’s fairly high sugar, would go 11 percent alcohol in the wine if finished dry. Want 22 Brix or a little better for the crush. All of our “stuff” is grown for our own use. With 90 plus degree days this week, I think the grapes will come off Saturday. WAY early for southern Oregon. There is no doubt in my little mind that our bees eat/drink grape juice on the vine, as it were. Might get 8 or 10 gallons of wine this year. It will probably be pretty bad, but we wil just have to choke it down next summer. Yellow Jackets (devil’s spawn) are not nearly as selective as the bees.

Rusty
Reply

Wow, very interesting. It’s amazing what different people see and how it affects their perception . . . sounds like honey bees will bore right through a grape.

Gary Rondeau
Reply

Rusty, good point that it certainly could have been bee dysentery. In every case where I have looked at bees with the microscope given the conditions where they are defecating all over the frames, I have found nosema… BUT, I didn’t check this time and there was all that berry juice.

Curious if you have ever run into a case of dysentery where your were sure that there wasn’t nosema present? I’ve certainly seen the opposite — nosema when no dysentery.

Rusty
Reply

Gary,

Only twice. Once I was sure it was Nosema, but there wasn’t a spore in sight. The other time I was pretty sure it was dysentery because they had acquired some really dark honey, almost like chocolate, and I had left it on over the winter. Mistake.

Thom
Reply

I have a mango tree and this year a lot are falling to the ground. The bees are having a feast with the ripe mangoes.

Lyn
Reply

Hi Rusty!

You fail to mention something that I have noticed in the past, that honey bees really like a little nip sometimes! I find them going after anything that is fermenting, and that would apply to the overripe fruit as well. They’re as bad as yellow jackets to dive into my glass of wine. Wondered if you’d noticed that?

Love your blog! I read every one of them, and re-post to my club’s Facebook page. Thanks so much for your knowledge.

Lyn

Shreve
Reply

I witnessed my honey bee’s landing on unadulterated fruit and drinking from it. I believe they are capable, especially during the dearth.

Myrna Warren
Reply

I made muscadine jelly and put the hulls strained from the jelly out for our bees and they suck all the juice (with lots of sugar) out of them.

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