honey bee behavior

Floral fidelity yields pure pollen pellets

Floral fidelity makes honey bees special. While many pollinators flit from one plant species to another, honey bees doggedly pursue flowers of a certain species.

So when the new day dawns, Sue and Marianne, Betsy and Josephine grab their flight plans and wing out the front door. Sue is visiting dandelions, Marianne and Betsy are working the apples, and Josephine has cherries in mind. They each collect just one species of pollen. This is great for the plants because the pollen that lands on the stigma is the type needed for fertilization. How this benefits the honey bee is less clear.

Nevertheless, an entire foraging trip will be spent on that single flower type. In fact, individual bees are likely to keep collecting the same pollen for many days. Only when the source dries up does the forager switch to something else.

Floral fidelity is the reason you seldom see honey bees on small plantings. If you have just a little of this and a little of that in your garden, the flowers are more likely to be visited by native pollinators than by honey bees. A honey bee forager wants to see at least two basket-loads of pollen—probably more—before she starts to collect.

Much research has gone into floral fidelity. Examinations of pollen loads show that only about six percent of the pollen is inconsistent with the rest of the load. And some of the six percent may have been introduced accidentally. For example, pollen could have been deposited on a flower by the wind—or perhaps by a different pollinator—where it remained until it was inadvertently picked up by a honey bee.

You don’t need a laboratory analysis of pollen pellets to know floral fidelity exists. Instead, just take a look. Pellets have distinct colors—sundry shades of white, yellow, orange, blue, and gray. Each pellet is made from one color, not mixed up like M&Ms.

Whereas nectar is transferred from bee to bee before it is stored, pollen-carrying bees must store their own pellets. Somehow, the foragers feel their way around inside the dark hive, find an available cell, and scrape their load into it.

The photos of brilliantly-colored pellets were graciously provided by Phillip Cairns at MudSongs.org.

Honey Bee Suite

An oversized load. Photo by Phillip Cairns

Each pollen pellet has its own distinct color. Photo by Phillip Cairns

Sisters in blue. Photo by Phillip Cairns


  • Hey Rusty,

    Fantastically interesting, as usual. If “they” ever find out what benefit this has to the bees, I’m sure you’ll let us all know! As you say, the benefits for the plants (and for beekeepers going into pollination) are obvious. Hmm.

    I have not had any luck getting a photo of the red pollen. If I had known that it was unusual, I would have taken advantage when I saw it! Our weather has been too bad for the bees to be flying much. Blueberries are already 3-4 weeks behind.

    On the subject of floral fidelity, though, I have a super interesting photo for you to check out. I’ll email it along.

  • “…back at the hive the pellets are packed into cells according to type. Although there are some exceptions, the cells are as distinctly colored as mosaic tiles.”

    Get out. Are you serious?

    • Phillip,

      I have seen some pictures of this that blow me away. Unfortunately, I don’t have one–at least not one I have permission to use. If I can find the one I have I will send a pm.

  • Тоже наблюдал фиолетовую обножку. Правда только во второй половине лета. А сейчас несут пыльцу оранжевую, белую и светло-коричневую.

    • Пчеловод,

      When you say they carry orange, white, and light brown pollen, do you mean they carry it separately or all mixed up?

  • The first chapter of T. D. Seeley’s ‘Honeybee Democracy’ has an excellent picture. See this example chapter: press.princeton.edu/chapters/s9267.pdf

  • The colour we see when we look at the comb is that of the last pollen load. A longitudinal section through a cells clearly shows all the different colours of the pollen loads in that cell.

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