honey bee nutrition

The flowers are gone, but why?

Bee on basil. The flowers are gone.

“Where have all the flowers gone?” is a folk song written by Pete Seeger in 1955. Since then, the song about war and death has been recorded by dozens of artists in many languages, and additional verses have been added by various performers. In 2010, the New Statesman chose the piece as one of the top political songs of all time.

Back then the words “bee” and “nutrition” were rarely heard in the same sentence. Bee nutrition was something you had no reason to worry about. Bees ate what they preferred and thrived on it. Although bees back then had to duck pesticides, their food supply was varied, plentiful, and nutritious. Meadows and farmlands were abuzz with bumbles, carpenters, masons, sweat bees, and honey bees.

In a sense, the answer to “Where have all the flowers gone?” remains political even when you are discussing bees. Not political in the sense of a particular party or nation, but political in the sense of how we human beings elected to care for our planet. Humans have consistently put their own needs before that of the environment and we are paying the price. Species around the globe are going extinct at a terrifying rate leaving us with fewer and fewer resources.

How far must they fly?

Of all the bee species, honey bees are probably the best able to handle the lack of suitable forage. Honey bees have an incredible foraging range which can be measured in miles. In lean times, honey bees have been known to cover up to five miles. Simple math will show you that a circle with a radius of 5 miles covers roughly 50,000 acres.

On the other hand, most of the solitary bees travel short distances, some only a few hundred feet from the spot where they were born. A circle with a radius of 300 feet, for example, covers only about 6.5 acres. For many native bees, a Costco parking lot is a vast desert, both barren and dangerous, that it will never cross.

Lots of honey does not assure good nutrition

The pounds and pounds of honey your bees bring in can be deceiving. Is it possible for a colony with 50 pounds of surplus honey to be malnourished? Sounds crazy, but is it possible for an overweight teenager to be malnourished? The answer can be yes in either case.

All living things need a proper balance of nutrients in order to thrive. Crops are supplemented with compost or fertilizer just as dog food and rabbit feed are formulated to provide optimum growth. High energy foods such as sugar and starch do not supply the amino acids, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients needed by living things. As such, it is very possible for a colony heavy with honey to be light on good nutrition. Remember, it’s the pollen that keeps the hive alive.

Not all pollen is created equal

But even pollen has its limitations. Just as one vegetable cannot supply all our nutritional needs, one pollen type cannot supply a bee’s nutritional needs. Like everyone else, bees must eat a varied diet.

Many aspects of modern life have made the flowers disappear and compromised bee health. I can’t name them all, but here a few of the most obvious.

Where the flowers went

Herbicides: Herbicides kill the flowering plants that once lined roads, playgrounds, orchards, and fields. This destroys a valuable source of pollen, nectar, and bee habitat.

Invasive Species: Nature abhors a vacuum, so after you kill the native vegetation with herbicide, the invasive weeds have a perfect spot to take root. With no competition from local plants, the invasives become a type of monoculture.

Monoculture weeds: Like monoculture crops, monoculture weeds have lots of pollen, but of only one type. Worse, instead of having dozens of different plants that bloom at different times and provide food over a long period, you have a single species that blooms all at a once. After that, there is nothing left for bees to eat.

Ornamental Plantings: Ornamental plants are often imported and since our local bees didn’t evolve along with them, the bees may not like their pollen.

Hybrid Varieties: Hybrid varieties may offer little or no pollen because the plant breeders who developed them were looking for traits other than nutritional pollen. They may have been breeding for color, winter hardiness, drought tolerance, disease resistance, or some other trait that appeals to humans, not bees.

Climate Change: Regardless of what causes climate change, climate change causes trouble. In some cases, bees and flowers get out of sync with each other. Plants respond more quickly to temperature changes and may bloom early, but bees come out of hibernation after the requisite number of days or months. In some situations, flowering of their favorite species is over before the bees emerge.

Habitat Loss: Flowers don’t thrive in parking lots, stadiums, airports, freeways, shopping malls, or cityscapes. Sure, honey bees can navigate the cites, but that’s largely due to their foraging range. Native bees don’t have much of a chance in these places, especially the solitary ground-dwellers, which are the vast majority of bee species.

Habitat Fragmentation: Small plots of land often don’t have enough flowering plants to support the bees that live there, but additional plots may be too far away for the bees to travel.

Agricultural Practices: Growers used to cut forage crops such as clover and alfalfa (lucerne) after flowering, a practice which provided lots of bee feed. But in modern times, forage crops are cut just before flowering, so both the pollen and nectar are lost.

Lawns of Grass. You often hear that lawns cover more acreage than any other crop in North America. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s close. Unfortunately, there is very little about a modern lawn that is good for bees: no forage, no open ground for nesting, no nesting materials, just lots and lots of chemicals.

Evergreen Landscapes: Both commercial and residential landscapers have turned to evergreen plants and shrubs because they stay green and don’t shed, but most add little to the bee diet. One landscaper working in front of a bank told me that evergreens are great because they keep bees from scaring the customers away. So sad.

Planting flowers is the best way to help bees

So when people ask how they can help the bees, tell them to plant flowers. It’s the best thing anyone can do for our pollinators. Flowering trees produce lots of forage, but even small gardens and planters can help. Heirloom and open-pollinated varieties produce the best pollen, but a selection of plants with a wide spectrum of bloom times is the goal. If space is an issue, concentrate on those things that bloom in late summer and early fall—the most critical time for bee nutrition.

Honey Bee Suite

Bee on basil. The flowers are gone.

Since many of the native flowers are gone, we need to plant for the pollinators. Pixabay public domain photo.


  • I grew up in England in the 70’s and still visit often. My parents’ garden was full of clover and daisies (though dandelions were regarded as a weed). What has amazed me since I came here is how green gardens (yards) are. Grass, grass, grass, no daisies, no clover etc.

    I’m not trying to judge one as better than the other – we never had treatment companies come for beetles, weevils etc – the only real enemy was the mole. So maybe flowers in the garden here are side-victims of attacks on other pests, but I remember gardens full of damsons, pears and apples and the lawn full of bees – honey or bumble.

    • Mark, I guess it depends on which side of the pond you’re from, but I always heard that lawns in America were an effort to mimic the lawns of British royalty. But hey, blaming the Brits is nothing new!

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  • Rusty,
    Grass lawns may not be a bigger crop, but the chemicals used to keep them green may do more harm. They are more prone to run-off, because suburban yards are usually nursery sodgrass laid over graded subsoil for “instant lawn,” and because lawns are mowed (i.e. the soil is compacted) many times a season. Food-crop land is plowed, disked and row-tilled, to promote absorption, altho soil erosion is still a problem.
    We often read that lawns use more chemicals than food ag, altho I don’t have a statistic handy. What is undisputed is that during the housing bubble, the US lost millions of acres of what is called “marginal /farmland” – unprofitable for corn or soy – consisting of pastures and hayfields full of diverse plant specials, flowering March thru October.
    This post should be shared with everyone who wants to help the bees!
    Northern Kentucky

  • The single most important thing we can do as property owners is ditch the big box stores for our landscaping needs and find a native plant nursery in your area. You might have to drive a little to get there, but if you are serious about this, you will. We need to get rid of the exotic and invasive plants (that ALWAYS escape no matter what anyone will tell you) and start planting with natives appropriate to where you live. In fact, I will tell you that you need to ditch your yard, even though your neighbors won’t like it, I know this from personal experience, and restore the landscape. The only way to combat the onslaught of extinction is to restore the plant communities with NATIVES. Not any old plant will do. The insects, including bees, and plants co-evolved with each other and insects don’t recognize alien plants. A great book to get started with is Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy. Wouldn’t it be great if our neighborhoods started to look like the vibrant landscapes that they once were before the developers came in and plowed them down? Stretches of european turf grass and neat little rows of petunias might be just what the culture doctor ordered, but they do absolutely zero for supporting life on this planet. DO SOMETHING, even if it is just 2 or 3 native plants. Do not be afraid! The results will be amazing, I promise.

    • An alternate approach is to examine your yard usage. Plant a small patch of grass where you’ll use it, where it soothes the eye. Then build your yard around that, using native plants and near-locals in a variety of species with different flowering times. Set up a nice sitting area where you can watch all the locals—winged and feathered alike.

      Explore the natural areas around you–the dry areas, the forests, the riparian and marshy areas. Look at your yard. What are the appropriate plants for your situation? For example, my front yard in So Cal is hammered by the sun, so there are a variety of sun hardy natives there. Closer to the house it’s damper and shadier, so some more shade-tolerant and non-natives live there. Customize and adapt. ALL the bees will thank you for it.

      And yes, some of my neighbors do not appreciate my drought-tolerant approach to the English garden, but many more do.

      My across-the-street neighbor, the landscape architect with the manicured lawn and pin oaks (lovely, but from the east coast), does not appreciate the different colors and textures, but then he works for the huge local development corporation which uses a very small palate of plants. I have an awesome yard bird list and love to watch the native bees and butterflies; his yard is rather barren.

      • I agree that you have to plant according to sun, soil and moisture. Oaks are the one tree that support the most biodiversity, but the right tree in the wrong place does not function. The whole point of the native plant garden is to restore function. As you point out, there is a steep cultural hill to climb. Why our beautiful native flora got relegated to weed status is beyond me, but I suspect that it has a lot to do with money. To get the big box stores to stop selling invasive species, baby’s breath in Michigan dunes for example, is all about money, not the health of the Land. As if humans can function in a non functioning environment? We can all do something about this, but only if we get smart about , native flora, reject the current cultural norms and plant gardens the right way. Again, bringing nature home is a good place to start understanding. Plants matter to insects a lot. As my friend Chad said, “Non native plants are not recognized by native insect populations. You might as well plant plastic.”

        • Sharon,

          Few things in nature are set in stone, and I have to disagree with your friend Chad, at least in part. He says, “Non native plants are not recognized by native insect populations. You might as well plant plastic.” Of course, he references insect populations as a whole, not just bees.

          But a bee’s food preference in largely due to its genetic makeup. Bees can be grouped into monolectic, oligolectic, and polylectic species. Those that are monolectic are tightly bound to one plant species or genus and anything else would indeed be like plastic. Oligolectic bees have a wider range of preferences, sometimes extending to an entire family of plants, such as composites. With these bees you can often substitute species of plant as long as they are in the same family. Polylectic bees such as honey bees will forage on a wide range of plants, their preferences are governed by the sweetness of nectar, shape of the flower, and abundance of pollen among other things. Although honey bees are non-native to North American they have thrived on our native vegetation since the 1600s.

          A non-native species like white dutch clover, for example, can be a boon to many bee populations. You have only to go outside and look to see native bee species happily foraging on clover. Not only that, you can watch them raise bumper crops of offspring after consuming the pollen and nectar of introduced species.

          As an environmentalist, I would love to see a return to native plant species. But certainly providing something for pollinators to live on is better than providing nothing. I’ve tried to feed local bees only natives, but so much environmental damage has been wrought on our planet that we sometimes have to do the second best thing. Now I plant both natives and non-native species for the bees, and I have thriving wild populations that return every year.

          • Rusty, Chad refers to insects in general. Let me put additional context on his statement. Of you divide plants into host plants for reproduction and nectar for food, the host plants are specific to species, like milkweed and monarchs, but they are not so fussy about nectar plants. In the end, I think we are agreeing with each other.

  • I planted hundreds of bulbs last October all over our yard. I can’t wait to see all the color this spring. I also made sure to check the bloom times and staggered them. I want them to continue to come up all season. I just hope the deer don’t eat them all before the bees get to enjoy them.

    • Jeffrey,

      Depends on what they are. Deer love tulips but won’t touch a daffodil, for example. It will be interesting for you to watch.

  • Tests done at the Royal Horticultural Society Garden at Wisley in the UK as part of their Plants for Bugs project looked at pollinator preferences and found that natives and near natives were most popular but that exotics had an important role in extending the season. I guess similar studies have been done in the US. It’s good news as it gives you another reason to stand in your garden watching to see which of your favourite exotics are on the menu and planting more of them.

    May I add my appreciation for your blog, Dusty? Lovely to have some bee talk, based on a scientific approach and an enquiring mind, especially on a gloomy winter’s day.

  • Hello Miss Rusty I have read all your post on here about the bees and it was great u have made me laugh so hard the story about the cat the bee down your bra u sliding down the mountain on your butt, I have so much enjoyed the pitchers u have taken and all the bee advice u have given here on your web page it is just wonderful, u have helped so many people including me and I just wanted to say thank u for your work I hope u keep adding to this web site God Bless u and your wonderful family.

  • Sad yes we had temp in central Alabama a week a go at 15 f so now for the temp will be above 70f for at least two weeks. Managing 14 hives so I wanted to check them. Two of my very strong hives no bees. Treated for mites in August/September. Used moisture quilts and sugar cakes. Sugar cakes were half eaten. One did have 200 or so bees so I combined with another hive. I can only say say maybe the cold got them. They looked strong in November. I am going to put out seven swarm traps at the end of March with Swarm Commander. Caught 4 last year

  • FYI the Bradford Pear and many other invasives are food sources. Where do you think most our invasives and non-native plants come from? Europe… Where is the honeybees native land? Europe……

    Loss of habitat do to mono culture crops and human expansion is the biggest threat to pollinators. The human species is the leading cause of decline.

    • Bradley,

      FYI, that’s the point. Invasives displace local plants and form monocultures which, as you state, are the biggest threat to pollinators. And since honey bees are native to Europe, I’m not worried about them. As I stated in the article, honey bees will do just fine. But the native bees need native plants, and they can’t forage long distances to find them. Bradford pears are not a food source for many native bees, and they are the ones we should be worried about.

  • The only viable and realistic solution to this problem is to plant plants that are native to your region and with the genotype of your region. Invasive and ornamental exotics do nothing to promote a functioning ecosystem.

    I will make a note here. I have been seeing a lot of honey from local and regional beekeepers showing up in the grocery store. One kind of honey caught my attention: Star Thistle. This is a fancy, and I suppose marketable, name for one of the most toxic introduced plants to hit the US, spotted knapweed. I have made it my mission to rid one of our local beaches of this plant as it is taking over the dunes. To date, over 5 thousand plants have been removed and with spring around the corner, there is more to be done. While I suppose some beekeepers may argue its value, in the big picture scheme of things its tendency to displace natives at an alarming rate and create a knapweed monoculture doesn’t justify its continued existence in this country. Native plants are the only answer to this conundrum.

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