bee forage

Revealing photos show nectar-grubbing honey bees piercing flowers

A honey bee piercing a squash petal with her tongue. Wendy Frith

Most people agree that honey bees do not pierce petals to find nectar, yet here we see honey bees rending holes in squash blossoms.

Inside: Although most beekeepers say that honey bees cannot bore holes into flowers, others say they have seen honey bees excavate both petals and fruit skins. Below are some determined honey bees with piercing on their minds.

Conventional wisdom tells us that honey bees cannot pierce flower petals. While some other species happily drill holes through petals to reach the rich nectaries, honey bees are usually not charged with that crime. Instead, the outlaw behavior is ascribed to bumble bees, carpenter bees, some solitary wasps, ants, and beetles.

Drilling through the outside of a flower to reach the nectaries is called nectar robbing. It is considered “criminal” because the insect steals the nectar but provides nothing in return.

Here a honey bee's multipart tongue pierces a squash blossom.
Here you can see a honey bee’s multipart tongue piercing a squash blossom. Wendy Frith

Nectar is designed to attract pollinators

Plants secrete nectar to attract pollinators, hoping they will transfer pollen from plant to plant as they sip the sweet liquid. The transfer of pollen from the male part of one flower to the female part of another flower is called cross-pollination. Because transferring genetic material is vital to flowering plants, they expend lots of energy attracting pollinators to do the work.

Things that plants make to attract pollinators include luscious smells, colorful flowers, enticing oils, and of course succulent nectar. All the enticements are energy-expensive to produce, but it’s all worthwhile if the plant gets proper pollination in return. It’s the quid pro quo of the plant world.

Nectar-stealing is like smash-and-grab

When a pollinator breaks into the backside of a flower and steals the goods, it bypasses the reproductive parts of the plant and never touches the pollen. Like a thief breaking into a store, the pollinator arrives through the backdoor and takes things without paying.

Two small holes are visible in the squash blossom just below the bee's tongue.
Below the exposed tongue, you can see two holes in the squash blossom. Wendy Frith

Bees will rob nectar if they can’t easily reach it. For example, short-tongued bees often cannot reach the nectar at the bottom of a long, tube-shaped flower. They know it’s there, but their tongues may be too short or their bodies too big to reach it.

So instead of struggling into a small space, they go to the outside of the flower and bore into the base. Once the bee reaches the goods, she guzzles it with her tongue.

Honey bees let other bees drill holes

We assume honey bees don’t pierce holes in flowers because their mandibles have rounded ends, more spoon-shaped than pointy. So when a honey bee robs nectar, it usually uses a hole that some other creature has conveniently created. Sometimes, you can see holes left by bumbles or beetles, appearing like brown-edged slits, much like damaged fruit.

And speaking of fruit, you can also find ripe fruits with holes punctured by wasps or other insects. Honey bees will readily use these openings to slurp fruit juice, especially in the fall when nectar-laden flowers are rare.

Questioning the conventional wisdom

Over the many years I’ve been writing about bees, many people have written to me swearing they have seen honey bees puncture both fruits and flowers. It seems that, given enough persistence, a bee can use its rounded mandibles and strong tongue to penetrate skins and petals.

I frequently point out the damage a colony can do to woodenware, chewing away paint and carving wood into the shape they prefer. In my opinion, any creature that can carve wood with its mouthparts could rend a petal or peel, if that’s what it wanted to do.

A honey bee is curled completely around the edge of a squash blossom.
If she keeps curling around like this, she may “find herself.” Wendy Frith

Stitching through squash petals

Last week, Wendy Frith of Bermuda, sent photographs she took of honey bees in her squash blossoms. Although it is difficult to say exactly what the bees were searching for, the photos show the tongue entering one side of a petal and coming out the other.

Wendy wrote [slightly edited]:

“I think the bee, itself, was creating the holes in the squash flower (unless it was simply enlarging minute ones for some reason). It would spend a while with each one. First, just a single pinpoint of its tongue tip would appear, and then with a sewing machine action, it would protrude more with every thrust until the hole was bigger and the tongue fully extended.

“I actually wondered a few things at the time: whether the bee was reading the crenelated surface of the squash flower as possible entranceways to nectar wells (sorry, there must be a term); if the petal walls of the flower produce nectar (I should try licking them, perhaps?); and — very far fetched — if it was possibly cleaning its tongue of some kind of irritating residue, using the petals as towels. But an hour of cleaning…?”

Maybe honey bees enjoy piercing flowers

I, too, wondered if squash petals harbor some amount of nectar. Nectaries are usually at the base of the flower, but with these bees piercing the edges of petals, I wondered if some of the sweetness flows through the veins of the petals. I do know that squash plants are monoecious, meaning both male and female flowers appear on one plant, and both types produce copious amounts of nectar.

A honey bee colony has chewed away paint and wood from an entrance reducer, demonstrating strong mandibles.
If honey bees can effectively chew wood, they certainly can get through fruit skin or flower petals. Rusty Burlew

Honey bees nectar robbing hibiscus

Wendy also included some photos of honey bees working hibiscus flowers. In the first photo, you can see a wound at the base of a flower where nectar is leaking out. Next to it, a honey bee has extended her tongue into another hole. My guess is something else made the hole, but I don’t know for sure.

In the last photo, two honey bees are mulling over the problem. I imagine they can smell the nectar and are devising a way to get it.

The base of a hibiscus flower has been damaged by a robbing insect and is leaking nectar to the outside.
This bee is procuring nectar from the base of a hibiscus flower. The large hole leaking nectar was probably excavated by another species, but we don’t know for sure. Wendy Frith
Two honey bees work at getting to the nectar at the base of a hibiscus flower.
These two honey bees at the base of a hibiscus flower seem determined to find a way in. Wendy Frith

Have you ever seen honey bees piercing flowers?

Tell us what you think. If you’ve ever seen a honey bee behaving like a sewing machine, stitching the edge of a petal, please let us know! Or if you have seen bees tearing open fruit or petals, tell us about it. Wendy and I and many others are eager to learn about these obscure behaviors.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Special thanks to Wendy Frith for the great photos and keen observations. Much appreciated!

Here’s a photo by Michael Judd in France. The honey bee is nectar-robbing the base of a cactus flower.

Did you know honey bees can bite? Their strong mandibles can deliver quite a pinch.

About Me

I backed my love of bee science with a bachelor’s degree in Agronomic Crops and a master’s in Environmental Studies. I write extensively about bees, including a current column in American Bee Journal and past columns in Two Million Blossoms and Bee Craft. I’ve endured multiple courses in melittology and made extensive identifications of North American bees for iNaturalist and other organizations. My master beekeeper certificate issued from U Montana. I’m also an English nerd. More here.


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17 Comments

  • Given their ability to chew wood, which most of us with bees have seen for ourselves, whether honey bees will chew into a fruit or a flower probably just depends on how desperate they are. I haven’t observed this behaviour myself, but I’m gonna believe they can if they WANT to.

    • Roberta,

      That is precisely how I see it. If there’s plenty of nectar around, why bother? But when they’re hungry, they get creative.

  • I have bees on a commercial blueberry farm in the UK. Last summer in the heatwave there was little for them to drink so they were puncturing the blueberries to drink the juice. The farm owner rang me to let me know as the pickers were getting a little wary due to the sheer amount of bees in the bushes. I went over to check and it was manic in the fields, honey bees everywhere. I set up a water drip system for them using a hose and a piece of timber decking but they still preferred the blueberries!!!

    • Claudine,

      Thanks for writing! That fits my theory exactly. I hope the berry farmer wasn’t too annoyed; I imagine a bunch of hungry bees could do some significant crop damage.

  • I see this ever spring on my blueberry bushes
    A tiny split on the bottom outside of the bloom
    I don’t know who made the slit
    But the honey bees enjoy the stop

  • Rusty,

    That is most interesting, thank you. A few years ago there were lots of bees all over the flowers of the small cactus plant I had in the garden. I live in southern France. The flowers were lovely and pink but long at about 1 to 2 inches. There is no way a bee could get into the flower in the normal way. I realised that the bees were landing on the base of the flower and making a hole in it. I took a photo of a bee on this flower. I always thought this was interesting. I am trying to send you a photo I took by email. I hope you can get it and use it.

    Michael

    • Michael,

      Thanks! I couldn’t get it to post in the comments, so I put it at the end of the main post. Good photo.

  • Very neat to see!

    I have a funny video from last summer of a bumblebee stuck in a squash blossom between the anthers and petal. It was very illustrative of why bees make these holes! (I did free the bumblebee after I took the video!)

  • I am a swarm coordinator in Richmond, BC. I received a call from a store owner who said there were honey bees coming out of a crack in the sidewalk in front of their store. Someone else called the City Engineering dept who came and filled the hole with asphalt. A few days later I came by and saw that the honey bees had opened up a hole through the asphalt to continue their ways. I confirmed that they really were honey bees.

  • I have seen bees all over a laurel hedge in my yard when there was a nectar dearth. They seemed to be getting nectar from the spot where the leaf meets the stem of the leaf. Apparently, laurel has nectaries there. I didn’t get a picture or see how they were getting into the nectary. Also, Dewey Caron has an entry in the glossary of his new book, Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping Third Edition, called “extra-floral nectary.” He says they are “Nectar-producing plant cells that secrete a sugary liquid from sites other than the flower.”

    • Susan,

      Yes, extra-floral nectaries are definitely a thing and lots of plants have them. I don’t know about laurel in particular. Sometimes nectar collection can be confused with resin collection. Honey bees collect resin from plants to make propolis. Resin can be found in various places on leaves, stems, and branches, depending on the species of plant.

  • Susan,

    I too have laurel hedges and when they are sprouting new leaves the bees are all over them, but particularly on the base of the leaves. I always thought that they were collecting resin or sap to make propolis.

    Funnily enough, there is a variety of laurel that has a white vertical flower, actually with many white flowers (like an ice cream). When the flower comes out the bees are all over them too.

    The other thing that interests me is that we are having very dry summers and winters in the recent few years. The bees seem to get nectar (or whatever) from the sap of certain trees. The honey is very good but different. The French call it Miela I believe the English language equivalent is honeydew. Where I used to get three distinct honeys (spring, summer, and autumn) in the past two years the honey is much more similar throughout the year although there is still a slight difference.

    Don’t you just love how adaptable they are?

    Michael

  • I’ll just add that I was once bitten by a honey bee—yes, bitten, not stung—and it left a small wound on my hand. I was assured by someone in authority that it couldn’t have possibly happened.

    I’m so glad we’re moving forward in educating ourselves about the incredible capabilities and diverse uses of bees’ mouths. I’ve become more fascinated with this end of the bee than the stingy end, to be perfectly honest.

  • I not only have seen a honey bee piercing a daffodil, I videoed it. I actually picked a daffodil in my front yard, took it to my top bar hive and let a bee get on it. It was like the bee went “crazy”. Immediately piercing the beautiful yellow flesh of the petal. I transported both to the daffodil patch in my front yard and videoed the bee entranced in piercing. Then it went to another flower and checked out the pollen. After that it made a note of where it was and flew back to the hive.

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