honey bee nutrition

Plant a flower, answer a survey

Researchers studying the decline of bee species in the Netherlands have discovered that bees disappear along with their native forage.

The research, published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was based on pollen samples taken from bees in museum collections. Trace samples of pollen stuck to long-dead bees were analyzed to determine which plants produced them. The information was compared to historical land-use records and bee population studies.

Sure enough, as land was converted to farming, industry, and housing, certain plants became scarce. As those plants disappeared, so did their pollinators. In the Netherlands, a highly developed country, nearly half of all native bee species are now endangered.

This study follows several other recent papers that suggest bee health is strongly influenced by the quality and diversity of dietary pollen, especially in the larval stages. Bees raised on inferior diets are less able to contend with disease and environmental stress. None of this should be a surprise: we know our own health and the health of our livestock and pets is directly related to proper nutrition, so why should bees be any different?

I was reading the Netherlands report when, by coincidence, the following comment from Donna in Kansas appeared in my in-box:

In the 50s, in north central Kansas, we had large colonies of what we called “ground bees.” On our farm, they dug their holes in the chicken yard which was right next to 120 acres of upland alfalfa. When wheat replaced alfalfa, the bees left.

Donna’s statement sums up in concrete terms what the studies tell us in the abstract: bees can’t make it without the right types of flowers.

Alfalfa provides pollen for a large diversity of bees. In fact, the last time I was at the Prosser experiment station, a graduate student at WSU was completing an inventory of the bee species found in the alfalfa seed fields of Touchet, WA. I got just a brief glimpse of her specimens, but dozens and dozens of species were represented.

Wheat on the other hand, provides nothing for bees. Donna’s bees were forced to leave when the alfalfa flowers disappeared, just as the many species of Dutch bees disappeared as their food supplies disappeared and the land was “improved.”

Many people believe that insecticides are the largest threat to bees. As significant as they are, I’m beginning to believe that loss of a proper diet is an even bigger threat. Without the building blocks for a vigorous immune system, all the other dangers in the environment—including the pesticides—become ever more perilous.

There is only so much any of us can do to fight pesticide abuse, but every single one of us can plant flowers. If we provide nourishing sustenance for the bees, we have taken the first step on a journey of recovery. We all live in different situations with different means, but whether we can plant a field or only a pot, we must do it. We must do it for them and for ourselves.

We’ve all seen certain flowers that were loaded with bees. Take a minute to answer the survey and let us know what flowers attract bees in your area. It doesn’t have to be a native species as long as bees—any bees—love it. When I get enough answers, I will post them here so other people know what to buy for their bees. Thank you for answering. Some bee, somewhere, will owe you!


12/19/14: The survey is now closed.


    • Bill,

      Absolutely! Actually, based on the first answer I got, I should say, “I hope so.” Anyway, I was thinking about you when I set this up. A couple years back we were talking about a forage inventory with photos, remember? I still want to do that; I just don’t know how to set it up. Ideas are welcome.

  • Rusty, in Washington state one of the state bee experts stated that nutrition was the biggest problem facing honey bees as forage dwindles and degrades. Varroa may be ahead of poor nutrition, but just by a nose, as the single biggest problem faced by honey bees. Especially in yards where banks of pollination hives nearby provide competition, I found this year that the bees really responded to feeding. I have rethought my supplementation strategy as a consequence, particularly post-honey harvest.

  • PS I too would love to see a forage inventory. I assume plants that attract a lot of honey bees offer the best nutritional profiles…it is hard to get hard info on which plants are truly nutritional powerhouses for bees.

  • Rusty, Thanks for putting this survey together. I wanted to mention that one of the things I noticed this summer was also what the honeybees didn’t like…and that was all the bright pretty annuals like petunias, marigolds & geraniums. I live near a park with several large flower displays and expected to see the bees by the thousand…and only saw 2 or 3…and would come home to my perennial garden and see bees everywhere. I’m a big believer in planting native flowers/plants whenever possible for many reasons…but certainly bee health has now made me even more conscious of doing that.

    • Miriam,

      That sounds right. Many flowers that have been bred for beauty have lost the nectar or pollen that made them valuable to pollinators. Plants with double or triple rings of petals, or plants with unusual colors or variegated patterns are probably over-hybridized.

    • Some of the worst sterile doubles, from fruit trees and philadelphus to dahlias and peonies, are really popular when single. I’ve seen bumble bees orange with pollen on single dahlias almost until frost.

  • I actually went to classes on growing alfalfa in Georgia. As it turned out, my soil is not suitable on my farm. I did however meet another farmer who is planting alfalfa this year and wants me to place hives on his farm. Unfortunately alfalfa in Georgia and I think other parts of the country is treated with a pesticide in February so at this point I have declined the offer.

    • David,

      Honey bees do a lousy job when it comes to pollinating alfalfa. They manage to steal the nectar without pollinating the crop, so honey bees are not favored by alfalfa seed growers. If the farmer is planting for hay and not seed, he doesn’t need pollination. Alfalfa for hay is usually cut just as the flowers start to bloom. If he is actually planting for seed, he should look into alfalfa leafcutting bees or he should try to attract wild species. Some alfalfa seed growers, especially in California, still use honey bees but they have to flood the fields with lots and lots of honey bees, a practice called pollination saturation. It’s not necessarily good for the bees, though.

  • All my friends know I want to collect and grow plants that hold honey bees’ interest. Curiously, I have observed honey bees on plants about 5 miles from my apiary, in a friend’s yard. After I obtain some of those exact plants (from my friend’s yard) and they bloom at my site, the honey bees do NOT enjoy them. Do you know what gives? The plants are growing vigorously — but no bees. (Please don’t tell me: you can bring a horse to water…)

    • Marian,

      I won’t say the horse bit because it’s not the answer. The most likely scenario is that you and your friend have a different assortment of plants in each of your yards. In her yard, them most enticing thing in bloom was probably that plant. But in your yard there may be other things in bloom at the same time that are more enticing.

      To make that clear, I’ll use an example: You go to your friend’s house and she offers you ice cream: vanilla or strawberry. Of those two, you like vanilla the best, so that is what you eat, and you bring some home as well. Now, at your house you have vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate. Of those three, you like chocolate the best, so you ignore the vanilla and the strawberry while you eat the chocolate. Same with bees.

      Also, plants produce different amounts of nectar under different conditions. Your soil type, watering schedule, amount of sun vs shade, and many other factors affect nectar production, and those things are probably different at your friend’s house.

      A third possibility is the number of plants you have. Honey bees are not interested in small plantings. They want enough for at least a whole foraging trip or the whole day. If she has lots of plants of one type and you have just a few, that will make a big difference.

  • We have planted 14 flowering trees and wild climbing roses to grow up the trees (so they will appear to blossom at least twice), 2 dozen odd flowering shrubs, and dutch white clover instead of grass. Flowering vines up power poles and decks. A pleached apple tree ring. Plus several beds that were seeded with a wildflower blend, an herb bed.

    Six plus acres of wildflowers, milkweed for monarch butterflies and several honeysuckle bushes that hum with pollinators in the spring followed by cedar waxwing birds that eat the berries. With 20+ wild apple trees, several domestic fruit trees, and coppiced shrubs.

    Blueberries, black and red raspberries, elderberries, blackberries, everbearing strawberries on/in rock walls with gaps for bumblebee nesting sites.

    Seven acres of maple trees for sap/syrup (they also flower). Soon to change some of the coppiced maples to pollard to increase sap production.

    Several hundred feet of flowering water plants along salmon brook.

    In addition, when the neighbor took down an old barn, we put up an owl nest box and a bat box to replace their old nesting sites. They too are having problems.

  • I posted this on Facebook. I’m a hobby beekeeper and a member of our Volusia County Bee club.

    Let a good part of your property go natural, wild flowers, Spanish nettles, dandelion, etc. will come up; the BEES LOVE THE NATURAL FAUNA. No need to buy seed.

    Save the bees, save humanity. Get a clue, if we lose the honey bees our days are shortened, less food for us and our livestock. The clock is ticking DO SOMETHING TO SAVE THE BEES.

  • Trees! Bees and Trees are a neglected interaction. My friends at the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative have developed standards for strip-mine restoration that include native tree species favorable to pollinators. In the Midwest, that’s Water Maple (Called “Silver Maple” by nurseries), Tulip Poplar, Black Locust, Sourwood, Tupelo, Redbud, Willows and Oaks.

  • Rusty,

    This survey would be enhanced by having respondents indicate which of the plants they list is MOST attractive to bees and other pollinators.

  • I have found that the WORST thing to feed a colony are the soy pollen subs with syrups. In our experiment, we ran 5 colonies on soy patties and compared them to colonies that rely on natural forage…every colony fed by us had reduced populations and shorter individual life spans and severe dysentery in early spring or died out in late winter before maple bloom. I rarely will experiment with these poor quality man made products, but had to try it to see why every bee supply house pushes their concoctions as the cure all to bee nutrition.

    One aspect I think that is severely overlooked by folks starting with bees is that the many areas in which bees are being raised can’t support bee colonies nutritional needs. Colonies raised in food deserts live out the rest of their days slowly starving or being fed inferior food supplements and suffering from improper nutrition and are never able to balance themselves. Queens raised on natural forage live longer and are rarely superseded at the rates commercially raised queens are. Beekeepers need to be phenologists first to understand their area and regional food sources prior to starting their colonies, in my opinion.

    Planting flowers is a good idea but these plantings must be a large quantities since bees are creatures of abundance first. All medicinal flowering herbs are the best choice like mints, basil, rosemary and so on.


    • Hey Bill,

      I think I have to agree and disagree here. First, I don’t think soy subs hurt honey bees unless the subs are mixed with syrup or sugar. A starving bee will eat the patty to get the sugar. The sub is consumed inadvertently and may cause dysentery or protein overdose—too much protein in non-nurse bees is not good, regardless of dysentery. That said, if you keep the soy sub separate from the sugar, it amounts to “free choice” feeding. In my experience, honey bees choose to just carry it out of the hive and dispose of it.

      I think there may be some small benefit to feeding protein IF brood rearing is occurring and IF there is a shortage of natural pollen, but even then, I think the sub and the sugar source should be separate. The honey bees need to make the decision on what to eat, not the beekeeper.

      I disagree with your last paragraph because just like all dogs are not poodles, all bees are not honey bees. You are correct that honey bees like vast quantities of one flower type because they have a high degree of floral fidelity. They want enough of one variety for at least one foraging trip and preferably a whole day’s worth of foraging trips. Most bees, however, are happy to flit between flower species, and onsies and twosies planted in a garden will often attract an assortment of native bees. Somewhere on this site I have photos of bumble bees with multi-colored pollen pellets on their legs, something you would never see on a honey bee.

  • We are in severe drought conditions here in central California and water restrictions prevent us from planting much at all!

    My succulent ground cover, red apple, has been a life saver for my bees, also the pepper trees both native and Brazilian.

    Our problem here in addition to everything else is drought, but my lovely bees do their very best no matter what!

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