bee biology honey bee behavior

Massive pollen collection is vital for raising strong baby bees

Pollen collection is just as important as nectar collection in any bee colony.

For honey bees, collecting pollen is just as important as collecting nectar. While nectar provides carbohydrates to bees, pollen supplies amino acids, protein, fat, and micronutrients to developing larvae.

Inside: Pollen collection by honey bees is a major undertaking for any colony. One hive of bees may use a hundred pounds of pollen in a single season.

Pollen collection is vital to colony survival

While we normally think of honey bees collecting nectar, an average-size colony may bring in 100 pounds of pollen in a season. Pollen is an essential part of the honey bee diet, providing a wide range of nutrients including protein, carbohydrates, lipids, vitamins, and minerals.

Although a tough outer coating protects the pollen from environmental stressors, honey bees have enzymes in their digestive tract that split the grains apart at a weak point. The interior is then digested and the empty husks are excreted.

Most pollen is consumed by nurse bees

Most of the pollen is eaten by nurse bees. They use the nutrition absorbed from it to secrete royal jelly from their hypopharyngeal glands. The jelly is fed to young larvae, including workers, drones, and queens.

After the larvae are about three days old, the jelly they receive comes mixed with bee bread—a mixture of whole pollen, honey, and enzymes. The larvae continue to eat this mixture until they spin their cocoons. The queens receive a steady diet of royal jelly throughout their development.

Some bees carry nectar and pollen at the same time

Most bees collect just pollen or just nectar on any trip, but a few carry both at the same time. The pollen is stuffed into hairy receptacles on their hind legs called corbiculae. A single bee can carry about half her own body weight in pollen.

Once back at the hive, the workers stuff the pollen into an awaiting cell. Unlike nectar-carrying bees, pollen-carrying bees must offload it themselves.

In addition to depositing the pellets from their sacks, they may also groom away any pollen that is stuck to their bodies. The pollen is stored in cells at the perimeter of the brood nest, forming a rainbow around the top of the brood nest. During the brood-rearing season, the pollen is stored for only a few days. During the winter it is stored for much longer.

Honey bees stick with one pollen type at a time

Honey bees usually forage on only one kind of flower on any single trip. This is nature’s way of assuring that plants get cross-pollinated. So a bee going to blackberries, keeps going to blackberries until there are no more blackberry flowers left. Only then will she switch to something else.

Honey bees collect pollen even from plants that don’t provide nectar, such as corn. In corn-growing regions, pesticide-contaminated corn pollen is suspected of causing severe health problems within the hive.

Honey Bee Suite


  • hi Rusty, this is Liesl’s husband. she told me about your bee blog and i decided to check it out…Very cool! I think i have learned more about bees in the last 10 minutes than in my entire life so far. Liesl and I have been talking about maybe starting up a bee hive in the future, so i am sure when that time comes we will want your expertise. I was a little confused about something in the Pollen collection article. You said that “bees forage on only one kind of flower on a single trip. This is nature’s way of assuring plants are cross-pollinated.” is that correct? to me it would make sense that if they only gathered pollen from ONE flower type that they would NOT be cross-pollinating.
    Anyway, I look forward to reading more about these bees and i am going to start right now.


      • Most insects (other than bees) collect nectar, not pollen, although there are a few exceptions, such as the pollen wasps. As for bees, you can usually see the pollen if that is what they are collecting. Here, too, there are exceptions. Bees in the genus Hyleaus swallow the pollen and then regurgitate it.

  • Hey Cody,

    Thanks so much for your comments. I would love to help you and Liesl set up a colony of bees anytime you’re ready.

    This is really silly, but I just wrote a long answer to your question and it disappeared. Drats! I can’t figure out where it went, so I’ll just have to start again.

    I think the term “cross pollination” is the thing that is confusing you. The “cross” part refers to pollination between flowers of the same species, instead of pollination within an individual.

    If you shook one flower, and the pollen dropped from the anther (male part) onto the stigma (female part) that would be self pollination. It usually doesn’t produce seed or a fruit.

    Cross pollination happens when the pollen from one flower is transferred to the stigma of a totally different flower on a separate plant. The flower has to be of the same species, but it’s a different individual. So, for example, when pumpkin pollen lands on a different pumpkin flower, it will fertilize and make a seed, but if the pumpkin pollen lands in the flower where it came from or on a kiwi flower, for example, nothing happens.

    So if a bee went from a maple, to a cherry, to a dandelion, to a mint, to a cucumber, nothing would ever get pollinated because they are all different species (just like a dog can’t “pollinate” a cat.) But if the bee goes from one pumpkin plant, to another pumpkin plant, to another, you will get pumpkins on all of them. Very cool. Anyway, that is what is meant by cross pollination.

    If you’re still confused, I’ll try again.


  • Hi again- this entry came up on some of the results in my Googling. I’m finding a LOT of different numbers and if it is annoying to have me all over your site with this then please tell me to stop! Here says a bee can carry roughly 1/3 (35%) of its body weight in pollen. Here says the average weight of a honeybee is 120mg and that they can collect 7.6- 8.6 mg pollen. There were several other less scholarly articles with numbers all over the place- “HBs can carry 2g in their corbiculae”, “20 mg of an average weight of 80 mg”. I can’t paste in cites as those were pdfs. There was also a really old article (June 1964 Soc. for Study of Evolution) Kerr and Herling indicating that bee weights range from a low of 81.2mg to a high of 110.4mg. The numbers are similarly all over the place for nectar load/weight but nearly universally indicate that bees can carry much more nectar than pollen- and I’m guessing that’s primarily due to load placement. In any event, I think it’s conservative to conclude that if there is 60mg of a single varietal of pollen than meets the minimum for an average HB- understanding that the average HB will pack at its own discretion. A 2005 article in the J of Apicultural Science indicates a pollen weight of 9.5mg per 10 flowers of a specific rhody (or .95/single average flower). So, for rhodys it would be roughly two good shrubs with 70 or so flowers. Again, apologies for the quasi irrelevance, its just helpful to me to try to think of the two things together- plantings and bees and how many flowers is enough pollenwise/nectarwise. I’m going to go obsess over something else for a moment and leave you be!

  • It is not just the pesticide in corn. You did not mention that most of the corn today grown by our farmers is GMO. Recently, I believe about two years now, the latest genetic modification to corn merged the DNA of a bacteria that dissolves the stomach lining of any insect that takes a bite from the corn plant. If you are correct and bees collect the pollen from corn, our bee population in the USA is in danger.

    • This is not true! not all insects are susceptible to the bacterium. There is currently no commercial Bt product in North American soy but it’s quite common in corn and cotton. By the way, bacterium have been used in “chemical form” to combat insects for a lot longer than in gmo field crops. Bt was discovered in the early 1900s. It is not known to harm bees when used in gmo crops and

  • What’s the difference between bee pollen and flower pollen? For example, you can buy bee pollen as nutritional supplements. Do the bees do something with the pollen between collecting it and entering the hive which makes the pollen change from simply ‘flower pollen hanging on to a bee’ and ‘bee pollen’?

    • Sarah,

      Bee pollen is indeed flower pollen hanging on a bee. Although bees mix nectar with pollen once it gets in the hive, the pollen collected in pollen traps is basically just pure flower pollen packed into a tight ball. The pollen you buy in stores is collected from these traps, not from the inside of the hive.

  • Hello! Great blog thingy you have here. I have a few hives. Two of them are in my backyard. Both of these hives have, what seems to me, a HUGE amount of pollen stored here in late July. One hive is 2 deeps deep (deep, deep, deep) and the lower hive body is almost all pollen with a little brood on some of the center frames. Can the bees get “pollen bound” the way they can get honey bound?

  • We have 2 hives but only one seems to bringing in pollen. Is common or is that a sign of something wrong in the hive not carrying pollen? Thank you.

    • Linda,

      It’s common. Your two colonies are most likely foraging in different places and coming across different plants. I have colonies doing the same thing.

  • Hello.
    I can not see the queen in my hive. My bees carry pollen into the hive. Does it mean that there is a queen? Now is spring and 10 °C degrees. Could you ask my question, please?
    Thank you.

  • I noticed that the honey bees were going in and out of some hollow parts of our storm door last year and again this year. I was sweeping under the door and found a lot of yellow pollen under the rug, near the hollow parts. Today, I took a large black tool box off the porch, another place I’d seen the bees going in and out of and there was pollen spilled from the box-quite a bit. Why wouldn’t they take the honey to the hive?

    • Hi Melissa,

      It doesn’t sound like you’ve got honey bees but some other type of bee, and it sounds like they are losing part of their pollen load as they go in and out of their nest. Bees have trouble picking up pollen unless its on a flower, so I doubt they would even try to retrieve it. Honey is made from nectar, not pollen, so the two things aren’t related.

  • Just a quick question or two:

    Regarding royal jelly,,, isn’t it only fed to larvae that is being ‘groomed’ to become a queen? Hence the name ‘ROYAL jelly’? Or do I have it wrong?

    Also, if a bee is coming in without the pollen bags visible, does that mean they are carrying nectar instead of pollen?

    • Eddie,

      1. Royal jelly is feed to all brood for about three days. Afterward, the drones and workers are transitioned to bee bread but the queen continues to receive royal jelly.

      2. A bee coming in with empty pollen baskets may be carrying nectar or water or nothing. Many bees come home empty, including guard bees, undertaker bees, bees returning from an orientation flight or a cleansing flight, or bees that just didn’t find anything to bring home.

    • Katrin,

      It depends on the type of bee and the type of flower. Some bees spend several seconds, some native bees spend less than a second. Other times a bee may spend several minutes on one flower. There are many variables. When you’re trying to photograph them, none of it seems very long.

  • Will bees continue to collect pollen in a colony that has gone queenless? In other words, is the collection of pollen an indicator that there is a queen laying eggs and young to feed?

  • Today we watched a honey bee collect nectar from dozens of hosta flowers and then she went back to each one and sit on the outside of the flower at the point where it attaches to the stem.

    I have never observed this before. What would the reason be for doing this?

  • I bought a nuc one month ago. After I made the transfer the colony adapted right away. Time was early May on Long Island NY. About 25% of the field bees were loaded w/ pollen. It’s now week four lots of activity but no more bees w/ pollen. Is that a problem?

    • Craig,

      You may be in the midst of a nectar flow. If so, your bees may be concentrating on nectar accumulation. They communicate with each other and know what they need to collect. Long Island in May no doubt has ample supplies of both nectar and pollen, so I wouldn’t worry about it.

  • When the bees take the pollen from a flower does the flower produce more pollen after the bee takes the pollen?

    • Lane,

      No, the flower has its full complement of pollen when it first opens, and it doesn’t produce more. The plant may produce more in other flowers, of course. But plants produce way more pollen than they need because they “know” that the pollinating insects will take some for their own use. Flowering plants and pollinators evolved together, and they take care of each other.

      • I found a bee not doing well on my deck today. It had enormous pollen sacks. I thought maybe it was hungry and tired or the sacks are too heavy for it. I first tried feeding it and no luck even after a few tries. So I gently removed some of the pollen hoping it would help. Again no luck. It never even tried to fly. I tried a few more times to get it to eat over the next hour or so but no luck. Sadly it died.

        I have been lucky enough to save a number of bees simply by feeding them. I had never seen one with pollen sacks before.

        Can they wear themselves in exhaustion by trying to fly with too much pollen?

        • Nancy,

          Honey bees can carry enormous pollen loads. Most likely, the bee just died of old age. They work until they drop.

  • Hello – i recently spent some time in Hampshire and saw two bees on the same flower. I wondered why they can happily sit on the same flower gatheirng pollen. There were lots of flowers around. How do they interact with their fellow worker bees normally. Do they share etc. Also are they likely to work in pairs all the time. Are they also territorial sometimes about the pollen – or are they merely programmed to pick up that precise pollen?

    • Belinda,

      Look at the photos on my homepage. About halfway down you will see six honey bees sharing a flower. Bees select the flowers that are providing the most nectar or pollen. Newer flowers generally have more, and the time of day is important as well. I’ve seen many species together on one flower, but I’ve also seen bees chase each other away. Different bees behave differently, just like people. No, I’ve never seen them work in pairs. Territoriality often goes with the species. Wood carder bees, for example, are extremely territorial. The type of pollen selected is also governed by species: some collect only one type, but some collect many types.

  • Hi Rusty

    Is there a particular time of the day when bees collect nectar or pollen from a flower? or in other words is there any preference of honey bees to collect nectar at some particular time of the day and pollen at some other time of the day? At what time do they collect most nectar?

    • Meenu,

      It’s more a matter of the flowers. Certain plants release nectar or pollen at certain times of day, but not others. It varies with different species. So the honey bees learn which plants to visit at which time of day. When those give out, they move onto others. So it’s really the plants that govern the schedule and the bees go along with it.

  • Hi Rusty. When the bees loaded with pollen return to their hives do they evacuate or drop or splatter like brown droplets on their way?
    thanking you Ken

    • Ken,

      I’m not sure what you’re asking, but I don’t think bees carrying pollen would defecate as they approach the hive. More likely, they would do it as they leave the hive. Since bees, especially winter bees, leave the hive in order to defecate, I would think that sets up a pattern. But hey, I’m guessing here. Normally, no feces is seen around the hive except in winter and early spring, so it just seems like they do it away from the hive. Based on my truck, I would say they do it fairly far from the hive.

    • Honey bees will forage from morning until evening, as long as it is light outside, not raining, and above about 50 degrees F.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I’m new to this, so I apologise if this is the wrong place to ask or if this has been covered elsewhere. I started my hive from a nuc about two months ago. I first observed bees carrying lots of pollen into the hive. As we got a little farther into spring, the pollen collection seemed to drop off a bit, but the bees were still carrying in pollen. I figured this is probably normal for this time of year. Then a couple of days ago, the pollen collection seemed to stop abruptly. It became very hot and humid a couple of days ago. So, my question is, are the bees now carrying water or devoting their energy and resources to collecting water instead of pollen? Or, would pollen production by the plants drop off because of heat and humidity? What happens when it gets really hot in July and August with regard to pollen collection?

    • Mike,

      The amount of pollen collected by bees is determined by their need for it and its availability. Pollen collection does ebb and flow with the seasons. In the hot summer there is less, but brood production begins to slow down as well. Also, it could be that you are in a nectar flow and many of the foragers have turned their attention to nectar rather than pollen. There are many variables, so it hard to pinpoint just one.

  • I enjoy ready your comments and advice. I am a new beekeeper. Fascinating creatures. So far, nary a sting. Yet.

  • I’m doing research on bees and came across your website twice now. You have some great info and it’s wonderful to see that you still reply to the comments on such old posts. Anyways I’m wondering if the bee species Apis mellifera have territories over certain areas or plants (not just male bees. I’m more specifically looking at it between different colonies). It would be great if you could reply ASAP.


    • Freya,

      I’ve never heard anything about territorial behavior in Apis mellifera. They do, of course, defend their hives from predators including other honey bees, and they will fight each other at the hive entrances, allowing only “family” to pass into the interior. But out in the field, bees from multiple hives will forage side-by-side. Sometimes one bee will fly at another to get her to move off a flower, but this behavior can be seen between bees of any species. In other words, a honey bee may try to scare off another honey bee or a sweat bee or a bumble bee. It is not species specific. At other times, multiple species will share a flower with no issues.

      Males gather in drone congregation areas to mate, so the competition there is usually won by the fastest flyers.

      But overall I would say that Apis mellifera colonies do not establish territories over plants or regions. The foragers collect as much as they can as fast as they can, and then move on the next patch.

  • Thanks so much. Yeah I read some information but wasn’t sure. I’m currently doing a study on bees and collected and analyzed pollen from separate colonies of Apis mellifera. I found that bees from separate hives weren’t vising the same plants. Or if they had, pollen from that plant would be seen in much greater quantities in one hive than another. So I assumed that possible territories had been established which would explain why some of the pollen types were not found in more than one hive. Although it seems, from your help, that it might just be that bees from one hive know of the location of a plant that another hive does not know about.

    • Freya,

      Each colony sends out scouts to find food sources. Once a source is found, the scout reports back to the colony and gives directions to the source. So it stands to reason that different colonies forage in different areas.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I am here again with another query. My question is about the buzz around honey bees and sugar. There is a strong belief that if you any sugary (made out of sugar) thing out honey bees will go for it, but I wonder how true it is? From what I have seen is they prefer flowers rather than sugar based food stuff. I have been studying their behaviour from since a while and observed their activity during winters months as well. There were some hives (not very strong and well fed) which showed some attraction to sugar solutions but not for a long time. and the very strong hives (with a couple of honey frames) never went near sugar syrups but honey-water was very attractive to them.

    I just want to check with you (Rusty) and all other readers on this forum if they have had some similar observations or some views about bees behaviour towards sugar based food stuff.

    I am doing these studies are in relation to my bait development for wasps (Vespula sp.- and they love it) which contain some sugar plus some protein and wasp attractant chemicals (that bees hate going near to) and want to check bees attraction towards it as I heard from a lot of beekeepers that bees gonna go for it but I have never seen them over my bait samples. I haven’t even found a consistent correlation between bees and sugar. some weak hives did go for it but most hives with a couple of honey frames didn’t even go near the plain sugar solutions so I am hoping it would be safe for bees.

    Could you please add your views regarding this Rusty. Could you please suggest me some more robust studies to check their behaviour towards my bait samples?

    Many thanks for your reply. I would appreciate if anybody else can also add some inputs to my query please.


    • Meenu,

      No doubt about it: honey bees will go after sugary foodstuffs, especially in times of nectar dearth. Stories about it abound and many of them have been mentioned here on this website. Honey bees have tried to make “honey” from candy coatings, maraschino cherry syrup, cotton candy, candy canes, coke syrup, overripe fruit, and fruit juice. Sure they prefer nectar, but when nectar is in short supply, any sugary thing will work.

  • Thank you for this informative blog. We are approaching mid November and I see my bees actively working the catmint (Nepeta faassenii) I hesitate to prune because they seem to be gathering something even though I’m not sure they are new blooms. How do I know if the flowers have “worn out” and given the bees all they can get?

    • Niki,

      Since I don’t know where you are, it’s impossible to say. But I would assume there is not much left in those flowers. It’s probably “wishful thinking” on the part of the bees.

  • I’m in the high desert near Palmdale California. Nights are in the high 40s, days are in the mid 60s to low 70s. Rabbit Brush nearby (less than 1/4 mile) is in full bloom. I’m thinking if the catmint had nothing to provide, they would go for the Rabbit Brush.

  • We have one hive that we have not harvested this year at all…. I’ve never had an issue needing extra pollen but recently was told this winter would have been much harder on the bees… not so sure about that… but my bee group insists…. everyone of them…. that I need to put pro patties in that particular hive ….. so I’m wondering… it’s an 8 frame lang with two full deeps and a medium super of honey.. In the past when we’ve had a hive that we’ve left unharvested in it’s first year we’ve never had to put patties or anything else in there and they did just fine…. but could it just have been luck…. Eastern Canada.

    • Ginny,

      I find that pollen sub is usually not necessary. It does, however, speed up brood production in the spring. You can do it either way.

  • I work at a school with 2nd graders, and one of our students asked this question: “Can a flower be used more than once?” We talked about it, and what he meant was, Can a bee gather pollen from a flower one day, and another bee gather pollen from the same flower the next day? We haven’t been able to find an answer to this question, but hopefully you might be able to help!

    • Hi Sue,

      This question has a long and complex answer. I think I will use the idea for a post, but I have to do more research first.

      For now, the short answer is it depends on the flower. Some produce new pollen for several days in a row, some do not. Also interesting is that some bees have ways of scent-marking the flowers they’ve foraged to save the next bee the effort of checking. This applies most often to nectar collection, but sometimes to pollen as well.

      Really it is almost impossible to make a rule. Flowers behave very differently, and are structured differently from each other. In most, the pollen is released all at once, but the stigma remains receptive for longer periods. Also, many flowers have florets that bloom sequentially so that pollen is available for many days.

      Great question. The student deserves an A for clear thinking!

  • Dandelions opened this am N.H. saw honey bee with full pollen sacs drinking nectar 1 week old hive.

    • Masereka,

      It depends on the plant. Many release the nectar and pollen in the morning, but some do it in the afternoon, and some even do it at night.

  • I found a bee the other day in a local market and it looked to me that it was trying to get out from the glass. So I eventually put it outside but at further glance it seemed to be packed with pollen and wouldn’t fly away.

    Too tired? over pack with pollen? Will it die or can they remove pollen off of itself?

    I know very little about this but it did make me wonder.

    Thx 🙂

    • Olivia,

      It’s impossible to say. It may have been at the end of its life. They only live for a few weeks and then they die, usually out in the field while they are working.

  • Hello… I prepare proposal of bee pollen to get PhD degree. My query is quantity of bee pollen used in chemical composition. Thanks

  • Well, I mean bee bread from the hive to be analysed for protein content. 5 grms enough or more (to avoid brood starvation). I hope it becomes clear.

  • Maybe someone can help me. I have seen at least 3 honeybees storing pollen in a broken chair on my porch. I don’t want to move it in case this is their only source of stored pollen, but I’m concerned they are trying to make a hive on my porch.

    This section they are storing in is a small metal slat probably a little over a foot across and maybe 2-3 inches wide, so I didn’t think that would be big enough to try to make a hive in, but I am ignorant to bee behavior. Should I try to move the chair or do you think maybe they’re just using this as a temporary storage place? It is supposed to rain in the next few days, so maybe that has something to do with it? Just looking for any kind of information/help. I don’t want to harm them, but I don’t want a hive on my porch either, you know? Thanks for any assistance!

    • Heather,

      They are not honey bees. It sounds like they are probably mason or leafcutting bees, or some other type of cavity-nesting bees. It sounds like they are building a nest in the broken chair. If left alone, their little nests will overwinter and new bees emerge this time next year. If you can take a close up photo of the bee and nest, I can perhaps tell you more specifics. You can email photos to me here:

  • Hi Rusty,

    I saw the weirdest thing this season. We have a pretty large mandarin tree and right next door is a large lemon tree. For some odd reason 2 mandarins were growing on the lemon tree and a few lemons on the mandarin tree. I wonder how that happened? They have never been grafted, that’s what’s freaking me out!

    • Heath,

      If you are speaking of honey bees, then the pollen cannot be retrieved by another bee. Honey bees collect pollen in its dusty form, mix it with nectar, and squeeze it into a tight ball. Once in a ball, though, the bees can’t actually pick it up. Sometimes, in the hive, they can pick one up with their mandibles and move it a short distance, but they wouldn’t be able to fly that way.

  • Yesterday I saw about every 60th bee had orange pollen over its body, but none in its pollen baskets. Most of the other bees bringing back pollen had light yellow pollen, but none had that orange pollen in their baskets, just dusted over their bodies. Ever heard of this?

    • Kevin,

      The bees that picked up orange pollen over their bodies but not in their pollen baskets were probably foraging for nectar, not pollen. The pollen is just incidental. The plant producing the yellow pollen might not produce much nectar, so those bees would be basically pollen-collectors. Some plants just produce nectar, some just produce pollen, and some produce both. Usually, a forager collects just one or the other, not both at the same time, although it does happen occasionally.

  • We have some bees on our porch that are storing pollen in our folded up plastic grill cover. Why would they do that? They couldn’t build a hive in it, as it is just flat folded plastic.

    • Samantha

      It sounds like you have a type of solitary bee living in your grill cover. This is not uncommon for solitary bees. One female finds a place that she thinks is protected (wrongly in this case) and builds a little nest to raise her family. Then she brings in pollen, mixes it with nectar, and lays her eggs on top. Most bees are solitary and do not build hives and do not make honey. She will lay just a few eggs or maybe several dozen, but not hundreds. However, these little solitary creatures are fantastic pollinators and should be protected.

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