honey bee nutrition

Protein and the hypopharyngeal gland

Honey bee nutrition is a hot topic these days. Due to their work in monoculture crops, honey bee colonies may not be receiving a well-balanced and complete diet. The surrounding landscape is changing as well, and in many areas, diverse plant life has been replaced by acres of invasive species—another type of monoculture.

Whatever the cause, a poor diet can have devastating results on a honey bee colony. When honey bees lack sufficient pollen or when the pollen is nutritionally incomplete, brood rearing is decreased and worker lifespan reduced. Eventually the colony may collapse.

For bees, pollen is the primary source of the ten amino acids they need to build protein. Most of the pollen is eaten by nurse bees. The nurses use the nutrition absorbed from the pollen to secrete royal jelly from their hypopharyngeal glands. The jelly is fed to young larvae, including workers, drones and queens. After about three days the jelly is mixed with bee bread—a mixture of whole pollen, honey, and enzymes—and fed to the workers and drones until they spin their cocoons. The queens receive a steady diet of royal jelly throughout their larval development.

Some pollen has all the amino acids the honey bees need to raise strong and healthy young bees, but most pollen is deficient in one or more of the necessary amino acids. As a result, it is necessary for honey bees to eat a variety of pollen types, not just one or two.

Researchers at Oregon State University are studying the effects of certain pollen types on the honey bee’s ability to produce protein. The bees are kept in flight cages and fed diets restricted to one type of pollen. A flight cage is a large mesh structure divided into various rooms. Each room houses a hive at one end. The bees can fly in and out of the hive and basically act like normal bees with a single exception—they have access to only one type of pollen.

When the nurse bees reach the age when they begin feeding the brood, the hypopharyngeal gland is removed and tested for its protein content. Although direct analysis of the pollen can reveal the amino acid profile, it cannot determine how well the bee is able to utilize it. An analysis of the protein in the hypopharyngeal gland can reveal just how well the honey bee can use that pollen type and, consequently, can predict the viability of a colony raised on a monoculture of that pollen type.



Flight cages at the Oregon State University Experimental Farm in Corvallis. Two rows of nine enclosures each hold one hive. The bees can fly but are restricted to one food source.

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    • Mike,

      Yes, there are lots of commercial pollen substitutes such as MegaBee, BeePro, FeedBee, and Amino-B Booster (this one is liquid). Some people make a pollen substitute at home, such as the one found here: Dry Pollen Substitute. Even better is to mix real pollen with the substitute. You can buy pollen or collect it yourself. You can use a pollen trap and take part of the pollen when it is coming in good, freeze it, and save it for later. See Pollen traps require constant attention.

  • As a chemist I always enjoy reading these researches. So interesting and I might learn something too. Your paper on the essential oils lead me to research more on them. I have been feeding my hive with a combination of anise seed, lemongrass, wintergreen, and spearmint essential oils in their sugar syrup. I haven’t found a single mite yet (but as a new beekeeper I may not be looking for the right thing.) The bees seem to love the syrup. It’s gone in 1-2days (it’s an entrance feeder).

  • There’s something very basic here that I’m not understanding. I read somewhere that royal jelly comes from a substance secreted from the queen’s head. From what you’re saying, that’s a fallacy. If the nurse bees are capable of making royal jelly w/o a queen, than I don’t understand how laying workers occur.

    • Julie,

      From Wikipedia: “Royal jelly is a honey bee secretion that is used in the nutrition of larvae, as well as adult queens. It is secreted from the glands in the hypopharynx of worker bees, and fed to all larvae in the colony, regardless of sex or caste.

      When worker bees decide to make a new queen, either because the old one is weakening, or was killed, they choose several small larvae and feed them with copious amounts of royal jelly in specially constructed queen cells. This type of feeding triggers the development of queen morphology, including the fully developed ovaries needed to lay eggs.”

  • I have read that the royal jelly fed by carriers of DWV pass this on to queens and other larvae. I believe it is still being researched, but it seems highly likely to me.

  • Hello,

    I would like to know, which type of net there is in the picture? How many m2 the tent’s floor area? How much is the height? Has the bees stress about the net?


    • Kata,

      I don’t know the details of the netted enclosures, but I suppose you could contact Oregon State University Honey Bee Lab for more information. Yes, the bees stress about the net and I’m told they don’t do very well compared to bees that are free.