bee biology

The 3 surprising things honey bees (almost) never collect

These honey bees are protecting their nest with gobs of prepared propolis.

Honey bees collect many things in their environment, but not honey, propolis, or bee bread. Instead, they collect the materials to manufacture these essential items.

Inside: Honey bee foragers spend a huge amount of time collecting the raw materials to make the things they need. Here we look at three essential products they manufacture at home.

Bee products that are made, not found

Honey bees do not collect many of the things we say they do, including honey, propolis, and bee bread. Instead, honey bees manufacture these items out of raw ingredients they find in the field. They bring the precious ingredients home and process them with their own glandular secretions.

Just think about it. If these items existed fully formed out in a field somewhere, we could collect them ourselves without the help of honey bees. But that’s not how it works. It’s one of many things that make bees so valuable.

Honey is processed food for bees

Most beekeepers know that honey bees collect nectar from plants. But nectar isn’t honey. For the most part, nectar is watery and flavorless. Although the composition varies from plant to plant, on average nectar is roughly 80% water and 20% carbohydrates. Fructose, glucose, maltose, and sucrose make up the majority of the sweet stuff.

The thing that makes nectar healthful is the microcosm of trace chemicals from the plants. These include vitamins, minerals, alkaloids, salts, essential oils, and sometimes lipids. The exact composition varies with the specific plants and the climate and soil they grew in.

Nectar seldom tastes sweet to us; it tastes more like plant juice. Of course, there are exceptions. If you find a fresh honeysuckle bloom, you can pluck the flower, extract the pistil, and lick the drop of nectar that accumulates at the bottom. It tastes sweet and delicious, but it’s not thick and gooey like honey.

To make honey, bees add salivary enzymes to the nectar and remove excess water. It is a time-consuming process involving multiple bees and their personal enzymes.

Japanese honeysuckle is a flower with sweet and flavor nectar.
Japanese honeysuckle is a flower with sweet and yummy nectar.

The inevitable exception: stolen honey

While honey bees cannot collect honey from the field, a marauding gang of honey bee robbers may collect honey from another beehive. This is an exception to the statement “bees never collect honey,” although the stolen honey was originally made by other honey bees. 

Part of the confusion over honey bees and honey originated with Carolus Linnaeus when he named the European honey bee, Apis mellifera, which translates as “honey-carrying bee.” Because bees carry nectar, not honey, it was a poor choice. By the time he realized his mistake, it was too late to change it to the more accurate Apis mellifica, which means honey-making bee.

Bees make propolis from plant resins

The second thing bees don’t collect is propolis. Instead, honey bees collect plant resins from trees and sticky flower buds. They store this gummy substance in their pollen baskets and take it to their hive. At home, the bees work the resins with their mandibles, adding stomach enzymes, saliva, and beeswax to manufacture the pliable substance we call propolis.

Because the resin comes from wounds and other openings in plants, it contains protective chemicals that shield the plant from pathogens and some predators. The bees take advantage of these properties to shield their own nest. The bees smear propolis around entrances, in cracks, and they even seal invaders (think dead mice) to contain disease organisms. They also use propolis as a sealant against wind and rain.

Honey bees are not alone in their love of plant resins. Many bees use plant resins for various purposes, most notably the “resin bees,” an entire group of bees that specialize in collecting resins to build their homes. Resin bees are a type of mason bee (Megachilidae), known for building with materials they find in nature.

Bee bread: the bees knead it

Bee bread is a third product that bees make rather than find. Bees manufacture bee bread from pollen mixed with honey, nectar, and bee enzymes, including lactic acid.

Pollen is difficult to digest, even for bees. But the enzymes and lactic acid they add promote fermentation, a process that softens the tough pollen coatings, making the contents easier to digest. After the bees knead the pollen, enzymes, and honey together, they tamp it into waxen cells to squeeze out any air and spread a shiny layer of microbe-defying honey over the top to keep it fresh.

Because bee bread stores better than plain pollen, the nutrients last months rather than days. With a storehouse of bee bread, a colony of bees has nutritious food available to the nurse bees throughout the winter and into the spring when brood rearing begins anew.

As you might guess, most bee species make their own special brand of bee bread. It’s often shaped into a pollen ball on which a female bee lays an egg. Other bees make a kind of soup, a very liquidy mixture held in a watertight sack that young larvae can drink. In every case, bees have designed ways to extend the shelf life of nutrients to keep the family of bees alive throughout the winter.

Collecting and making: first things first

So there you have it: three things that honey bees make only after they collect the raw ingredients. As in any other manufacturing process, the bees do things in steps, first things first, to make the very cool products that support them from year to year.

Honey Bee Suite

A frame of stored bee bread.
A frame of stored bee bread.

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.


  • Another great article! I do, however, disagree about bees not collecting propolis. I left an old frame out one day that didn’t have much on it except old propolis and had a few bees work on it for HOURS (on the propolis). I have fantastic close up video of one honey bee actually collecting the propolis, really digging it out, taking ages to do it, and packing it onto her legs. It wasn’t wax, it was definitely propolis. That was the only time I was able to video it, although I have seen it on quite a few other occasions, when I’ve left old well used and time to be discarded frames out.

    • Joanna,

      Cool. That would be in the same category as robbing honey. Some bees made the propolis and then some other bees stole it. Makes sense. Why do all that work if you don’t have too?

  • Most of my books and teachers have been careful to say bees collect nectar and pollen, rather than honey and bee bread. But EVERYBODY said bees collect propolis. Fortunately *I* collect propolis, and I hardly ever talk about the bees collecting proaahRESINS!

    • Roberta,

      The phrase that sends me is “honey flow” instead of nectar flow. And then there’s “pollen flow.” Really? I guess if electrons can flow, pollen can flow, but it seems like a weird thing to say.

      • Getting a bit off topic now, but there’s a huge difference between going to random places on the innerwebs and trying to be the grammar police, which everyone hates, and educating people here on your own site. Presumably people come here because they WANT your educational wisdom, so you need to keep pounding such corrections into us here, while just letting it slide off you everywhere else.

        Also, yes, ‘honey flow’ makes a certain amount of mistaken sense, but ‘pollen flow’ is just nonsense, as would be ‘bee bread flow’. Not even the electrons in pollen flow that much, since it isn’t a metal.

        Also also, what I’m really trying to say is, just because your students are very bad students (definitely not excluding myself here) doesn’t mean you should despair of us. You do good work.

        • Roberta,

          Even more off topic, people don’t read old posts. Some do, of course, but not most. So often I write about things I’ve already written about based on the questions I get. I try to word things differently the next time around, hoping that I can make it more clear or more relatable or more entertaining. It doesn’t stop the repeat questions, but it probably helps my writing. Who knows? Everyone takes in information differently and each person defines words differently, so it’s an uphill battle. As you well know, I try to get people to use beekeeping terms in a meaningful way so we can talk to each other, but there are so many terms that have multiple meanings (like super, swarm, hive, bee) that it’s nearly impossible to communicate. But I keep trying.

          Thanks for reading and commenting. It helps me.

    • Dave,

      I have no doubt that honey bees will rob premade propolis, just as they rob premade honey. Nevertheless, the propolis was originally manufactured by honey bees. The point of the article is that propolis does not appear in nature dripping from trees or other plants. Propolis is formed from plant resins with the addition of bee-added substances, such as digestive enzymes and beeswax. As your video shows, once the propolis is made, any honey bee can use it.

  • Thank you; enlightening, as always. I would love to be as multitalented, industrious and organized as these amazing creatures. They, and you, are great teachers.

    Sort of related: did you ever get any further with honey bees collecting (what I think was) plant rust/fungus, or hypothesize what its usage at the hive might be?

    • Hi Wendy,

      Honey bees (as well as other bees) often collect the spores of plant rust and other fungus as if it were pollen. In fact, they may collect nearly any substance with the right particle size, including sawdust, coffee grounds, and flour. According to several papers, the foragers are less particular than the house bees, so after a forager unloads it in the hive, other bees may reject it and carry it out.

      • Reminds me of when I sent my adult grandson to the store for eggnog for our then imminent Christmas party…he came back with 4 cartons of egg whites, instead.

        Anyway, very interesting. Thanks!

        • Wendy,

          That’s so funny. I’m always amazed at how difficult it is to communicate the simplest things. And as you can see, it’s no different with bees.

  • I think I sent my question on wrong contact form. Q was about what seemed to be extremely erratic flight behavior. In mid-day, yesterday, hundreds of honeybees in air flying, darting, NOT in a swarm, all around house and but in distance, seemingly random and individual behavior. The closest bee yard is appx 100’ away. Friend was on open deck/porch, watching, and was stung twice. Lasted about 15 min. Googled but only saw info on swarms and swarming behaviors, nothing like this. Explanation?

    • Pamela,

      First, if you are only a 100′ from a bee yard, you may see nearly any type of honey bee behavior. That’s really close. However, the times I remember darting and erratic flight occurred when I was cooking with honey and bees were attracted to the kitchen exhaust fan, desperately trying to find the source of the smell. There were hundreds darting randomly around the house, and they left after I got done cooking. I’ve also seen it near open feeders, when bees were being feed syrup in feeders out in the open away from the hives. I’ve also seen a similar behavior before a swarm takes off, almost like the bees are impatiently waiting for the signal to go. If you are in a deep nectar dearth right now, that can cause unrest, too.

      But if nothing like that is happening near your deck, I really don’t know. Usually, bees like that are not very prone to stinging, so maybe it’s something else.

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