English for beekeepers

What is trophallaxis?

Bees exchange food and information through trophallaxis. Note their extended tongues.

Trophallaxis refers to the direct transfer of food or fluids from one individual to another. It is especially common among the social insects such as bees, wasps, ants, and termites. In many species, including bees, trophallaxis is an important part of colony communication.

For example, workers who have licked the queen pass on some of the queenly essence to other bees during the exchange of food. Not only does this inform the colony that the queen is alive and well, but it also suppresses the development of ovaries in worker bees.

Bees also use trophallaxis to distribute information about new nectar sources or about feeding conditions inside the brood nest. It is also used to keep “heater bees” supplied with energy as they warm the nest. Unfortunately, trophallaxis can also aid in the spread of disease throughout a colony, especially when pathogenic organisms reside inside the honey bee gut.


  • Given that bees feed one another using trophallaxis, is it correct to say that they *only ingest honey this way? I’ve often seen in books that drones cannot feed themselves — but how about worker bees?

    Can a worker bee feed herself by opening a cell of capped honey? Or only suck up some honey, which she then feeds to other bees?
    In the case of nectar that is still being dried out, ie. Not yet honey, would the bees continue drying it out and cap it before they eat any of it? Or is it true that if a dearth begins suddenly (or you move your bees to a location with no forage, and no syrup feed) then would the bees start to eat the unripe, uncapped stored nectar?

    If a forager collects nectar, I believe she stores all of it in her nectar crop. But a beekeeper recently told me that she can open a valve(?) that allows some nectar into her own stomach, so she can use the nectar for her own food needs.

    I’ve seen queens in cages eat a little honey and fondant, but I assume that 99.9% of her food needs are provided by attendants. Correct?

    Thanks, Rusty and everyone


    • David,

      I think the primary reason for trophallaxis is messaging. The bees send chemical signals along with the food. Still, bees can eat on their own if they must. A queen will eat her way through a sugar plug and a drone will eat rather than starve.

      Yes, bees can open and eat honey. And, yes, workers can allow some nectar to pass through to their digestive tract. Remember, it’s a one-way valve, designed to let some food through, but that food cannot then go back to the honey stomach.

      The bees will not starve themselves if nectar is available, cured or not. Honey is cured for storage purposes, but the bees will eat nectar if that’s what’s available.

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