What happens when bees make pollen into magic bee bread?

Hexagonal loaves of bee bread removed from a frame.

What’s so magical about bee bread? The process of changing regular pollen into bee bread preserves and enhances the food value of pollen for raising healthy bees.

Inside: Let’s take a quick look at how honey bees make bee bread and how bee bread affects the health and longevity of a bee colony.

Pollen has a short shelf life

We all know that bees collect pollen. In fact, except for the kleptoparasites, all species of bees collect pollen for raising their young.

But pollen doesn’t keep well. It rapidly loses its nutritive value unless it’s frozen or processed within a day or two of collection. We humans can stick it in the freezer, but the bees must process it without delay.

Pollen is necessary for strong bee bodies

While adult bees get most of their energy from eating nectar and honey, raising baby bees is more complex. Growing bodies need an entire spectrum of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. They also need lipids, vitamins, minerals, and a slew of micronutrients, all of which reside in those tiny grains of pollen. In addition, pollen contains a number of bacteria that are beneficial to bee digestive health.

The nutritive needs of adults are small compared to larval bees. When an adult bee emerges from its cocoon, it is fully grown and doesn’t get bigger over time. Nevertheless, nurse bees need to eat scads of pollen so they can secrete the brood food necessary to feed larval bees. Without plentiful pollen, the colony could not survive.

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

Bee bread is processed food for bees

Whoever thinks processed food is a bad idea hasn’t talked to a bee. Pollen by itself is extremely difficult to digest and has a short shelf life, but once processed into bee bread it becomes a stable baby bee superfood.

The process has several steps. First, the foragers collect pollen in the field, scraping it from their bodies and stuffing it into their pollen presses. During this stage, the bees add a bit of nectar and saliva to the pollen to help it stick together, a step that makes pollen pellets shiny.

Next, they fly home with their full baskets. Each pollen-carrying bee goes to a pollen-storage area near the brood nest. She searches for a cell that can receive her load and then backs up to it. She uses one leg to knock the pollen pellet off another leg until both pellets drop into the cell. Then she’s off to find another load.

House bees come along later and tamp down the pellets, butting them with their heads to fill the air pockets and make a solid “loaf.” They also add, honey, more salivary secretions, and lactic acid. The added ingredients encourage fermentation, a process that helps break down the tough outer coating of pollen and make the inner contents more digestible.

After the cell is full, the bees add a layer of honey over the top of the pollen cell to block out air and microbes, which further enhances the shelf life. The fermenting stored pollen with added ingredients is now called bee bread.

Have you found a distressed bee you want to help? Here are some things to consider.

When a pantry staple exceeds its best-by date

Going into the winter months, a good supply of bee bread is a valuable asset. Just like a pantry full of human food, it can get the occupants by for many weeks or even months. Bee bread becomes particularly valuable in late winter and early spring before the first flowers appear—a season of heavy brood rearing requiring lots of protein.

The staying power of bee bread may be why the ancient Greeks called it ambrosia. The word means “food of the gods” because it could provide immortality. In a sense, it does: a good stash of bee bread can lead the colony into another year and another.

However, old frames of bee bread eventually become dry and brittle, losing their nutritive value. Some say a well-preserved frame of bee bread can last two years, although one year seems to be more likely. Since different types of pollen have different characteristics, shelf life will vary.

Once a frame of pollen gets dry and the pellets shrink, a beekeeper can turn the frame upside down and bang it against a hard object. With any luck, most of the pellets will fly out and you can reuse the frame.

Honey Bee Suite

Some people like to eat bee bread. Here you can see the layers of pollen in the loaves.
Some people like to eat bee bread. Here you can see the layers of pollen in the loaves.

Bee with me . . .

Just like any other bees, kleptoparasitic bees assure their offspring have a good supply of pollen so they can develop into healthy adults. But instead of collecting it themselves, they steal it from other bees.

They do this by sneaking into the nests of other bees and laying their eggs near a pollen ball collected by the nest owner. When the intruder’s egg hatches, it eats the pollen the host bee collected. Honey bees don’t have any kleptoparasites pestering them, but plenty of solitary species do.

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.


  • I thought I’d read that winter bees ate their pollen/bee bread, thus storing it in their own fat cells because it didn’t stay nutritious overwinter. Is this something we’re learning new things about, or was I just wrong?

    • Roberta,

      I know winter bees store protein in their fat bodies in the form of vitellogenin and other compounds. What I don’t know it what they consume to do this, as in whether they eat fresh pollen or stored bee bread. Researchers have suggested that the lack of pollen stimulates winter bee production and that too much feeding of fall pollen can actually interefere with winter bee production.

      Also, the biologists say winter bees arose in colonies as they began to live in colder climates. It seems to be an extra layer of protection for the colony in case the bee bread supply runs out—a backup system of sorts—not a replacement for bee bread.

    • Tonybees! So good to hear from you; I was thinking about you just last week. Hope all is well with you too.

      • Sorry was so busy, just bombarded from all directions but, still loyal to the ladies. After years of using the Owen’s bee vac I’m experimenting with the Colorado and the Bushkill bee vacs, will keep you advised.

  • Interesting! I just saw an article about how cellophane bees ferment their pollen stores. Looks like pollen fermentation may be fairly common.

    • Pam,

      Yes! I keep rediscovering common threads throughout the bee “kingdom.” Learning about any bee helps you to learn about honey bees and vice versa. I never get tired of it. Btw, the cellophane bees are very cool. But then, they all are.

  • Bee bread is magic, indeed. Excellent article, as usual, Rusty. I think it would be more accurate to say it is a fermented food, rather than processed, since the term “processed” may have negative connotations. Regardless of what you prefer to call it, bee bread is an amazing product of the hive. It is used in Europe (where I am from) for its many therapeutic virtues, but not enough is known about it here in the US. When I lose a colony, I will eat the bee bread left on frames.

    • Hi Anna,

      Yes, I used the word “processed” because of its negative connotations: it makes people pay attention. But also, I think that fermentation happens (at least partially) as a result of the processing, which would include the addition of nectar, saliva, and other digestive enzymes.

      I’m happy to hear you eat your bee bread; I don’t know many (any?) who do.

      • Hi Rusty,

        I love the taste of bee bread; I actually like it better than pollen 🙂

        You are right about the fermentation. I’ve come across a 2009 article in the Jounal of Apicultural Research that looked at lactic acid fermentation of pollen and bee bread. I don’t have access to the entire content, but here’s what they say in the abstract (LAB = lactic acid bacteria):

        “It is demonstrated for the first time that bee bread is probably fermented by the honey stomach LAB flora that has been added to the pollen via regurgitated nectar from the honey stomach. This discovery helps to explain how honey bees standardize the production of bee bread and how it is stored. The presence of the honey stomach LAB and its antimicrobial substances in bee bread also suggests a possible role in the defence against honey bee diseases since the bee bread is consumed by both the larvae and the adult bees.”

        July 2009Journal of Apicultural Research 48(3):189-195

        • Thanks, Anna. I have a paper too, stashed away on my computer somewhere, about lactic acid fermentation in bee bread. I don’t believe it’s the same one, so I will try to find it. The entire system is fascinating but it makes me worry about what pesticides can do to the stomach flora. Many times when colonies languish and die, I think we “assign” a likely cause, but there are so many things we don’t consider and don’t have adequate ways to measure.

          • I couldn’t agree with you more, Rusty. I think we are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in regards to the pesticide effect on living things …

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