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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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