Megan Leech is a masters’ student studying native bees under Frank Drummond at the University of Maine. She’s looking to see if bees are foraging for flowers that offer good nutrition and pointed out that different flower species provide varying levels of nutrients.
The Honeybee Food Pyramid
With a graphic that resembles a food pyramid, Megan explained that the image represented not what the bees need most in their diet, but how many compounds are in that nutrient source. Pollen, at the base of the pyramid, has more nutrients than nectar. And water─at the top of the pyramid, has no nutrients, because, Megan says, “It’s just water.”
Pollen supplies bees with fats, amino acids, protein and lipids; some studies have even indicated that bees with plenty of pollen have more of a resistance to nosema.
Sugars are the most important part of nectar; providing the bees with energy and fat storage, and allows bees to make honey and produce wax. New research shows that various microbes are essential to the healthy functioning of the honeybee digestive system, and that some probiotics may actually improve digestion. The transfer of enzymes plays an important role in the exchange of honey throughout the hive. Researchers have discovered through various studies, that the presence of good microbes in the honeybee gut may increase their immune response.
Good Nutrition for Healthy Bees
According to Megan, good nutrition is critical to the health and longevity of the colony. Each level of the honeybee population is dependent upon the next; for example, the overall health of the colony is dependent upon a healthy force of worker bees, and that healthy population of bees is dependent upon healthy larvae. Good nutrition means healthy larvae and healthy larvae equals healthy adult bees.
Megan went on to point out that in some very severely malnourished colonies, bees have been known to cannibalize the larvae in order to get the protein the adults need in their diets. And of course, that is not sustainable for the colony.
It’s about quantity vs. quality when it comes to pollen. Research indicates that bees with plenty of diversity in the forage available to them, have an increased resistance to disease; and that with a high protein and high quality diet have more resistance to nosema. Some studies even indicate that with enough diversity in their food, pesticides seem to have less of an effect on the bees.
And so to learn more, Megan is studying honeybees to learn if they are intentionally selecting more nutritious flower sources over those that offer less nutrition. “It’s amazing,” Megan said, “to see how bees have evolved with flowers to pollinate, and how the flowers have evolved specialized nectaries where the bees can access the nectar.”