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Packing Pollen

October 13, 2015  •  5 Comments

Bees, wild and domestic, thrive on nectar, but they also can't live without pollen. Bees gather pollen to feed their growing young, and if you stand before a garden of flowers, especially in mid-summer, you just might see a honey or bumble bee "packing pollen".  The bee uses its front legs to comb pollen off the hairs of its body. It then mixes the pollen with a bit of nectar, making it nice and sticky, and packs it onto a concave, hairy surface, called a corbiculum, located on the tibia of each hind leg.  The packed pollen takes on a ball-like shape: people call this a "pollen basket".  Not all bee species have pollen baskets. Sweat bees pack pollen up and down their hind legs; other bees simply carry pollen on the hairs that cover their bodies.  It astonishes how much pollen you can see on a bee.

I saw these sweat bees last July feeding on Echinacea flowers -- their legs bulging with pollen. I was thrilled to see them as they are beautiful bees with emerald green thorax and head. Buzzing jewels encrusted with gold, they made me smile.

sweat bee
Halibut Point State Park
   sweat bee
Halibut Point State Park

Even though it's October, on a warm sunny day you can find lots of bees gathering pollen. Last week these honey bees were working on asters in our yard.  Note the round balls of pollen on their legs.


Compare the size of the honey bee pollen baskets to the much larger one on the bumble bee below:

Bumble BeeBumble Beewith pale yellow pollen The color of the pollen is determined by the flower that produces it

Most bumble bees are bigger, stockier than honey bees so they are able to carry more packed pollen.  I read that bumble bees can carry half their weight in pollen -- that's more than honey bees can.

One afternoon in August I stood by a Rose of Sharon tree filled with flowers; bumble bees were flying furiously about.  The Rose of Sharon flower has a long style (the form that emerges from the center of the flower) that is lined with stamens, their anthers thick with pollen.  In the photograph below, a bumble bee after feeding on nectar is taking off from inside a flower.  The fine hairs on its body covered with the creamy-white pollen.


Below, another bumble bee embraces pollen-coated anthers.

      Bumble BeeBumble Beeembracing the pollen center of a Rose of Sharon flower    

Interestingly, I didn't see any of the bumble bees packing pollen. I'm not sure why, but from the way they were feeding I think it was nectar they were after. Although bumble bees don't make honey, they, too, bring nectar back to their hives.  And like honey bees, most of them don't gather pollen and nectar at the same time. That would make for a very heavy load to carry back home.  Bees collecting pollen feed on nectar, but that nectar fuels their flight.  As for the nectar-gathering bees here, I imagine once they returned to the hive to deliver the nectar, the pollen on their bodies would have been removed and stored.

My favorite pollen basket photo for the season is this bumble bee on a large aster flower--its basket of pollen a nugget of gold.

Bumble Bee with pollenBumble Bee with pollen

Did you know, there are about 4,000 species of bees native to North America?  And that honey bees are not among them?  Apis mellifera, the domesticated honey bee, was brought to this continent by the Europeans nearly 400 years ago. Honey bees are now essential to our food supply.  But there are thousands of species of flowers honey bees do not and can not pollinate. Blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes, and cherries are among them. They all depend on native or wild bees for successful pollination. 







Beautiful; I've always loved watching bees carry pollen.
Deborah A Goss(non-registered)
These are wonderful! My name, Deborah, means 'honey bee' so I've always been partial to them but never really see them - your info about why they're not out pollinating everything in sight explains that. I'm familiar with a few other kinds-bumble bees are my fave cuz they're so fuzzy and kind of casual about their business. Your photos are beautiful and with 4,000 kinds you could stay busy a long time...or until the next insect strikes your fancy. Keep me in the loop!
What fun looking at your amazing photos and learning about bees. Thanks Linda!
Very nice photos !!
Ann Carlisle(non-registered)
Loved your bee photos, comments & education!
Thanks Linda!!
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