Bee Foraging

Foraging is a dangerous task, but it is essential in order to feed and maintain a healthy hive

Bees rely on the sweet nectar and pollen they gather from flowering plants to feed and nourish themselves and the rest of the colony. A typical bee may make thousands of visits to all kinds of flowers throughout each day during the spring and summer, returning to the same gardens and floral patches until all of the nectar in those plants are finished.

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    What Types of Bees Forage?

    The process of bee foraging varies between species, but the concept is the same throughout all species. Worker bees spend their days foraging for the flowering plants that will yield the most amounts of nourishment for them and the rest of the hive, collecting as much nectar and pollen as possible to bring back to the nest so it can be stored and used throughout the winter months to sustain the colony until the next spring.

    Foraging is a crucial yet dangerous job that bees of all kinds must perform to feed the hive and propagate the species. Bees and the life of their hives depend on the worker bees heading out to forage for enough nectar and pollen to sustain the colony. These female worker bees fly from the hive, often up to miles away to forage for food until they die at around six weeks old.

    There are three basic foraging habits bees use to collect and store nectar and pollen to feed the hive and provide for the winter months. Some bees will forage single or specific types of plant species, while others have a wider reach and more diverse selection of various kinds of flowers to gather their food storages.

    Oligolectic Bees Bees that visit a limited number of plant species and varieties are classified as oligolectic. Most of these types of bees will collect pollen and nectar only from a specific genus of flower that their larvae need to properly develop and mature. Some bees are said to be weak oligolectic bees, meaning they prefer certain plants, but will collect pollen from others if their top choice is not readily available and accessible. This process assures cross-pollination within one species of plant.
    Monolectic Bees Some species of bees will pollinate one species of flower and only that one species. Monolectic bees are rare, but crucial to the evolutionary journey of both the bee species and the plant species, as they are both reliant on the other to continue the pollination process.
    Polylectic Bees Most bee species will forage for pollen and nectar from a wide range of flowering plant species. Polylectic bees provide an essential service for farmers growing multiple or sequential crops. While polylectic bees can forage on many different kinds of plants, they do have favourites and will visit the same type of flower in each foraging trip. Honey bees and bumblebees are both polylectic. 

    How Far Will Bees Travel to Forage?

    How far bees will travel to forage food sources depends on the species and a variety of other factors. Bees will expand their foraging outreach in ideal weather conditions, with their most fervent foraging activity at about 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Honey bees will travel the farthest, at times up to several miles, to find the perfect area with enough of the right kinds of flowering plants to gather the nectar and pollen needed for the hive. Bumblebees will also leave the immediate area of their nests to forage, though not quite the distances honey bees will travel, and are more effective at foraging with shorter, more efficient trips.

    Solitary bees are often characterized as nearby foragers, but there are many solitary bee species that will travel up to 10 miles to forage for the nutrients and food sources they need to feed themselves and their young.

    Bees can travel up to several miles form their hives to find the perfect area for foraging

    Do Bees Communicate When Foraging?

    Honey bees live in a complex, advanced society making it necessary to have developed the ability to communicate important information through the evolutionary process. They are social insects that will use specialized moves, scent cues, and even the exchange of food to communicate among the colony. When a foraging bee returns to the nest, she will need to let the others in the colony know where she found the best flowers for pollination.

    The Waggle Dance

    When worker bees discover an ideal foraging location, they will return to the hive and perform a unique waggle dance on the honeycomb to alert the community that they have found food supplies. The others in the hive will watch to learn the location of the best flowers to forage. The dancing bee will carry back the scent of the flower patch and even give the watching bees a taste of the nectar to help them find the area with ample supplies of food resources.

    At first glance, the bees appear to be wildly flying about and making random noises, but each movement and buzzing sound indicates detailed information about the location they have found. The pattern of the dance tells the others the distance and direction of the feeding site.  

    The dancing bee will waggle back and forth while moving in a straight line, circling around to repeat the movement. That middle line is the waggle run that will let the other bees know approximately how far away the flower patch is. The angle at the bee performs the waggle dance in relation to the sun indicates the direction of the flowers to the rest of the hive.

    Bees that move in a series of circular movements are performing a round dance to let others know the food is closer to home, without supplying any more details. The bee will include a waggle to indicate the quality of flowers in the patch she has just come from.  A crescent-shaped movement called the sickle dance indicates the location is a more moderate distance away.

    Odor Cues

    Honey bees are also able to transmit information to other bees through the use of pheromones that are produced by queen bees to control the reproduction process in the hive. The queen and other non-reproducing females emit these pheromones to encourage male drones to mate with the queen, who also produces an odour to let the hive know she is alive, healthy and prepared to mate.

    Honey bees perform waggle dance to notify the rest of the colony that they have found food supplies

    What Plants Do Bees Typically Forage?

    Bees are drawn to a wide range of flowering plants that have ample supplies of nectar and pollen they will consume and take back to the hive. Bees are drawn to the colour, shape, and smell of certain flowers that will provide them with the proper nourishment they need.

    Perennial flowers grow easily and will return each year to offer bees the necessary nectar and pollen to feed the hive. Annual plants have to be regrown each year but will typically produce more flowers that will last for a longer period of time than perennials.

    The following are some of the most popular plants that are most popular and effective for bees to forage.


    In addition to being one of the most iconic images representing summer, sunflowers are fast-growing tall annuals that offer a large, landing spot for bees and other insects to feast and gather nectar and pollen.

    Berry Plants

    Berry plants present bees with a small concentrated area with an abundance of nectar and pollen packed in a limited space. Pollinating berry plants also allows bees to assist in the creation of berries that will populate the plants in late summer.

    Among the most popular berry plants that present inviting flowers for foraging bees include:

    1. Blackberries
    2. Blueberries
    3. Raspberries
    4. Strawberries


    Fruit Trees

    Before other plants and flowers have bloomed, fruit trees can provide large quantities of the pollen and nectar bees are out foraging in the spring. Some trees with the best opportunities for bees to forage are:

    • Apple trees
    • Cherry trees
    • Peach trees
    • Pear trees



    Herbs give off a scent that is excellent at attracting bees. Lavender plants rich in nectar are especially good for pollinating insects like bees. Other herbs that bees frequently use for the pollination process include:

    • Basil
    • Bee balm
    • Borage
    • Borage
    • Chives
    • Fennel
    • Lemon balm
    • Mint
    • Rosemary
    • Sage
    • Thyme


    Vegetable Plants

    Many vegetables produce yellow flowers that bees enjoy extracting nectar and pollen from. Vegetable plants that bees are most attracted to include:

    • Cucumbers
    • Pumpkins
    • Squash
    • Tomatoes
    • Zucchini
    Honey bee foraging a sunflower

    How Do Bees Know What Flowers to Forage?

    While out foraging for food supplies to bring back to the hive, bees will use sights and smells to guide them to the flowering plants that will offer the most amounts of easily accessible nectar, pollen, and water they need. The colours, shapes, and formations of the flowers will help guide the worker bees along their foraging journeys.

    Foraging bees are able to detect the nectar in a flower through the ultraviolet reflection of light or by the unique tone the flower emits to attract pollinators to them.

    They will also avoid certain flowers that they can smell in the presence of previous bees that have foraged in the same area.

    The bees’ main goal when they leave the nest to forage is to find the flowering plants with the largest volumes of nectar and pollen. Individual bees will collect one food source at a time, helping them identify and recognize the most fruitful flowers. They will also remember which flowers yield the most food sources and return to those flowers multiple times until the resources have run out.

    When a bee discovers a flower that offers abundant supplies of a food source, she will collect as much as she can and will return to the hive to store the haul and let the others know the location of the flowers through a series of dances and movements, while also sharing a sample of the nectar with them.

    Foraging FAQ

    How Many Foraging Trips Will A Single Bee Make Every Day?

    Depending on the specific bee species needs and preference, and how far the foraging area is from the nest, a single bee can make as many as 30 trips to forage for nectar, and up to 50 trips to forage for pollen.

    How much nectar and pollen can be collected in a single foraging trip?

    Nectar is a dense substance that provides necessary nourishment to the larvae and other bees in the nest. A bee’s full load of nectar can total upwards of 85 per cent of the bee’s body weight. Pollen is much lighter and a bee will rarely transport more than 15 grams of pollen.

    How Do Bees See?

    The biggest difference in bees’ vision compared to humans is that they have a difficult time distinguishing red colours, though have excellent vision for green, purple, and blue, and are drawn to flowers that display those colours. Bees can also see ultraviolet light that we cannot, helping them to detect flower patterns that lead them to where the nectar is.

    Does Temperature Influence Foraging Behavior?

    Bees are cold-blooded insects that have adapted to changing temperature climates and can withstand some colder temperatures in the early spring and late fall. Many bees have instinctual powers for predicting coming weather conditions and adapting accordingly. The day before a rainy day, a honey bee is likely to spend more time foraging for honey compared to the day before a sunny day.

    Bees will shiver, visibly shaking to heat up the interior of their nest to the optimal temperature of 94 degrees. Bees have a tougher time foraging in cooler outdoor temperatures, needing to work twice as hard to stay warm.

    Often when returning home from a foraging trip, bees will stop and appear to be resting. This is done to warm their bodies back up after losing so much heat working back.

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