Bees Forage For More Than Just Honey

Honey gets all the attention, but bees have to forage for water and propolis, too.

by Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
PHOTO: Kristina Mercedes Urquhart

We know that one of the main jobs of the honeybee is to collect nectar and pollen. A little more research tells us that the forager, or field bee, actively seeks out nectar, collecting it to bring back to the hive for her sisters to turn into honey. She collects pollen, too, but it’s accidental: The pollen grains attach to the bee’s hairs as she visits the flower in search of nectar. She then brushes them into pollen baskets on her lower legs, and carries them home to the hive, along with a honey stomach full of nectar.

But there are two more critical elements in the honeybee hive—two more substances that the field bee needs to be concerned with. We’re talking, of course, about water and propolis. Bees actively forage for these elements, too.


This critical earth element is as important for honeybees as it is for humans. Compared to their other needs, the colony’s water requirements are relatively low. They go through about 7 ounces in one day, but those ounces go a long way toward ensuring their survival. Here’s how:

  • All bees drink water to sustain their health and organ function, just as we do.
  • The presence of water helps to control the delicate internal hive temperature, particularly during warm weather. House bees do this by evaporating tiny drops of water with their wings. This process is critical for all of the bees in the colony, but especially for developing larvae.
  • Honey’s moisture content is intentionally rather low (18 percent) in order to prevent fermentation. However, nurse bees have an amazing ability to reconstitute honey with additional water, to bring the moisture content up and make it more nectar-like once again. This substance is then used along with the addition of certain enzymes to feed growing larvae.

Field bees foraging for water will typically find the sources closest to the hive. As a beekeeper, you don’t need to do anything special to provide your colonies with water—they are quite good at finding it on their own, and in fact, mineral and salt content, organic organisms, and other elements factor the bees’ preference for their water sources, so they prefer to meet their own needs. However, some neighbors may be put off when honeybees frequent their backyard hoses, leaky faucets, rain barrel collection systems, pools or other water features. In this case, you may opt to provide a water source near your house or hive to keep your water foragers close to home. If you can, use spring water or rain water and avoid city water that is often heavily treated and chlorinated.


Propolis, often called bee glue by beekeepers, is pretty cool stuff. As the nickname suggests, this substance is incredibly sticky and gummy, acting like glue in the hive. The bees use it to seal gaps, cracks and crevices. It’s often a chestnut brown color, and in the summer, when warm, it’s quite pliable. When cold, however, it becomes rather hard and brittle.

Foraging bees collect propolis from a wide variety of tree sources, gathering the natural resin from new buds and tree sap. What’s most remarkable is how the bees are able to collect it, return home with it, and transfer it to their sisters without becoming burdened by the stickiness of the material. Unlike unloading pollen, nectar or water, returning propolis foragers actually require assistance from their sisters to remove the substance from their pollen baskets.

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Some colonies are more propolis-heavy than others, and we don’t really understand why. Within the same framework of conditions—same microclimate, same breed of bee, same hive management style—some colonies will simply collect and utilize more propolis than others. For the beekeeper, it’s the luck of the draw.

Any beekeeper who has spent a year with a couple of hives will tell you that bee glue is serious business—it’s sometimes quite hard to remove and certainly a good work out for your hive tool. But there’s nothing quite like that satisfying crrrrrrACK! sound when you finally separate the outer lid from the top super and get into the hive. And truth be told, propolis isn’t all bad. Collect the extra from your hive tool (or scrape a bit off the top frames after inspection) into a small jar while working your hives. It makes an excellent tincture to cure a variety of ailments, and a little goes a long way. I just wish someone would tell that to the bees!

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