Drone surrounded by worker bees. © INRA, MORISON Nicolas

Scientists flying to the rescue of bees

Your meal is ready!

Not all bees eat the same thing in a hive. Worker bees feed off honey, which supplies them with what they need in terms of sugars, pollen, proteins, lipids and vitamins. Pollen is mainly consumed during the first nine days of their life. The queen may also consume stored honey, but prefers to be fed mouth to mouth by her vassals, who supply food to the brood that among other things contains royal jelly. This substance, secreted by the brood food glands of worker bees, contains a large quantity of amino acids, fatty acids and vitamins. Royal jelly also forms part of the diet of worker larvae during the first three days after hatching. They are subsequently fed with larval food. By contrast, larvae that are being raised to become queens are only fed with large quantities of royal jelly, which induces their morphological and physiological differentiation. Male bees, on the other hand, are fed by workers during the first few days of their adult life, and then serve themselves from the honey reserves. They are unable to forage because their tongues are too short.

Updated on 03/27/2017
Published on 05/01/2014

Rich pollen and poor pollen

Wild bee (male halictid) on a hemp agrimony flower. © © INRA, GUILBAUD Laurent
Wild bee (male halictid) on a hemp agrimony flower © © INRA, GUILBAUD Laurent
Different pollens have differing nutritional qualities. Scientists tend to classify them according to their protein content. Poor pollens (such as dandelion or sunflower) only contain 13% protein, a level which reaches around 20% in average pollens (maize, clover), while the top ranking pollens, such as rapeseed, mustard and fruit trees, can contain up to 30% protein. However, it is not only their nutritional value which attracts foraging bees; above all, it is their ease of access to the pollen. Bees therefore love maize, because its large pollen grains are abundant and easy to forage. INRA researchers in Avignon have shown that to be in good health, bees need to consume at least five different types of pollen each day.

Good bacteria to defend bees

Using "good" bacteria which could boost the immune system and health of bees: that is the objective of a Franco-Swedish research project (Probee) that is being managed by INRA researchers in Avignon. In the same way as in humans, the digestive tract of bees is colonised by a large quantity of micro-organisms which fulfil important functions in digestion, of course, but also regarding resistance against pathogens.  Studies have shown that by giving probiotics (bacteria from their own digestive tract) to bee larvae infected with pathogens, their mortality rates can notably diminish. At present, researchers are monitoring the development, health status and mortality of colonies to which these probiotics are, or are not, being administered.

A label to make friends with bees

It will soon be possible to make a gesture in favour of bees while filling a supermarket trolley, thanks to a "bee friendly" label. Ready to be launched at the end of 2014, this label will certify to consumers that the products they are buying encourage farming practices that are in harmony with the welfare of pollinators. Thus the use of certain pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, is banned by this label. The creation of areas of biodiversity, and harvesting methods that limit the mortality of pollinators, are also encouraged. To start with, dairy products, fruits and vegetables will be labelled as being "bee friendly".