What is Nectar? How Do Bees Find It?

Nectar is a sweet liquid that flowers produce, typically inside of the flower. The nectar is a reward the plant provides for the pollinators for cross-pollinating them. Bees find nectar by sight and odor. The forager bee will land inside or close to the flower.

Once the bee has landed on or near the flower, she will use her proboscis — similar to a tongue. She extends it into the part of the flower where the nectar is. The thought is that honey bees can detect nectar in a flower by the reflection of ultraviolet light, or by the tone the flower is emitting as it tries to attract pollinators.

Forager bees may avoid going to a particular flower because she can smell the odor of the previous foraging bee. Also, sometimes the flower is not making the appropriate tone telling the bee that there is nectar available. Once she finds it, the bee sucks until the she takes in all the liquid within reach or her proboscis.

Show Me the Honey

A bee can carry from 25 to 80 milligrams of nectar per foraging trip, typically from several different flowers. Once the bee’s honey stomach is full, she will fly back to the hive. If the honey bee finds a large amount of nectar, she will dance once she arrives at the hive. The dance is to show the location of the nectar source. She’ll give some of the nectar to surrounding bees so that they can taste it.

But, if the nectar source is minimal, she will simply walk in the hive until a house bee takes part of the nectar. The forager will typically give the nectar to three or more bees. They will then put the nectar in one of the cells in the hive that contain nectar from the same floral source.

Taste Test

When the forager bee gives nectar to the house bees, the house bee spreads her mandibles and extends her proboscis to full length. She sips the nectar from the mandibles of the forager. When this transfer of nectar occurs, both bees antennae are constantly touching each other. This is a way that honey bees communicate with each other. The house bee may stroke the forager bee’s sides of her mouth to further stimulate the release of the nectar. Once the forager bee has unloaded her nectar, she will stop for a little nip of honey. Then she leaves the hive to forage for more nectar and pollen.

Foraging Near and Far

Honey bees forage for different things: nectar, pollen, propolis, and water. The needs of the hive will determine what the forager bee will go after on any trip out of the hive. Most often, a forager bee will collect nectar and pollen at the same time.

In summer, the bees leave the hive, when they are halfway through their lives. Guards, foraging bees, and scout bees then gather and deliver nectar and pollen for 4-5 days. After that job is done, they die. The distance covered in flight determines a bee’s longevity.

On average, a foraging bee carries out a dozen journeys per day. That frequency that depends upon how easy the gathering is and the proximity of the flowers. A honey bee will forage as far as five miles from the hive. But, she burns most of the nectar gathered as energy to fly back to the hive.

So, the closer the floral source to the beehive, the more honey the bees will be able to make. That is why you often see hives right in the middle of orange groves or other places with flowering plants. Keeping the honey bees as close to the nectar source as possible is important.