How Do Bees Collect Pollen?

Bumblebee feeding on sempervivum, showing loaded pollen baskets.

The method by which bees collect pollen depends on the species.  Some bees collect pollen on their hairy bodies, then carry it back to their nests on their hind legs, whilst others carry pollen on the hairs on their abdomen. 

The fact that pollen is picked up by bees on their furry coats, means that the pollen can then be transferred between plants, thus aiding the pollination process.


However, below is a little more detail about how bees collect pollen, then transfer it to their nests.

How do bees carry pollen and transfer pollen to the nest?

Bees and pollen collection on the hind legs

Some bees transport pollen on their hind legs. First, the pollen collects on the furry bodies of the bees: as bees fly through the air, their bodies become negatively charged with static electricity, such that when the bee lands on a flower, thus knocking the pollen from the delicate anthers, some of the pollen particles stick to the static-charged hair covering the bee's body.

The bee thus becomes covered in pollen, and then uses its legs to wipe the pollen from its body down to stiff hairs on the abdomen or back legs.  These tufts of stiff hair are called scopa, but on the back legs, they are sometimes referred to as pollen baskets or   'corbiculae' (‘corbicula’ if singular).  Once the bee returns to its hive or nest, it deposits the pollen into an appropriate cell.

Hairy footed flower bee on pulmonaria - showing pollen on hind legs

Note that bumblebee workers and queens collect pollen and transfer it to the nests, however, males and cuckoo bumblebee species do not collect pollen, and have no pollen baskets. 

Honey bee workers collect pollen, but queens only leave the colony to mate or establish a new colony (in which case, part of the colony will create a swarm).

Honey bee with full pollen baskets


 

Pollen collection on the abdomen and in the crop

Megachilids, such as this leaf cutter bee, collects pollen on a pollen brush beneath the abdomen.

Hylaeus collect pollen in their crops, whilst Andrena and Colletes species additionally use the sides of the propodeum to collect pollen, which is located at the rear section of the thorax at the base of the abdomen.

 

What attracts bees to pollen in certain flowers?  Will bees collect pollen from any flower?

Some bees will collect pollen and nectar from a range of plants, whilst others are specialists, and are thus are attracted to, and rely on a narrower range of plants for food. 

Pollen collecting preferences will certainly depend on how the bee has adapted to visit and behave with flower types, such as its method of collecting pollen (- which could include, for example, buzz pollination of tomatoes), the length of the tongue, size of the bee etc. 

Bees can be described as:

Polylectic:
This means pollen may be collected from a wide variety of flowers from different plant types, and from a range of flower colours.  Honey bees are a well-known species that is polylectic, and have even been known to collect pollen from typically wind-pollinated plants, such as corn and pine trees.

Oligolectic:
This is when pollen is collected from a narrower flower range, perhaps within a single or within very restricted plant types and families.  For example, Chelostoma campanularum (small scissor bee) will only forage from bell flowers and close relatives of the Harebell and Bellflower. (Source: Steven Falk)
 

Monolectic:
Where pollen is collected from a single plant species – although a species considered monolectic in one country may be oligolectic in another, depending on availability of appropriate forage plants!

Learn more by reading why bees need nectar and pollen and where bees store pollen here.

How much pollen do bees collect?

Bees differ between species, in the amount of pollen they are able to collect and carry in one foraging trip (which may require visits to multiple flowers), and also the amount of pollen needed to provision a nest cell varies between species.

For example, the bee Anthemurgus passiflorae must typically take 35 foraging trips to gather enough pollen for one egg, whilst Colletes cunicularis needs just 7 trips.  Also, some very small bees can carry more than their weight in pollen! (Source: Wilson & Messinger Carril).

Read more: What do bees eat?








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Why do bees need nectar and pollen and where do they store it?


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