Pollen samples. Photo: Helena Wirta


A recent international study has shed light on the specific plants that bees prefer when collecting nectar and pollen. The dietary choices of bees hold significant importance for their well-being and, crucially, for humanity, as bees pollinate crops vital to human survival.

Traditionally, bees have been considered generalists regarding their diet, meaning they can utilize a wide variety of plants. However, this new research reveals that bees are more selective than previously believed.

"Bees choose specific plants as their food sources, and these choices vary between bee colonies, even within the same apiary, and at different times during the summer season. For example, at a certain time, each bee colony predominantly collects pollen and nectar from different plants," explained researcher Helena Wirta from the University of Helsinki's Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry.

"Our findings indicate that bees are more selective than assumed, requiring a diverse range of plants to meet their nutritional needs at different times during the summer," Wirta continued.

In the study, honey and pollen samples were collected from beehives. DNA extracted from these samples was then used to identify the plants the DNA originated from. Honey serves as the primary carbohydrate source for bees, while pollen provides the necessary proteins and fats. Bees select specific plants to obtain the nutrients they require. The study showed that bees, based on their DNA samples, collect nectar from raspberries primarily during mid to late summer. In early summer, they collect nectar and pollen from plants such as hogweed and blueberries.

Food Security Depends on Pollinators

The study's findings are especially relevant considering the reported alarming decline in pollinator populations in recent years. Bees are vital pollinators, particularly for cultivated crops, but also for wild plants. Understanding which plants are essential food sources for bees is crucial to ensuring a diverse range of plants is available to bees throughout the summer season.

"Our study focused on managed bees, so our results are particularly relevant to the pollination of cultivated crops, impacting both the quantity and quality of the harvest. Managed bees are, in fact, key pollinators for cultivated crops. To secure future food security and maintain biodiversity in ecosystems, we must learn from these new observations," emphasized Wirta.

This research underscores the necessity of preserving diverse plant populations to support bees and other pollinators, essential for both agricultural production and natural ecosystems. Understanding the intricacies of bee foraging habits can aid in the development of conservation strategies vital for global food security and environmental stability.