By , on February 14th, 2012

Bee feeding — trophallaxis

Zachary Huang
Michigan State University

Well, it is Valentines day (almost gone though) so I will post some photos of bee-kissing.

The technical term is actually trophallaxis — the exchange of food.

Honey bees do this pretty often, but most of the time you see one bee feeding another, occasionally you see 1 feeding 2 or 3.

I was lucky one time when I was in South Africa and saw this bee feeding another 4 and I snapped this photo, using a Nikon Coolpix 990 (point and shoot, 3.2 megapix). This was later published on the cover of PNAS.

1. one bee feeding 4 others, Apis mellifera scutellata.

I later tried to break this record (and also wanted to have a high resolution one using my D700)

However this record was broken when one day I was working with bees in Canberra Australia. For some strange reason, that colony of bees, that particular day, were extremely prone to trophallaxis. Unfortunately I brought only my D70 (6 megapix), not my D700 (12 megapix) that day, but I did have my 60 mm macro with me though! Or I would be still regretting now.

2. This is what you normally see, bees doing their own beesiness.

3. 1 bee feeding another, this is quite easy to find in a 20,000 worker colony. On each side of a frame you can find 2-3 thousand workers and if you try hard enough you will find one pair. It does not have to be Valentine’s day!

4. Another pair, side view.

5. This bee must be quite attractive to others and she is now providing food (jelly? nectar? water?) to 2 others.


6. I think it is still the same bee, now she is feeding 3.

7. Another foursome.

8. Now matching my African record, one feeding four.

9. I think the same bee as in #6/7, feeding four.

10. Yet a third group with 1 feeding 4.

11. Finally the record is broken! 1 feeding 5. This might be the maximum one bee can get? notice one bee was on top of others because there was not enough room. MAYBE they can do 1 against 6. now try to figure out who is the donor…

These Aussie bees must be highly amorous…one bee “kissing” 5 others simultaneously!
All the above photos were taken during the same session (1-2 frames from the same colony) in about 8 minutes.

Moral of the story: always bring your camera when opening a hive — you never know what good things might happen to you!

Happy Valentines Night!

2 comments to Bee feeding — trophallaxis

  • hello! I am absolutely fascinated by the photos of the bees feeding each other.
    I am currently putting together an observation hive for an exhibit in our facility. We are a live butterfly and insect exhibit, and museum. I know that the hive is going to be one of the best additions I’ve made. I’ll be visiting this site often, and appreciate the photos and news posted here.
    Lisa Janisse
    Original Butterfly House & Insect World
    Mackinac Island, Michigan

  • Stephen Tilmann

    Thanks for the comments. An observation hive can be a fascinating thing to behold. But it has its challenges. If you need help, be sure to post a question and maybe someone will be able to assist!
    Steve Tilmnn, Treasurer
    Michigan Beekeepers’ Association

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