Fact: bees drink so they can vomit.

When they forage in the wild, they drink nectar from flowers.

Then they fly back to their beehive and regurgitate it into empty honeycomb cells for others to use.

This sounds like a simple process, but like everything else bee-related, there is more to this than meets the eye.

Recent research indicates it is better if the nectar is not all too sweet, and the nature and thickness of the nectar is important. The higher the sugar content the thicker and sticker the nectar is. It is also sweeter and therefore, to most bees, a more delicious drink while also providing a higher burst of energy.

This is a sweet 2:02-minute video of how bees turn nectar into honey:

Scientists at the University of Cambridge in the UK have now discovered that the bee’s energy is depleted when she has to struggle harder to vomit up the thicker nectar. It takes longer and requires more effort on the part of the bee.

Along with his colleagues, Jonathan Pattrick, the first author of a paper on this subject in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, weighed and observed the habits of the Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). This bumblebee is commonly found throughout Europe and the UK.  

In the university’s Bee Lab, the bees foraged on three different concentrations of sugar solutions before returning to a nest where researchers studied how long it took them to regurgitate.

At any sugar concentration intensity, bees vomit up the nectar quicker than they drink it down, but as the stickiness and concentration of the solution increases, the rate of vomiting decreases more rapidly than the rate of drinking.  

We can learn a lot about these pollinators from this knowledge, and it can help us to help them.

Pattrick indicates that the nectar’s sugar concentration influences the bees’ foraging decisions since it affects the speed of their foraging trips. When weaker low-density nectar was involved, it only took the bees a few seconds to vomit and then they were off and away, heading to the flowers again for more. Whereas for thick nectar it took them much longer to vomit and at times they strained for about a minute.

The researchers observed that the perfect nectar sugar concentration for the highest energy intake depends on which species is drinking it, since different species feed in different ways. This may explain why some species stick with one type of flowering plant all season long, while another species prefers a different plant.

Pattrick states that there is a certain sugar concentration where the energy gain to a bee versus the energy loss is optimized for nectar feeders. It’s hard enough to drink a thick, sticky liquid, but just imagine how hard it would be to try to spit it out again through a straw.

Much like humans when they get sick, honeybees and bumblebees feed by dipping their tongues into the nectar constantly, then vomit by forcing the nectar back up through a tube.  

Other species, like the Orchid Bee, have even more trouble with highly concentrated thick and sticky nectar, because they suck the nectar up instead of lapping it.

The feeding and vomiting habits of bees can influence how different species decide to visit various plants and how this influences nectar preferences.

Hopefully this also shows how to understand the tastes of various species and how this can help inform you as a beekeeper or a backyard bee enthusiast, so you can attract particular bee species to your garden.

According to the researchers, this information can assist breeding efforts to make crops more attractive to our beloved bees, earth's master pollinators.