The Classroom – September 2023
Q When to requeen
I am led to believe that professionals replace queens seasonally, but nowhere can I find information as to when is the optimal time to do so. I am hoping you can set me straight.
Requeening before a nectar flow: There is no “scientifically best” time to replace a queen. Many commercial beekeepers requeen early in the year, 4-6 weeks before the spring nectar flow. This is my preference as well. I like this strategy for a few reasons. First, having a young queen in the hive can reduce the swarming tendency of the colony. Second, young queens can be egg-laying machines, helping your colonies increase in population in time for the coming nectar flow.
The difficult part about requeening in early spring is that queens often are not readily available this time of year. For example, we get significant incoming nectar in late March where I currently live. This means I would requeen in mid-February (six weeks before the major spring nectar flow), a time of year when queens are very difficult to produce, let alone purchase. Furthermore, queen availability is generally low in early spring. Queen producers begin taking orders for their spring queens the summer or fall of the previous year. Queen orders for early spring (late February through mid-April) 2024 are being taken now! Commercial beekeepers place the bulk of these orders, being on the books for most queens that are available in early spring. Thus, placing orders in early spring, when you might otherwise want to requeen your colonies, puts you much later in line, with the likelihood of you getting queens before the spring nectar flow being low.
Requeening during a nectar flow: There is no real benefit to requeening during the nectar flow unless your colony is queenless or is having queen problems. You do not want to stop brood production/colony growth during the nectar flow. Most beekeepers will not requeen during this time unless there is a problem that must be addressed through requeening.
Requeening immediately after a nectar flow: Some beekeepers take this approach given queens tend to be more available after the spring flow is over. The overall demand is lower. Also, this can be a good time of year to make colony splits. Your colonies are very strong, having come off a nectar flow, and usually have very little to do, unless you expect a major summer nectar flow.
Requeening late summer: This is a very popular time to requeen colonies. The demand for queens is low, making them generally available. You can often receive discounted prices for queens this time of year as well. Having new queens in colonies in late summer can lead to the production of large populations of winter bees that will carry the colonies through the winter months. The queens will still be somewhat young coming out of winter, thus hopefully promoting rapid colony growth in spring.
Requeening when there are problems: Most hobby beekeepers simply requeen when the colony otherwise has a problem. Perhaps the queen is dead/missing. Maybe she is laying too many drones, is injured, or the colony just swarmed. From a commercial beekeeper perspective, requeening in early spring tends to be the most popular strategy, followed by requeening in late summer. From a hobbyist beekeeper perspective, requeening happens most often on an “I need a queen now” basis.
Q Shelf life of pollen
I do not harvest a lot of pollen, just a little for those who request it from me. I had one of my customers ask me how long pollen was good? I had to say that I do not know. I think if it stays frozen it should be good for a while. They said: “Like what, maybe a year?” I had to say that I am not sure. I will try finding out. Do you know the best storage method and expected shelf life of pollen?
This is a really difficult question to answer. It depends heavily on how the customer defines “good.” I realize that consuming pollen is increasing in popularity. I have also heard many, mostly unsubstantiated, medical claims about consuming pollen. Consequently, the storage procedure would depend on what the consumer is hoping to try to preserve by storing it. In other words: What is the “good” that they are hoping will remain while the pollen is in storage?
I conducted a literature search to try to get you an answer. Unfortunately, no single clear recommendation is available. I found one manuscript (http://www.zemdirbyste-agriculture.lt/1061_str12/) in which the authors tested the impact of freezing pollen at -20°C (-4°F) and drying it in an oven at 42 C (108 F) until reaching a moisture of 6-8%. The authors concluded that freezing pollen was a better storage strategy than was drying it. They based this on data that freezing stabilized the constituents in pollen better than did drying it. Incidentally, they stored the pollen for six months before conducting the analyses in their study. That does not seem like a very long time to me.
In a second study (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691512006928), the authors compared the stability of B complex vitamins in bee pollen stored at room temperature, with and without exposure to light, and freezing (-18 C; -0.4 F) for periods of 0, 4, 8, and 12 months. The pollen stored at room temperature had been dried for 6 hours at 45 C (113 F) prior to storage. The take-home message from this study is that the availability of the B vitamins varied by B vitamin type (B1, B2, etc.) over the 12 months. For some of the vitamins, the length of time of storage did not matter. For others, it did. Ultimately, there was no “one size fits all” recommendation for pollen storage resulting from this study. The authors still favored freezing over dehydrating if the pollen was intended for human consumption. They also concluded that light/dark conditions did not impact pollen quality differently.
Authors of another study (https://www.scielo.br/j/qn/a/xyrzZ7ygz6ByKPKSzLsdSWd/?lang=en) found that storage of pollen in a freezer, rather than at room temperature, was the best method for preserving vitamins C and E and β-carotene in pollen, though the result was best for vitamin E. In the introduction of this paper, the authors cite another paper (which I could not access) in which they state that pollen is “unfit for consumption” after being stored 8 months at room temperature and 12 months at -12 C (10.4 F).
To be 100% honest about this, though, I really felt like I was going down a rabbit hole while I was looking for answers. The storage method and time of storage seemed to vary based on what you were trying to preserve (certain vitamins, lipids, etc.) and the study parameters being used. I think the literature consensus is that pollen remains consumable for up to one year when stored in a freezer. I could not find any manuscripts in which the authors present data for tests lasting longer than one year. Moving away from the research literature to website (beekeeper/company) answers about storing pollen: Folks generally state that freezing pollen is the way to go, and I read it can be stored “up to three years” in many cases. I do not know what data they use to make that claim.
Q Replacing old combs
If one were to pull the middle two frames in each super each spring and place frames with new foundation on either side of the super, you would replace drawn comb every five years. Depending on location, you could pull the two end frames and place new frames of foundation in the center of the box. All of this is assuming one is running ten-frame hives.
Thanks for this recommendation. There are many strategies one can use to replace the old combs in their hive bodies/supers (I will use “box” to make this easier to discuss). Your recommendation would work as well. The only catch is that you need to be careful about how you move frames within the box. As you know, beekeepers move most frames within a box (even between boxes) throughout the year. I certainly do. Thus, frames you place in the middle of the box might be elsewhere in the box or hive before the year concludes. Because of this, it can be difficult to track the frames as they move around a box, or between boxes. If you elect to go this route, I suggest marking the frames with the year or some other marking method so you can know when you placed them in the hive. That way, you know exactly how old each comb is, even if the combs get shuffled in the box or between boxes.
Now, I still struggle with the idea of partial frame replacement. Let me start from the top to make sure we are all on the same page. We all are aware that old combs can be reservoirs for honey bee pathogens, pesticides, etc. Presumably the older a comb is, the more likely it will contain something that is a stressor. There has been growing concern among beekeepers and scientists over the last 20 years about the impact that old combs might have on the health of our colonies. Comb replacement recommendations have been born out of these concerns.
You suggest replacing 20% of the combs in each box every year. If you do this carefully, no comb would be older than five years. However, I am not sure this is a sufficient strategy to achieve the desired goal. The goal is to remove the pollutant (maybe a pesticide residue) or pathogen from the nest. Removing only 20% of the combs still leaves 80% of the combs in the nest. These combs harbor pathogens/pesticide residues/etc. I suspect the problems associated with these combs are quick to move to the new combs you placed in the hive. This causes me to wonder if it really accomplishes the desired goal.
My feeling is that if you are going to replace combs at all, then you should replace them all at one time every five years. This way, you do not quickly infect frames of foundation that you move into the hive. I think this topic needs to be investigated more than it has, but the idea of comb replacement is certainly gaining steam and becoming a mainstream practice. I feel, though, that we still do not know how best to optimize this process.
Q Discarding old pollen
My bees were hard at pollen collection starting in January in middle Tennessee, where it was early mild weather. About two months ago, I had a hive that was littered below with discarded pollen. This ebbed a bit as new pollen continued to come in, but now in June, they seem to be …