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Plain Talk Beekeeping: The Basics … and then some

Some Thoughts about “Nectar and Pollen Flows”

- May 1, 2023 - James E. Tew - (excerpt)

These seasonal events are complicated simplicity

First and foremost — the “nectar flow”

If you are new to beekeeping, the primary nectar flow is the period, in your area, when major nectar-producing plants do their seasonal flowering thing. It’s why beekeepers constantly make plans for this intensive part of the year. Oh yes, it’s a glorious time to keep bees. Even though plant pollination is critical to our food supply, a jar of beautiful light amber honey has always been the hallmark of beekeeping.

Over a period of a few weeks, these bee-attractive plants bloom in massive unison. In many cases, the nectar flow is fast, furious, and intensive. During other times, the nectar flow is more of a disappointing trickle and is not awe-inspiring. We can’t predict what will come our seasonal way so, with hope springing anew, beekeepers must prepare every spring season.

Like wine, some years are good while other years are not so good. Bees may produce impressive amounts of food stores while — in the same area — in other years, not much is provided by the primary plants and the surplus honey quantity languishes.

Strong bee colonies can miraculously hoard large amounts of future food stores in short order — measured in days, not weeks. Isn’t it ironic that this spring honey will also be part of the colony’s wintering food supply many months from now? These general comments, that I have presented, comprise my loose definition of the primary nectar flow — but there is ever so much more that must be considered.


Humans and honey

Humans want honey and they have wanted it for thousands of years (as evidenced by a 5,500-year-old jar of honey found in Georgia — the country, not the state1). Therefore, beekeepers fawn over the period of the season when a preponderance of plants provide the majority of the honey that bees will produce during the current season. If you don’t garner a surplus during this timeframe, you probably won’t get a honey crop during that particular year.

Frantic foragers

In reality, once the warm season begins, the nectar flow begins and continues — to a greater or lesser extent — throughout the season until killing frosts begin to appear in early autumn. Honey bees want it all and foragers give their best efforts any time they can take foraging flights. I surmise that foraging honey bees do not see a “primary flow” or a “secondary flow.” I would think that foraging bees just see a “collection season.”

During the warm/hot season, every day — from dawn until dark — most foragers search for food anywhere they can find it. If they can’t find enough nectar sources to employ all the colony’s foragers, some dedicated foragers will turn to robbing the food reserves of their weaker honey bee neighbors, but that’s a story for another time. The mantra of the forager seems to be, “any food, anywhere, anytime.”


Secondly, the “pollen flow”

To the bees, the production and collection of pollen, the colony’s only protein source, is as critical as the nectar flow. Without protein, no bees develop, ergo, no honey crop. Yet, beekeepers’ consideration of the pollen flow is always a very distant second place to the nectar flow. Why? The obvious answer is that bees don’t make honey directly from pollen. Most beekeepers want honey — not pollen.

Just a few paragraphs ago, I described how agog beekeepers are about the nectar flow and why it is so important to both bees and beekeepers. Yet not all beekeepers can tell others when the primary “pollen flow” is in their area and what plants provide most of the pollen that bees collect. I confess that my personal attitude toward pollen often seems to be, “Meh, they’ll get it somewhere.”


Healthy bees are not just disease-free bees

I frequently write about my concerns for controlling parasitic mites and bacterial diseases like American foulbrood. Many beekeepers rail against pesticide and herbicide use, but few beekeepers go on and on about pollen sources, pollen availability, and pollen quality. All the while, I give required lip service to pollen sources and pollen hoarding. I give perfunctory article space to the value of pollen and pollination to bees and humans. Yes, yes, colonies need protein, but what we really hope is that bees find great nectar sources this season and that we get a good honey crop. Healthy bees are not just disease-free bees. They are also nutritionally healthy bees.

And it’s not just the developing bees that need copious amounts of pollen. Adult bees need daily doses of protein and carbohydrates, too. Nurse bees need protein to develop brood food. Larvae do not eat much bee bread (fermented pollen) directly. Therefore, young bees need protein to develop their physiological brood food systems. Without adequate protein supplies, bees are simply not as vibrant and healthy. They don’t live as long. They don’t develop flight muscles at a timely rate.

In fact, adult bees do not store much of any food in their bodies. They feed, at a slow rate, nearly constantly. Yet, try as I might, when I think and write about spring management, I think about controlling mites and swarming and getting supers ready … for the nectar flow.


Okay, okay, point made

I’m afraid that I have belabored my protein point. It’s an accepted fact that bees need protein. So, what can beekeepers do to provide dependable protein sources and nutrients for their colonies? Well, I’m truly sorry, but that question does not have a clear answer, but that does not mean there is a shortage of management suggestions.

Academically, there is a lot of complex information explaining the food requirements of the honey bee colony, both adults and immature bees. I particularly enjoyed trying to digest the information in the technical article, “Nutrition and Health in Honey Bees.”2 For those readers having an in-depth interest in honey bee nutrition, I would suggest that reference as a starting point to dig deeper into carbohydrate and protein requirements of the healthy colony.

Unfortunately, much of this information is advanced and is not readily transferred to the colony-managing beekeeper in a practical way. When to feed supplemental food, what kind of supplemental food, and how long to feed these foodstuffs, do not have precise answers.

Protein supplements are most attractive if some pollen is actually included in the formulation, but then recommendations become complicated. If real pollen is used, there is (according to several researchers) the possibility of disease transmission by bee-collected pollen.

Occasionally, some beekeepers have increased problems with small hive beetles (SHB) if pollen supplement cakes are left on the colony long-term. Also, an unused patty will harden and become useless to the bees. Even so, I put on a supplemental pollen patty every spring and I keep them on as long as the bees seem to consume them. Please consider my comment here as conversation and not a formal recommendation.


Supplemental protein foods

Even considering the negative possibilities, a simple answer to the additional protein question would be for the beekeeper to consistently provide protein supplements and possibly some of the microbial products that are now available. Beneficial supplements are available from bee supply companies. If the bees don’t need it, they won’t readily take supplemental feed. Yes, you’ve wasted the product, but until we have firmer recommendations, it’s better to waste than for bees to need it and not have access to supplemental protein.


Carbohydrate foods

Whereas feeding supplemental protein is complex, beekeepers lucked out when it came to feeding supplemental carbohydrate. Simple table sugar is an excellent food source for honey bees. How easy could that be? High fructose corn syrup, which does not require mixing, is also commonly fed to needy colonies, but it may have more complicated side effects. If you are new to beekeeping, I would suggest staying with table sugar as an additive carbohydrate source. Beekeepers have been feeding sugar to bees for a long time. We know …