AFB-fortified pollen

­­­Oops. Unfortunately, bee-collected pollen can transmit the spores of American foulbrood just like honey. It works like this:

A colony of bees has become infected with the bacterium that causes AFB. The disease only affects young larvae less than 48 hours old, but adult bees can inadvertently carry the spores throughout the hive.

When a diseased larva dies in its cell, it can release as many as 2.5 billion spores. A nurse bee attends to the mess, cleaning up the dead larva and polishing the cell. But as she works, many of those spores stick to her body and she swallows even more.

In the cramped confines of the hive, she rubs against other bees including a forager who is unloading her pollen into an empty cell. Millions of spores are transferred to the hairs on the forager’s body. Once her pollen is unloaded, she heads back out into the field and begins to collect more.

As the forager sweeps the pollen off her body and into her pollen baskets, spores of AFB are whisked along with it. The spores adhere to the sticky pollen and become embedded in the pellet. These are not wimpy spores—they can survive in bee equipment for forty years or more.

When her pollen baskets are fully loaded, the forager returns to the hive where Beekeeper A has installed a pollen trap. She squeezes though the trap and loses one of her pellets. It drops into the collection drawer below. Damn.

Undaunted, the forager unloads the remaining pellet, gets some food from one of the nurses, rubs against a few others, and is out the door again.

Towards evening, Beekeeper A unloads the pollen trap, dumps the pollen in a plastic bag, and sticks it in the freezer. But freezing is no match for those AFB spores; they are still completely viable when Beekeeper A sells his pellets to the health food store where they are repackaged and dropped in another freezer.

Next month, along comes Beekeeper B. Beekeeper B wants the very best for his bees, so he buys pure, natural, bee-collected pollen to supplement his colony. Ouch. Spendy. But he buys it anyway. He takes it home, crushes the pellets with a mortar and pestle, and feeds them to his bees.

The bees love the stuff, frolic in it, and carry back to their hive along with a few million spores of AFB. By spring the colony is dead, smelling rotten, and the hive needs to be burned. Beekeeper B can’t figure out what he did wrong. . . .

BallOfPollenPelottesmacroFLamiot
Bee-collected pollen. Photo by Lamiot.
Fortunately, bee-collected pollen can be irradiated to neutralize the AFB spores. Once irradiated, it may be fed directly to bees or mixed into pollen substitutes.

In addition to AFB, pollen may also carry chalkbrood spores. To be on the safe side, never feed pollen to your bees unless you know the source of the pollen is disease free. The best way to do that, of course, is to trap pollen from your own disease-free hives.

Commercial pollen packaged to feed bees is usually irradiated, but pollen from health food stores and similar establishments probably is not, so be a careful consumer, read the label, and ask questions. In most cases, your bees didn’t need the extra pollen anyway, so it is a sad mistake to make.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

A shortage of pollen

Bee Brief bee

Many bees, including honey bees, collect multiple kinds of pollen and can adapt when a particular type becomes scarce. However, many native bees are completely dependent on a single plant species and cannot survive without it.

In addition, native bees feed their larvae in a different way. In most bee species, pollen is collected, moistened with nectar, and formed into a ball inside the nest. The female bee lays an egg atop the ball so that when the egg hatches, the larva can eat the sweetened pollen—the equivalent of bee bread—and the royal jelly step is skipped altogether.

A shortage of pollen is a relatively new concern for beekeepers. Once upon a time, pollen was taken for granted. But today, a bountiful and diverse supply of pollen is sometimes lacking. Habitat loss, invasive plants, monoculture farming, and herbicides are just some of the reasons.

A pollen grain is simply a small package containing the male genetic material of a plant, so a frame of bee-collected pollen is like a gigantic sperm bank, except the sperm is lost to the plants forever. Instead, it becomes food for bee larvae . . . kind of an odd menu item, when you think about it.

Help wanted: move pollen

Since plants can’t walk, jump, swim, fly, or bar-hop, they need a way of moving their pollen around. The most significant mover of pollen is the wind. The grasses—the family of plants that includes wheat, rice, maize, millet, sorghum, barley, oats, and rye—are wind pollinated, as well as most conifers and ferns.

But plants with showy flowers are often pollinated by animals. At least they once were, before mankind began tinkering with them. Today, some of the showiest blooms have little or no usable pollen—another reason for the shortage of bee food.

How to nurse a larva

Not all pollen is created equal, not even close. Just as human food varies in nutritional content, so does pollen. Some are higher in protein or amino acids, some have more lipids, some have a greater variety of vitamins or micronutrients. Go to a farmer’s market at the height of the season and admire the produce—all the colors, textures, shapes, and sizes. Just as you can identify a plant based on its fruit, you can also identify a plant based on a single grain of pollen. Each is unique.

As beekeepers, we know that pollen is necessary for brood rearing. But the youngest honey bee larvae do not eat pollen directly. Instead, the nurse bees eat the pollen in the form of bee bread. Such a protein-rich diet stimulates their hypopharyngeal glands to secrete royal jelly, which is then fed to the young larvae. After about three days, the worker and drone larvae are switched to a diet of pollen and diluted honey.

As older adults, honey bee foragers eat energy-rich honey almost exclusively. Because foragers don’t eat bee bread or pollen directly, when they need protein, they beg the nurse bees for it. That’s right, nurse bees feed both larvae and foragers.

Don’t ask me, I just work here

So the foragers that collect pollen don’t eat it, they just pack it home. Sometimes foragers will bring home other stuff—sawdust or coffee grounds, for example—that have a powdery consistency and the right particle size. This has led some researchers to believe that honey bees cannot determine the food value of pollen.

However, other research has shown that although foragers may collect inferior pollen or non-pollen, the nurses—the ones that actually have to eat the stuff—are much more selective. Think of mom coming home from the market with parsnips and rutabagas. The kids sneer: “Really? Where’s the food?” In the hive, the nurses may discard some of the treasures their sisters brought home from the field, including pollen with questionable food value and sometimes that pricey pollen substitute.

The need varies with brood rearing

When you understand how pollen is used in the hive, you can see why a colony doesn’t need a large supply during winter. In late autumn through mid-winter, when there is little brood production, a colony can get by with very little. However, heaps of good quality pollen are needed throughout the major brood-rearing periods, especially in late winter and early spring.

In highly built-up areas, or in places with lots of agriculture and herbicide use, pollen may be especially scarce in early spring and again in late summer or early autumn. Pollen substitute is often used at these times.

It’s a shame we spray roadside weeds with herbicides and then feed our bees soybean meal. In fact, we humans do so much stupid stuff, you have to wonder how we survive. I know, I know. You say that if we don’t spray for invasive weeds, they will overrun the landscape. I say, if we hadn’t sprayed the native weeds in the first place, the invasives wouldn’t have had an opportunity to start. Oh well, too late now.

Natural pollen is the best

If you are not a commercial beekeeper, if you are a hobbyist with just a few hives, you should seriously consider trapping pollen from your hives and feeding it back in times of pollen dearth. Natural pollen is superior to substitutes and trapping is fairly easy to do.

Some beekeepers don’t like to trap pollen because they fear that extra pollen foraging will cut into their honey production. Maybe yes, maybe no. But you have to ask yourself: Do you want healthy bees or do you want that extra jar of honey? Considering how difficult it is to keep bees healthy, and considering the price of replacement, a trap may be the answer.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Honey bee with pollen. Pixabay photo.
Honey bee with pollen. Pixabay photo.

Should I feed pollen substitute to my bees?

This post relies heavily on personal opinion, so take it or leave it. I’ve heard much talk of pollen subs lately, so I decided to add my two cents.

My thinking on pollen substitutes has evolved over the years, and I’ve become less and less enamored with the idea. That said, commercial and migratory beekeepers work in different environments than hobbyists. Their colonies must be prepared to meet the demands of a specific crop at a specific time, so often their use of pollen substitute is required.

Even so, I don’t think heavy use of pollen substitutes produces the healthiest bees. Study after study has shown that a diet of assorted natural pollen is the very best bee food, capable of stimulating good immune response and long lives. The producers of substitutes have gone to great effort to replicate the amino acid profiles bees need, but for some reason, substitutes are less than perfect.

Hobby beekeepers who live in areas with ample pollen should not need pollen substitute. Of course, there are always exceptions. If you’ve built up strong colonies in spring, for example, then enter an unflyable cold snap, a little substitute may be just the ticket. And that is exactly how I think pollen substitute should be used—as an emergency ration—not as a regular feed.

Too many beekeepers feed pollen substitutes because they’ve been told to. Read a well-written advertisement for pollen sub and suddenly you believe your bees will die without it—the great power of marketing. Instead, you should look at your own apiary and then decide whether a substitute is necessary.

How do you do that? Well, first you need to understand the biology of your bees, their yearly cycles, and the availability of pollen-producing plants in your area. This is what beekeeping is all about—knowing your bees, their needs, and their environment.

Here on the Pacific Northwest coast, I would never give pollen substitute before the winter solstice. There are two reasons for this. First, we have plenty of fall pollen which the bees collect as long as the temperature is warm enough to fly. Second, pollen is required to rear brood, but brood-rearing is at its lowest point in November and December, so not much pollen is required. The small amount they need was stored during the fall flow.

The next part is trickier. Do I feed them pollen after the winter solstice? The brood nest begins to expand after the solstice, but slowly at first. They probably have enough pollen stored to get them well into January. In late January—and certainly by February—there is lots of pollen available outside but rain is a problem, so a decision has to be made based on the weather.

An interesting thing about pollen substitute is that is doesn’t do much to stimulate brood production unless it is accompanied by nectar or syrup. It seems that the presence of nectar or thin syrup stimulates brood production, and pollen (or substitute) allows brood rearing to proceed.

But sometimes a ready supply of honey in the presence of pollen substitute will stimulate brood production. If this happens too early, your bees may eat through their food reserves and starve in early spring. The lesson here is that you need to keep a careful watch on stores if you stimulate brood rearing ahead of schedule. Remember, the closer you get to spring, the faster the food stores are consumed. Just when they have the least, they need the most.

Another issue with pollen substitute is dysentery. Honey bee dysentery occurs when there are too many solids in the diet. The indigestible portions accumulate in the bee gut. If the bees cannot get out for cleansing flights, they will eventually defecate in the hive and spread disease.

Normally, this is not a problem in wintering hives because the bees don’t eat much pollen. But if you start feeding them pollen substitute when they can’t fly, you greatly increase the chances of dysentery. For this reason, I would avoid feeding pollen substitute until I see them flying, at least occasionally.

Especially troubling to me is a colony that has nothing to eat but sugar mixed with pollen substitute. Hungry bees will eat the substitute in order to get the sugar, but they may have no need for the substitute. This is especially true of older bees that are no longer nurses. They don’t need an infusion of protein in their diets, and research suggests it isn’t good for them. Consequently, if you must feed your bees, some of the food should be free of pollen substitute. Don’t force feed your bees something they don’t need.

Personally, I do not feed pollen substitute. I did one year, mostly so I could learn and write about it. My bees did build up earlier, but then I had to feed them. In truth, those colonies did fine, but ultimately no better or worse than any other year. Based on my own observations and comments from others, I think the bees often discard most of the pollen substitute just like any other hive litter. When beekeepers say their bees “take” it, I often wonder if they didn’t take it and dump it—a fitting end to such a meal.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Worried about my bees

Yesterday afternoon I was outside in a short-sleeve tee admiring the sky, a clear ethereal blue above a jagged frame of alder, maple, and fir. As I gazed beyond the pasture, a meteor slashed the blue just above the tree line, ripped an arc through the sky, and vanished in a heartbeat. Is it even possible, I wondered, to see a meteor at 3:15 in the afternoon or was I crazy?

I went online to find an answer, only to learn we were entering the Orionid meteor shower at that very moment. How cool is that? Oh, and I found the answer, “Yes, it is possible to see a meteor in the daytime, but good luck setting up your lawn chair and looking for one.” Serendipity, I guess.

But the reason I was outside is more problematic. It is impossibly warm for October. The alders are still wearing their summer clothes, the aronia leaves refuse to turn, and my bean plants have flowers. The air smells of humus and earthworms, and my bees seem to think it’s August.

My colonies are actively bringing in pollen in shades of white and Day-Glo orange. Sure, pollen is good, and so are all those empty intestines. But nary a bee is bringing in nectar. I see none of those distended, nearly translucent, abdomens that signal a full honey crop. No, these bees are not storing nectar for the winter, they are using it up.

When foraging bees look for nectar and don’t find it, they expend a huge amount of energy. They fly from place to place and often come home with an empty crop. They refuel from the colony’s winter supply, and try again the next day. Each day that flying weather persists, the stores are diminished.

Even more worrisome is the fact that here in western Washington—at least in my area—the honey season was not great. The biggest flow, blackberries, was cut short by a hot and dry summer, and the fall flow didn’t amount to much. I fear many northwest bees will go hungry this winter unless their keepers are alert.

I hate to feed sugar. I believe honey bees should eat honey, and to that end I keep a large reserve for emergency feeding. But there is no way I have enough to feed all my colonies for most of the winter.

Each balmy afternoon, I get a little more worried. I purchased 200 pounds of granulated sugar as an hors d’oeuvre. Tomorrow I will buy more, stack the bags to the ceiling, shoo away the ants. Meanwhile, my bees are out there cavorting with the meteors, sunning themselves on the porch, partaking of the facilities. Silly bees . . . if only they had cable.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Moisture quilts should be dry

Every now and again someone wants to know what happens when my moisture quilts become saturated. One beekeeper wrote, “I can’t believe you keep a soggy pillow over top your bees.”

The short answer is simple. I don’t.

Here’s the issue: if your moisture quilts are soggy, they are not made correctly. Moisture quilts are designed to regulate moisture, not store it. As I’ve said before, nothing improved my overwintering more dramatically that moisture quilts. My hives remain dry inside, the quilts are never wet, and the bees thrive. Since using them, I’ve routinely overwintered 80% to 100% of my hives.

Remember, moisture quilts are not a new concept. They have been in use for decades by Warré beekeepers with great success, and they are easily adapted to Langstroth hives.

Built correctly, moisture quilts never become saturated. Never. In fact, before I tried them for the first time, I was convinced I would have to replace the chips mid-winter. But I never have. I’ve used the same chips year after year.

Here are some important points:

Water vapor from the hive does not condense on the bottom of the moisture quilt—that’s not how they work. Warm water vapor from the bees’ respiration (water in the gaseous state) rises. Still in the gaseous state, the vapor finds its way through the wood chips, moving between and around the pieces as air does. At some point, the vapor reaches the cold under surface of the hive cover where it condenses. That condensation rains down and is collected on the TOP surface of the wood chips—the side away from your bees.

The wooden frame of the moisture quilt contains a number of ventilation ports which allow the wood chips to dry out and also provides a source of ventilation for your hive. At most, I have seen the top ¼-inch of the wood chips become damp (and I live in an extremely wet climate). I can’t actually see the moisture except for the fact that the wet chips are slightly darker than the dry ones.

But humidity varies from day to day. So while the dampness collects on the wood chips during certain combinations of temperature, humidity, and wind, it disappears during other combinations of temperature, humidity, and wind. Basically, the top layer collects and then releases moisture over the course of the winter—some days it is damp, some days it is bone dry. But you never have a “soggy pillow” in your hive. And since the water that does collect remains on the top surface of the quilt, your bees never touch a damp surface.

Another benefit of the chips above the bees is that they provide good ventilation. Since the air must find channels or pathways between the chips, it travels more slowly than if it had a straight shot from the entrance to the ventilation ports. In other words, you get good ventilation without creating a wind tunnel through your hive.

If you want even more insulation, you can make thicker quilts which will slow down air movement even more. The ventilation ports can be restricted to the top of the wood chip layer since that is where the moisture collects.

I keep a feeder rim beneath my quilts in case I want to feed hard candy or granulated sugar. This is easy to do, and since the feeder rim is below the quilt, enough moisture will collect on the feed to make it palatable for the bees, but the rest of the moisture will go up through the quilt and then be caught by it.

The moisture quilt is such a slick system and works so well that if I were selling them, I’d give a money-back guarantee. I have complete faith in them. That said, they have to be built properly. Simply put: if you’ve got soggy pillows, you’re not following directions.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite