Reminder: pollen is not nectar

As the sun climbs higher and shafts of spring gild the budding branches, it is easy to believe your bees survived the winter. Workers parade into the hive with pollen loads, new foragers orbit the hive in orientation flight, and all seems right with the world.

But here is a word of caution. Depending on where you live, nectar may still be scarce. Often, prolific pollen plants such as alder and birch are shedding great clouds of the stuff, but ample nectar sources may still be weeks away.

In addition, your honey stores are at their lowest. Each week that passes sees a further reduction in the remaining supplies, while the amount required on an average day increases. Brood production expands with the approach of spring and foragers are actively searching for nectar that may not exist.

Every spring beekeepers write to say their colonies remained strong throughout winter storms and robust cold, only to die during the first warm days of spring. Chances are good they simply starved—the pantry ran dry just before the nectar appeared.

Like many other beekeepers, I tend to relax and breathe a sigh of relief when the pollen starts to flow. And every year I have to remind myself that pollen is not nectar, and many types of pollen appear weeks ahead of the first nectar.

This post is simply a reminder to check on your charges, especially if you live in the northern areas. Move honey stores closer to your bees if they are still clustering, or give them syrup if you must.

Just think: if you make it past this sensitive period with healthy hives, next month you can start worrying about swarms. Ain’t beekeeping fun?


Plenty of pollen. Public domain photo

Tracking Hive Tracks

Most of my Hive Tracks-related mail comes from Hive Tracks, but this comment from Kiwiland stirred up my old impatience with digital bee-ware.

Hivetracks is a simple and brilliant piece of software. I am from New Zealand and we have just starting to use it as my Son is a beekeeper. I will be putting many Kiwi Beekeepers on to this extremely innovative beekeeping software. As an accountant I know how important the management function of a business is, especially the ability to manage risk. If you loose you little notebook you would be hugely disadvantaged and you cannot back up a notebook. Also Beekeepers notes can be hard to read and for others to follow. The other huge risk if a beekeeper was incapacitated or seriously injured and its the families sole income… well need I say more. With Hivetracks its all there and because it is so easily to follow for . The family or another beekeeper will have constant access to all the important information so the business can go on. I highly highly recommend Hivetrack as an important part of any beekeepers risk management system. Awesome product Hivetracks! Keep up the good work. —Gavin

It seems that Hive Tracks has been significantly improved since I first wrote about it three years ago in February 2011. I looked at it again about two years ago, but I admit that was the last time. The folks at Hive Tracks don’t like what I wrote, but it was an honest opinion at the time, and honest opinions are what I do here.

If someone is interested in hive management software, then by all means he or she should try it. The basic program is still free, and I know that many of the recommendations that beekeepers offered early on have been incorporated. I have nothing against the people or the program—the software is actually kind of cool—but it’s not for me.

The thing to remember is that many beekeepers—myself included—keep bees as a way to connect with nature. Bees offer a distraction from the modern digital world and they help to ground us in reality. Personally, I spend most hours of most days working with bits and bytes, so my apiary is a welcome respite from data strings.

You say Hive Tracks is a “simple and brilliant piece of software.” I have no doubt. If you or your son want to keep bees at a keyboard, then by all means go for it. I adore a great piece of software, and I cannot fault people who enjoy and benefit from innovative programming. I’m just saying that people keep bees for a variety of reasons, they have different goals, and they approach management in creative ways. A beekeeper who does not use software in the apiary is not negligent, and he shouldn’t be made to feel that way.

You say you understand “how important the management function of a business is.” I daresay that most beekeepers are not running a business but keep bees for the pure wonder of it. If I were trying to make money off my bees, I might act differently, but I’m not now—nor will I ever—try to keep bees for profit. That is a completely different type of insanity.

Your other arguments are spurious:

  • You say, “If you lose your little notebook you would be hugely disadvantaged and you cannot back up a notebook.” And if your computer or phone is lost or stolen you can be hugely disadvantaged as well, even with your info saved online. I’m feeling hugely disadvantaged right now because my password won’t let me in. Maybe they’ve had enough of me? In any case, having been a writer for most of my life, I can tell you I have backed up many notebooks on a photocopier.
  • You state that “beekeepers’ notes can be hard to read and for others to follow.” Notes written by physicians are illegible too, but a good many of them still write prescriptions by hand. Somehow we all muddle through.
  • “The other huge risk is if a beekeeper was incapacitated or seriously injured and it’s the family’s sole income.” That is an irrelevant reach. If a family’s sole breadwinner is a carpenter, or an electrician, or a lawyer, or a tailor, or a nurse, how often can another family member just read his or her notes and take over? Get real.
  • “The family or another beekeeper will have constant access to all the important information so the business can go on.” And a paper copy could do the same. But remember, beekeepers are part scientist, part artisan, part whisperer. The successful ones keep bees by feel, not by reading recipes. So if another beekeeper took over the family business, he would start by opening the hives and having a look, regardless of the notes.

I am very happy you enjoy Hive Tracks and I hope others will read your recommendation and try it. In fact, I wish all beekeepers would try it, just so we could move on.


Hives with real quilts

Call me crazy; you won’t be the first. When I got word that the temperature was going down in the teens for five days in a row, I decided to give my bees a little boost. I suppose normal bees in North Dakota or Ontario would be fine in such temperatures, but I have wimpy bees. It hasn’t been this cold for this long in my memory (or theirs). All my bees think winter should be 40° F and raining, not 15° and dry.

My husband suggested that if I covered the hives with blankets that I might be able to conserve a degree or two. So I raided my supply of junk quilts and blankets that I use for such purposes, and I even stole the blankets from the cats and the dog. They, after all, have the luxury of a wood stove.

Then I collected bungee cords from the truck, garage, and garden shed. I loaded up with sugar patties and was ready to go. I lifted the moisture quilts about a half inch in 20° weather, slid in a sugar cake, and then draped each hive with a blanket and secured it with a bungee. I’ve gotta tell you, it looks ridiculous. And all those ratty blankets are embarrassing. Oh well.

That was Monday, this is Saturday. So far, I can hear the bees humming away. One hive is active enough to be removing dead bees and leaving them on the landing board. That’s the hive with the gabled roof, which is a really nice feature in cold weather.

Right now it’s warming—we’re all the way up into the 30s. I need to get the blankets off before it starts raining, but I first I wanted to share with you the latest in beehive fashion.


Every junk quilt and blanket I could find.

The snow wars continue

Wouldn’t you know it? Now we have the Canadians battling for first place in the snow wars. So far, I don’t think there’s much question. Phillip Cairns, intrepid beekeeper and author of, had to do some serious digging to find this hive right in his own backyard. The second photo shows the hive “after the melt.” I’d hardly call that a melt, but whatever. The bees did fine.

Deep down under there: Lo! A hive! Hive and photo © Phillip Cairns.
Two days later after a Newfoundland “melt.” © Phillip Cairns.