spring management

Spring pollen on a happy bee day

Yesterday my honey bees had a happy bee day. After weeks of below average temperatures and above average snowfall, the sun cut through the mist and warmed the hives. Bees I hardly recognized gathered at the entrances, soaking in the sunshine.

For a couple of afternoon hours, every single one of my hives was cloaked in a cloud of winter-weary bodies, darting and circling. The bees at the top of the hill, the ones with a Mt. Rainier view, were ecstatic. The mountain looked like a bowl of ice cream on an azure table top, and I could smell the cold wafting across the valley. Down at the house, on the sun-drenched side, the bees warmed themselves on the cedar siding while they pooped on the paint.

Winter is not over

If you, too, had a sudden warm spell, don’t forget that winter is not over. Spring is one of those times when it’s is easy to lose colonies to starvation. Remember that sun does not mean food, and pollen does not mean nectar.

Three days ago, on the first of the month, I made nice fat pollen patties and delivered them to all my colonies, checking the sugar boards at the same time, just in case. Two were beginning to get low, so I made some more sugar cakes and, during yesterday’s afternoon sun, delivered them to the hives.

Even I get shocked sometimes, and I was dumbstruck to see that those two colonies had wiped out their pollen patties. Gone. Not a trace. And only two days later. To say bees need pollen in the spring is an understatement. They crave it like addicts.

Early spring pollen is not great

On close inspection, I could see pollen-filled corbiculae on some of the bees. Based on the creamy-yellow color and the thousands of catkins hanging everywhere, I suspect they were collecting red alder pollen. Although alder pollen is fine for bees, it has an incomplete amino acid profile, so it needs to be supplemented with something else.

This is true of many of the early pollens, especially those from plants that are naturally wind-pollinated. Those plants, which don’t have any particular need to attract bees, often have pollen with less-than-perfect protein, at least from the bees’ point of view. So don’t be lulled into thinking that your bees’ protein needs are met just because their pollen baskets are full. Keep those pollen patties coming, at least until a variety of pollen types are flowing into the hives.

Watch the weather

Remember, too, that if the weather is too cold or rainy, the bees can’t collect from early-blooming flowers. It is easy to breathe easy after the first few days of sun, but those days can be deceiving. Many colonies have perished after an early spring nectar flow that was followed by a cold snap. Here, on the Pacific Northwest coast, it’s often another bout of rain that keeps the bees inside for days on end.

If you think about what is going on inside your hive, if you think about the nursery full of brood, and the advancing age of the work force, you will remember that a plentiful supply of both nectar and pollen is necessary to get you from now until spring. For me, the six weeks from mid-March until the end of April is the most nerve-wracking part of the beekeeping year.

Note: Here’s a very cool video of spring bees frolicking in a pollen feeder. The clip was taken by Debbee Corcoran of upstate New York. Nice-looking apiary, too!

Honey Bee Suite

An artistic bee on flowers. Remember early spring pollen may not be nutritious enough to support a growing colony.

A honey bee dreaming of real spring flowers. © Rusty Burlew.


  • Oh, how I envy you your overwinter bees. With no bees it’s hardly worth the effort to walk around the property to see how everything else is doing.

    • Roberta,

      Did you lose all your bees? That is really sad. You’re right, they are what gets me outside and walking around at this time of year. I talk to them. They try to kill me. It all works out.

      • Don’t worry, they’re already pre-ordered. I may be a bad beekeeper, but I’m not ready to be a non-beekeeper.
        (Also, yes Rusty, I shower my bees with love and syrup and they try to kill me. Seems like a fair exchange.)

  • I have been a beekeeper for a few years now. –×××××× I have had good years and bad. Lost swarms in tops of trees 60 feet up, and found them on bottom of my bamboo plants, had full hives just up and leave in November with 60 pound of honey still there ??? Who can say? I do know one thing. I have come to realize over the last 3 years a happy hive will stay, so with this in mind I designed an in-hive heater for keeping sugar syrup warm, keeping a eye on them on daily basis with my Android phone and my EBay borescope. The difference in my hives were like night and day. Experiment successful. Love it.

  • > Those plants, which don’t have any particular need to attract bees, often have pollen with less-than-perfect protein, at least from the bees’ point of view.

    The protein content of pollen is dictated by its function as plant sperm. Plants do not tailor pollen to satisfy the needs of pollinators. It seems logical they would: flowers are attractive to pollinators with bright colors and nectar rewards. But the pollen isn’t meant to be eaten, it’s meant to pollinate. At least, that’s my understanding of the question.


    • Peter,

      >Plants do not tailor pollen to satisfy the needs of pollinators.< I agree, especially concerning polylectic bees such as honey bees. Poor wording on my part. The exception, I believe, would be in those plants that have a monolectic relationship with a particular bee. Those plants have evolutionary pressure to provide the bee pollinator everything it needs in the way of nutrition. The future of both is dependent on the pollen.

  • Glenn, would you describe your ebay borescope and your use of it? I happened to meet a newbie at a farm brewery where I keep bees for them (and drink a beer or two) and we got to talking about ideas for keeping up on winter bees such as Broodminder, ipm boards and Flir. He brought up the idea of a borescope which honestly didn’t seem appealing/working. I find the ipm board very useful. I can tell where the cluster is and what they are doing by looking at the tracks of wax bits under each frame. For the past several weeks I see four or five tracks pretty much front to back middle to right side of 10 frame hives. Let’s say 6 & 7 have dark wax bits and 8, 9 and 10 have clean lighter bits. The dark bits are from cleaning out old comb so the queen can lay. The lighter color bits are from opening honey stores. I have verified this by opening the hive and verifying where she is laying (dark bits/track) and where the cluster is in general. Love to hear about the borescope. Thanks

    • What I do with the bore scope is by Removing the outer cover I Drilled small holes.in the enter cover
      just big enough to to get the bore scope through the holes they where Drilled. So they are in between frames the scope has a light also I use one of tools they have at harbor I think it is called an extension pick up anyways it’s flexible and you push the button at the top and you can grab stuff like down in places where your hands won’t fit so with a borescope attached to that you are able to look down in between the frames you are also able to penetrate the ball that the bees are in and get inside the cluster we’re it’s Hollow you’re able to like look around see the queen actually it worked very well I was like. Love this anyways they borescopes can be purchased off eBay they come in various sizes and lenghts I think they start out at like three sixteenths of an inch wide and maybe get to like five sixteenths of an inch wide the cord length on them range anywhere from about 6 foot to like 60 ft so if your want you’re able to run the cord into your house and leave the camera in the hive hook up your Android phone to the camera or your smartphone all you have to do is download the app for the borescope and you’re ready to go

  • My bees are bringing in pollen but I have also got some BeePro in a empty deep box and they will not touch it.

    My question is if they have natural pollen source will they not touch other substitutes or is my pollen bad (it’s from last year).

    I made a patty and in two weeks it had some mold on it so I removed it.

    I was expecting them to open feed with delight but there not interested in it. Couple hives are a little low.

    What are your thoughts.

    • Marlin,

      My BeePro is four years old and the bees are scarfing it down. But if natural pollen is available, they will ignore the substitute. All you can do is provide the food, in case they need it. You can’t force them to eat it.

    • Frank,

      As long as all the moths are dead, (eggs, larvae and adults) you can use the comb. The bees will clean and repair it.

  • Glenn,

    If Rusty wouldn’t mind, would you elaborating a little on your experiment. I would greatly appreciate the info on your syrup warmer. I know a cold hive is not the place for uncured syrup, so how do you remedy that, what type of weather conditions do you have when using it, where in the USA/Country/World are you located, and how do you warm it without it dripping it on them. Thanks, I’m always interested in new Ideas.

  • I live in southern Indiana had a pretty cold Winter all my hives survived. Me and my GF check the hive Sunday morning and they are actually at a point that they need split off they will never make it to swarm season the thing about the hives that I had the syrup warmer in they ate the syrup and left the honey alone

  • Hi. On tailored pollen. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the tree adjust to the needs of the bee, or did the bee adapt to utilize a certain pollen? Or neither.

    • Richard,

      Neither or both, depending on how you look at it. In a glacially slow process, each species moves toward a dependence on the other. Flowers that attract the most healthy bees will have the best chance of reproducing. Bees that find the best food will have the best chance of reproducing. The weaker individuals eventually drop out of the gene pool.

  • Just a note on feeding this time of year in Ontario Canada. It was a bit of a warm spell. So I thought I would check my bees.

    Both hives were very active and lots of bees. But I noticed one had almost completely eaten the sugar/pollen cakes. I didn’t have any cakes made up. So I just laid some newspaper down and poured a couple of bags of sugar on top. About a week and s half later it was warm again.noticed that the hive I just fed had very little activity. I found that they had eaten through the newspaper. And all the sugar had fallen through and was blocking the entrance. When I pulled the entrance reducer and removed the piled up sugar. They came out of the hive like gang busters. I don’t think I will use that method again.

  • (South King County, WA). Thanks to your posts, I am finding myself hyperaware of whether my hives have enough food. That’s a good thing, I’m sure! Right now, we still have 5 of 5 buzzing along, but clearly it’s not time yet to relax. They’ve been bringing in pollen every warmish sunny day (yesterday they were all going gangbusters) and I can tell from the varroa tray that at least two of them have really ramped up the brood production. So, I will be for sure mixing up some pollen patties to keep them supplied on all those soggy gray days we still have ahead until spring actually springs.

    My question is about sugar. We gave each hive a 10-lb candy board per your no-cook candy board instructions. 3 of them have been steadily consuming it, while the other two have barely touched theirs until the last few days. For the 3 hungrier hives, they still have anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of the sugar left, but it’s around the edges, and when I take peeks on cold mornings (less than 2 seconds!) I often will see the cluster right in the center of the empty area. Having seen comments about colonies starving with food inches away, is this what that scenario looks like? Should I add a cake of sugar right on top of the cluster? My inclination is yes, since why not, but as a first-winter beek I wonder if it’s actually a good idea or just an over abundance of caution?

    Oh, and one other question, I’ve also seen advice to hold off on doing any inspections until we get “a 50-degree day.” Since we are hitting that periodically, I’m of course eager to get in there and SEE what I’ve been surmising via FLIR, peeks into the candy board, 24-hour varroa tray inspections and extensive frantic questioning of the girls who venture out on sunny days as to what’s going on in there (they ignore me). If all signs seem to be that they’re all chugging along “normally” for late winter is it just my selfish desire to get my eyes on the frames that’s motivating me and I should sit on my hands for a while longer?

    • Jilian,

      It sounds like you’re doing everything right and it’s paying off.

      I’ve seen bees eat every last morsel in a candy board and I’ve seen them eat the middle only, depending on how populous the colony is. Generally it is warmer up there than lower in the hive, yet it is always warmest directly above the cluster. There is no harm in just pushing the corner sugar into the center, however, and I sometimes do that.

      As for inspection, it is my personal opinion to wait. Even though I have no hesitation to open a hive to add sugar or pollen, taking the hive apart for a more detailed inspection is going to cause a lot more heat loss. If they are raising brood, they want to keep it at about 95, which is tough when it’s 50 outside. Unless something must be fixed, I don’t do inspections—even limited ones—until about 60 degrees.

      • Then it’s pretty great they’re forecasting *68* for this coming Sunday! Ha, we’ll see. My beek partner and I are seriously jonesing!

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