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