You are what you eat!

Honey Bee collecting pollen from willow
Honey Bee collecting pollen from willow

It’s been a while since my last blog post, so sorry to anybody who has been struggling to get through their days without hearing about life, the universe, and bees from this corner of the internet. I am obsessed with bees and beekeeping. I have found that I am prone to the odd obsession, and have been throughout my life. It’s a good way to learn; being obsessed, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that others may not be quite so fascinated. I discovered this recently, when my mother nodded off as I was explaining something about bees. I am like sleeping pills, but with tusks.

Anyway, the good news is that it is February and therefore Spring is close. There are snowdrops in flower at the bottom of my garden and plenty of daffodils scattered about the local parks and gardens which are just on the cusp of bursting into flower. Not that daffodils are of much interest to honey bees. Ok, so it’s cold and a bit snowy right now, but it will soon pass. I can feel it in me waters.

Every experienced good beekeeper that I have talked to about this considers that the start of the season is the Autumn (Fall), not Spring. The efforts and actions taken  in September and October are what determines the strength of the colony in Spring. They need to have been treated for varroa and be free of disease with plenty of stored honey to get them through Winter, and very importantly, plenty of stored pollen to help with brood rearing before the bees can forage on spring flowers.

The whole business of bee nutrition is actually very important. Of course it is. If you eat nothing but junk food you will become unhealthy and prone to diseases which shorten your life. The same is true of bees. Most beekeepers are aware of the need for the bees to have sugar but perhaps less is known about the importance of proteins (pollen). Bees are vegetarian and get their carbs from nectar and their protein from pollen. In fact, pollen provides fats, vitamins, sterols, minerals and micronutrients as well as proteins – having enough pollen of good quality is critical to honey bee health.

When I was interviewing Peter Bray, the owner of Airborne Honey in New Zealand, a couple of weeks ago, I asked him about any heroes or mentors or people who inspired him.

Peter Bray Jan 2018
Peter Bray Jan 2018

He named Graham Kleinschmidt, who had been his tutor when he was at Queensland Agricultural College in Australia. He was very much the inspiration for the fantastic booklet called “Fat Bees, Skinny Bees” by Doug Sommerville. Kleinschmidt studied the levels of protein stored in the bees’ bodies and found that it varied significantly depending on available sources of pollen and the work being done by the bees. Nurse bees, that is, the younger bees who stay in the hive and rear the young, also feed the forager bees. When a heavy nectar flow is on and the bees are frantically collecting it as fast as they can Kleinschmidt showed that the levels of protein in their bodies drops, and it can take many weeks for the bees to recover from this. Peter Bray told me that he thought the best quality of pollen comes from gorse, closely followed by broom. The “Fat Bees, Skinny Bees” booklet lists many sources of pollen and the quality of protein in that pollen.

So pollen is used by nurse bees to make bee milk and royal jelly to be fed to developing larvae and queens, and they also feed older forager bees to help boost their protein/fat levels. Any dearth in pollen means that economies have to be made in the hive. Young larvae are given less food, and if things get bad enough they will be eaten and the protein from them given to the older larvae, the ones closer to becoming worker bees. As bees prepare for winter they consume a lot of protein to build up the levels in their bodies, in the form of a compound called vitellogenin, which enables them to live throughout the winter months. When it comes to raising brood in preparation for Spring the bees can, if pollen stores are low in the hive, effectively mine their own bodies for the protein needed to raise the young. In fact they do this anytime there is a pollen dearth, which can be after just a couple of days of rain when brood rearing is in full force during late Spring or early Summer. If the foragers can’t fly because of bad weather the pollen reserves in the hive will quickly be used up.

Larvae floating in bee milk httpscientificbeekeepingcomfat bees part 1
Larvae floating in bee milk

Every beekeeper checks for the levels of stores in a hive during an inspection, to ensure that the bees won’t starve. Clearly this does not just mean checking the amount of honey in the hive – we really need to keep a close eye on pollen stores too, and if necessary feed supplements in the form of pollen patties, or pollen collected from last year in pollen traps, which can be stored in the freezer and used when times are harsh. Murray McGregor of Denrosa Apiaries up in Perthshire told me that his bees are lucky because there is plenty of naturally available pollen in his area throughout the season. In some areas that may not be the case.

In other news, the new Netflix series “Altered Carbon” starts off quite poorly but improves throughout, and by the end I loved it. It is visually stunning, and for those who like their Sci-Fi with a sprinkling of cyber-punk, it’s not to be missed (as long as you don’t mind violence, nudity, all manner of immoral crimes, and a plot as loose as a goose).

A scene from Altered Carbon on Netflix
A scene from Altered Carbon on Netflix

Have a great week!

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