Early Pollen?

Over-wintered hive in Calgary on March 22, good strength and ready to grow.

A couple of days ago, on March 22, we had sunlight and heat. Honey bees were gathering pollen. I don’t remember such a rush of pre-season pollen in this area. It’s a lot earlier than expected. I figured their goodies were from pollen-producing trees. Here in the city of Calgary, non-native elms provide some early pollen. Other trees, such as poplar, also give up a bit, even while snow is still scattered around the landscape. We don’t have much oak or maple here, though in milder parts of North America, those are great for spring pollen and nectar. Since it is too early for willow or crocus, I decided that the pollen flow was likely from some big trees. The pollen was pale yellow, apparently from a single source or species, and was packed in extremely small bundles. Here’s a short video clip:

Tiny bits of pollen, all the same colour. Could be from trees, but could be from something else.

But then I saw something that made me wonder about the pollen source.

This looks strange to me. We don’t often see a honey bee hustling unconsolidated pollen at the front door. She has only a bit in her visible corbicula. It isn’t sticky the way pollen usually is and quite a bit of the dust is scattered outside her baskets. This pale pollen resembles pine, but conifers won’t shed here for a few weeks. It occurred to me that the bees, collecting this uniform-looking bland pollen might be carrying pollen substitutet from another beekeeper’s backyard.

We have a dozen hobby beekeepers within a short foraging flight of our home. Although I don’t set up open-feeding stations for soy or other pollen subs, some neighbouring beekeepers might be trying this latest feeding fad. Pollen supplement feeders can attract a lot of bees on a nice day when nothing else is blooming. Activity can look like this, from beeinformed.org’s website:

Honey bees collecting pollen substitute, beeinformed.org

I don’t set out substitutes like this myself. I don’t want to send my bees off to feast at an all-you-can-eat buffet where they will meet bees from neighbouring hives, perhaps pick up mites, soil their feet with AFB spores, or get pushed around by bees from colonies that are greedier and bigger. (Maybe you’ve seen similar activity at your local all-you-eat dinner spots on late Friday afternoons, another place where big and greedy is amply rewarded.) In early spring, I like to place pollen cakes on the top bars above the brood. This assures that even weak hives will get some help. Protected, in-hive feeding also keeps food available when a cold snap or rain interferes and the bees can’t access the fly-in diner. What do you think? Pollen or Pollen-lite? What are my bees collecting?

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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14 Responses to Early Pollen?

  1. Pingback: Early Pollen? - One-Bee-Store

  2. Granny Roberta says:

    In keeping with my long-standing policy of suggesting work for somebody not me, you should definitely go and lick one of those bees and find out if it tastes like pollen, pollen substitute, or Idunno rat poison? (possibly just kidding)
    We have skunk cabbage and red maple now in Connecticut.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brian Tamboline says:

    Hey, Ron , up here near Drayton the first pollen is usually Alder, followed by Willow, Aspen, and Balsam Poplar. The wild Hazel nuts are in there in the mix.
    First dandelions are blooming, south side of the house.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Dandelions? I hadn’t thought of Drayton Valley as a hot spot! We’ve had snow today and around plus 2 this afternoon. Quite a drop from our +19 on Tuesday!
      I forgot to mention alder – it’s a good early source here, too. Thanks.


      • Anonymous says:

        South side of the house. General bloom is a month away.
        We got to 24 on Wednesday. Back in the ‘cooler’ this weekend! Dang
        Poplar and Aspen buds are swelling.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Anonymous says:

    First pussywillows are out now!


  5. The Apiarist says:

    Hello Ron … I’ve also seen them collecting ‘not pollen’ from the dust remaining in the feeders for the chickens, so presumably the left-overs of layers mash or something similar. Like you I think open feeding is a recipe for disaster so feed pollen sub patties right on top of the cluster so they always have access to it, even if it’s cold and wet. I’ve even fed straight pollen, a spoonful or two at a time, on a piece of card under the crownboard (inner cover I think you call those). On a good year I manage to substitute some real pollen into the pollen sub, and always make it up with honey to give them an extra boost. Cheers, David

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ben says:

    Hey hey, first of all thanks for you blog, it’s fun and there are quite some things to learn how you do things in another part of the world and not only that but altogether. Just wanted to share the situation here in Germany: willow is on, cherries incoming in maybe a week. it’s not common to feed artificial pollen, not even sugar water in spring for build up. Most beekeepers rely on the hives building up to the right time by themselves/overwinter strong (if they’re good 😉 Early blossoms from April to may (fruit, canola) is our main flow, though there is some summer flow in June but not everywhere (due to intensive agriculture with no summer blooming crops).
    It’s always interesting to see a lot of countries relying on feeding pollen-substitutes and I wonder how is it that’s necessary or is it us missing something? Brother Adam wrote about it, he bred his Buckfast bees to be ready for the flow in time by themselves. Maybe that’s the key, local adaptation?
    Anyway keep it up and I’m happy to hear your thoughts about it.
    Greetz from Germany,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thank you Ben for your comments!
      I agree that it is interesting to hear how things are done in other areas. I grew up in western Pennsylvania, which is not so different from Germany in many ways. We did not feed pollen supplements either. Natural pollen was available early and bees built up on their own. We had a spring crop from black locust (acacia, or Robinia pseudoacacia in your part of the world) and basswood (linden or Tilia). Then we had a crop in early fall from goldenrod (Solidago) and aster (Asteraceae). There was a long summer dearth.
      I have lived in western Canada for nearly 50 years and had to learn different beekeeping. Our spring is cold until it becomes hot. We have a short transition, then a single big honey crop. Colonies need to mature quickly.
      You are likely doing things the way nature intended because honey bees evolved in central Europe and are suited to the seasons there. We are asking our bees to live on dry prairies with incredibly long cold winters, so we usually need to provide for them.


  7. Paul Hosticka says:

    Hi Ron,I’m a bit south of you in eastern WA and have for many years fed open sub in early spring. The give away to me is the dusting on the returning forager. They will most often be covered in sub exiting my feeders (a tray covered in an open bucket) and will still have some at the entrance but don’t see this in naturally gathered pollen. 30 colonys will take 3 to 4 pounds from 3 trays on a sunny day. I just like to watch and unlike patty the bees will store the sub as bread. I love your blog

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thank you! If you don’t have many neighbour beekeepers and you have warm days with little forage, then I can understand the advantage of open feeding – especially since bees do store the stuff, as you mentioned.
      I appreciate the confirmation that the dusting indicated to you that my bees are stealing from someone’s feed tray.
      . . . and thanks for reading and commenting!


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