April 7: Day in the bees

Photo-bombing my bees. Look at the pollen flying past my forehead!

April 7. Our backyard hives are collecting real pollen! Last week, I showed you some fake pollen coming into the colonies. Nothing beats the real stuff. Although desperate honey bees will carry worthless sawdust as a pollen supplement, nothing inspires a colony like a bit of natural pollen and nectar.

My honey bees and I are a long way north, high in elevation, and affected by vagaries of our continental climate. We are in Calgary, a thousand metres above sea level with some rocky mountains in sight along our western horizon. Our semi-prairies, semi-foothills location invites wide fluctuations in weather. For instance, in the past week we’ve been as cool as minus 11C and as warm as plus 21C. (12F to 70F).

The colonies average 6 frames at least 3/4 brooded, which means populations should be up 25,000 more workers in the next three weeks. And there are a lot of fuzzies – I would guess that more bees are already emerging than are dying of old age. This is a critical time for this change-over in bee demographics, with new replacing old. Beekeepers often lose wintered colonies at this time of year when cool wet weather keeps bees from foraging, reduces food resources, and induces nosema. If they get through this, the honey bees will probably be fine.

To help them, I make sure they have enough honey in reserve. Syrupy sweets can push them to expand their brood nest. I also give them all the pollen cakes they’ll take. That’s about two pounds every week. If you choose to pollen-supplement your bees, don’t stop until the weather is stable and the bees are collecting enough natural pollen. When there is a consistent, reliable abundance of natural forage, honey bees will quit eating your supplement. But if you stop feeding the bees too soon, they will likely not be able to feed their developing larvae, which will die. Although honey bees are usually vegetarians, they have been caught eating their own young when food is scarce.

Another reason to feed pollen supplement is that honey bees strip an awful lot of pollen from their neighbourhood’s flowers, potentially leaving less for other bee species. In the spring, when flowers are scarce and foraging days few, your nests of honey bees will need about 200 grams of pollen each day to feed the developing brood. That’s four pounds every ten days. Maybe more. If you feed a high-quality supplement, you do the local wild (non-Apis) bees a small favour because your honey bees don’t need to collect as much from flowers, leaving more for the natives.

Doing the bees a small favour.

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. Ron has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with the blog at badbeekeepingblog.com. Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site: miksha.com.
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4 Responses to April 7: Day in the bees

  1. Mike says:

    Funny how some beekeepers choose breeds of bees based on the fact they can shut down brood rearing and conserve resources during dearth and poor weather, but they just put patties and syrup on all year. Don’t honeybees also strip all the nectar leaving less for other bee species? A good reason to feed syrup :0).

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    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks for the comments.
      I don’t know of any beekeepers who “put patties and syrup on all year.” Never heard of anyone doing that, though a few queen producers may, though I never met any who did during all my years of beekeeping/queen rearing in Florida. I’d love to hear your examples.
      I feed syrup/fondants/soft candy, depending on the colony and weather conditions. This reduces my bees’ impact on the environment during times of the year when resources are thin and need to be shared with native bees. I have not seen any natives out in Calgary yet, but I expect queen bumble bees will make an appearance soon.

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  2. Erik says:

    Thanks, Ron. Never thought about feeding as way to preserve resources for other species. The ladies are non-native, after all, so makes sense. I do not feed pollen due to laziness and small hive beetles. The SHB like to lay eggs underneath the patties where the bees can’t reach so you have to be careful and monitor accordingly. Native bees tend to forage in cooler temperatures as well, so hopefully they get to the resources first. Just justifying my behavior, of course, its an interesting thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      I never considered small hive beetles, as we don’t have them this far north. So, that’s certainly something to consider. Also in our area, we see some species of native bees foraging all day long, so there will be some competition, especially in the spring when feed sources are scarce. By the way, we’ve been hit by more sub-freezing temperatures and there is quite a bit of snow on the ground, so no flowers today!

      Liked by 1 person

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