What is Bee Pollen and Why Does it Matter?
According to Fat and Skinny Bees – a manual on honey bee nutrition for beekeepers by Doug Somerville, the pollen normally collected by worker honey bees is crucial to raising strong honey bee colonies.
As foraging worker bees fly through the air and their furry little bodies become statically charged, they become a magnet for pollen from the plants they visit. When they clean themselves they push the pollen down their bodies into their “pollen basket”. These small hollows on their hind legs carry the growing pellet of pollen, which is glued together with a little nectar. This is what is usually referred to as “bee pollen”.
The worker bees return to the hive and place the pellets into cells located between the brood and the honey frames. Here it is processed, stored and fermented into the ‘bee bread’ needed to feed young bees. This means that although it is nectar (or sugar syrup) that primarily triggers brood rearing, a limited quantity of pollen will lower the number of brood raised in a beehive.
Equally, if the quality of pollen is poor, then a greater quantity is required to meet the bees’ nutritional needs. Somerville calculates that a colony “would need to collect 3 kg of pollen at 20% crude protein to be equal to 2 kg of pollen at 30%, a substantial saving to the colony in foraging activity”. Not surprisingly, bees live longer when the colony has access to high protein pollen.
In most parts of the world a strong colony can eat over 50kg of pollen a year if worked intensively. But in Australia, a number of species flower during the winter months and Australian commercial beekeepers can keep up production for 12 months in many years. The annual demand for pollen in an Aussie commercial beehive could be as much as 100 kg.
How is bee pollen collected?
Beekeepers can install a pollen trap in their hives so that some of the pollen is collected from returning bees. A pollen trap encourages returning forager bees to enter the hive through small holes in a wire mesh or a punched plate. Some of the pollen pellets in their pollen baskets are then scraped from their legs and collected in a tray. The pollen that is not trapped will be stored and made into bee bread for the colony.
However, pollen trapping is only recommended for hives that have a strong population; in locations where there is a lot of pollen resources available. There has to be ample pollen around so that the bees can bring enough past the traps to meet the colony’s immediate needs.
According to the Pollen trapping and storage fact sheet from the NSW Department of Primary Industries (also written by Somerville), bee pollen collected for re-feeding back to your own hives should be frozen then stored in the fridge. Further processing including cleaning and drying is required for the commercial sale of pollen, which should also be irradiated to kill any bee diseases.
The pollen should be used or sold as soon as possible after collection to ensure freshness. Pollen for bee feeding that has been frozen should be used within 9 – 12 months of collection.
The Importance of Quality
Pollen is made up of several elements that bee colonies require to survive. These need to be in balance with one another. Pollen supplements and substitutes can work but are yet to reach the success rate of good quality, 100% bee pollen.
At the same time, poor quality pollen lacks the optimal balance of nutrients needed by bees. According to Fat and Skinny Bees, in addition to protein content, the ratio between amino acids is very important for bee health. More recently, the importance of fat, vitamin and mineral contents are also being recognised.
Pollens from different flowers will vary a lot in their make-up. For example, according Fat Bees Skinny Bees, pine trees produce low-quality pollen with a protein level of around 7%, while banksia pollen has an excellent protein level of 34%. Many agricultural crops also lack nutritional quality.
Of course, honey bees usually source their pollen from a variety of plants. Forager bees commonly fly a distance of two to three kilometres a day, or up to five to six kilometres when necessary. This means they collect nectar and pollen from a variety of plants. A mix of pollens from three or more floral sources can often balance out deficiencies.
As such, our Irradiated Western Australian Bee Pollen sold here at Bee2Bee is sourced from beekeepers across the state, ensuring a wide variety of pollen and optimal nutritional value. This is 100% pollen, not a supplement mix. We recommend our Bee Feeder Frame for easy, pest free and hygienic feeding.
Coming up next on The Buzz: A look at mixed pollen supplements and pollen substitutes