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CCD – Another Opinion

Bee Culture, September 2008

The colony with the pollen reserve in place gets started on the Fall build-up in a timely manner regardless of field forage support.

Walt Wright

Much of what we think we know about beekeeping are opinions. As it applies to internal operations of a functional colony, most of “conventional wisdom” is entrenched opinion. Some is accurate and some is not.

If there is anything that beekeepers in general agree on, it’s that hive design is optimized in the Langstroth hive. There are variations in dimensions affecting frame count per box, but basically, all U.S. Beekeepers use the Langstroth design. The intent of this submittal is to plant a seed of doubt about the desirability of that design from the using resident point of view. The resident colony survival instincts are adversely affected by the quarters we provide (my opinion). Their internal operations are different from the way they do it in the tree hollow (fact).

In the tree hollow comb is continuous from the top down. Continuous cells of functional comb permits the brood nest to “float” up or down with incoming forage available. Pollen at the bottom pushes the brood nest upward and honey at the top puts downward pressure on the brood area. In the natural operations of the wild colony the floating brood nest serves them well. The season sequence follows:

1. The Winter cluster is formed on the lower comb, with honey stores above.

2. In late Winter, when brood nest expansion gets underway, the colony expands the brood nest upward and outward into honey. Concurrently, with field pollen availability, pollen is stored at the bottom of the brood nest. This pollen is stored for the long-term and is ugly with honey preservative. It is maintained until late Summer, and is considered a “pollen reserve” to be used for the fall buildup to rear wintering young bees.

3. In the swarm prep period of late Winter/early Spring, two avenues are available. Any colony that is strong enough to build their brood volume so it reaches the honey reserve limit will begin their brood nest reduction as the first action of swarm preparation. The colony that is not strong enough to reach the honey reserve limit in brood nest expansion will, however continue to slowly expand their brood nest through the swarm prep period.

4. Reproductive swarm cut off is the period in vegetative development when a colony perceives that a swarm will have less than a fair chance at establishment if issued. This means it is time to abandon swarm ambition and switch to protection of the existing colony. If they survive as a colony, they can have another chance at reproduction next year. Survival of the existing colony has priority over reproduction in any given season.

Those colonies with queen swarm cells in process will continue on the path to issue the swarm, however. Those without having swarm cells in work will abandon swarm ambition. Either way, both get serious about brood nest reduction. The timing for this decision is a brood cycle before the beginning of the “main flow,” and they have reared the workers that can be gainfully engaged in storing honey during the flow. Time to slow brood rearing.

5. During the “main flow” the honey is stored that will carry them through the following Winter. They will conserve that honey by several means. In periods of dearth they often reduce brood volume, and/or limit adult population activity to a minimum. They do not squander their honey reserve.

6. In the mid-Summer doldrums (that period between the Spring and Fall flows) they often nearly shut down operations. Even scouts are sometimes not flying. The doldrums are not as conspicuous in northern locations with a compressed season, but in my area of Tennessee the dearth sometimes exceeds two months duration.

7. Late in the doldrums period, the colony starts brood nest expansion to rear young bees for wintering – sometimes called the Fall buildup. They use the pollen reserve stored in late Winter for this buildup. Pollen is scarce in the field at this time, and this reserve is an important assist in the Fall build up. What is important in my area is that the Fall buildup starts in early August. Without the pollen reserve, Fall buildup is slowed at the very least.

8. Consumption of the pollen reserve from the top, permits the brood nest to settle into the lower comb, where the space is organized for the Winter brood nest. This is not seen in the Langstroth hive.

The abbreviated sequence above is included here to make the point that the bee colony is very good at accumulating and protecting food reserves for periods of need – if permitted to do it their way. Pollen is stored in the early Spring buildup for use in the Fall buildup. Honey is stored in the “main flow” to carry the colony through the Winter and into next season’s forage availability. The reserves of both carbs and protein are essential to colony health and welfare. We, as beekeepers, are fairly well tuned in to the requirement for a honey reserve. The results of lack of honey to sustain the colony are stark. Starvation of the colony is an ugly thing. But generally we have ignored the other food requirement – protein.

When observing colony internal activities, by reading comb content, it was conspicuous that the colony made no deliberate effort to store pollen for Winter. Knowing they were going to start brood rearing in mid winter, this was puzzling. Recent descriptions of the colony use of vitellogenin stored in the fat bodies internal to the wintering bees solved that mystery. The protein for rearing Winter brood is stored in the bees, themselves. Makes more sense, now. The crux of that concept is they must rear young bees in the Fall while pollen is plentiful. Those young bees eat a lot of pollen to store the protein in their fat bodies for Winter brood rearing.

That brings use back to the pollen reserve stored in late Winter/early Spring. The Fall build up to rear young bees for wintering is dependant on the pollen reserve, especially if field pollen is scarce in early August.

There is good reason that most beekeepers do not see the pollen reserve stored in the early Spring build up. It isn’t there!

Langstroth hive design inhibits the storing of that reserve. Three observed impacts on their survival instincts are offered for your consideration.

a. The colony does not “like” the break in functional comb at box joints. The gap in comb is about an inch and a half with wooden frames and somewhat less with plastic frames. In both cases bee space is incorporated in the transition from box to box. The colony shows their disrespect for the gap in several ways. They are often slow to jump the gap, and definitely don’t want the Winter brood nest spanning the gap. They often use the break in functional comb as a separation line between brood and stores.

b. The colony much prefers to rear brood on the expanse of comb provided by a deep frame. It’s as close to the continuous comb of the wild brood nest as they can get with Langstroth boxes.

c. For reasons unknown, often the brood nest on deep frames has brood at the bottom all the way across the bottom bars of a deep frame, or nearly so. There may be a fringe of stores at the extreme outside, but basically brood is continuous all the way across the bottom bar. We suspect that this penchant for brood across the bottom bar is the basic reason that the pollen reserve is not stored in the early build up. Periodic reversal for swarm prevention compounds the problem.

Two articles prepared for this medium have received little attention. Evils of the Double Deep appeared in Nov 03, and Pollen Box Overwintering in Sept 04. Some of the info of the Pollen Box article is inaccurate. The inaccuracies are related to timing of storage and use. I only know of one beekeeper who changed his colony management approach to incorporate the pollen box maneuver. He is happy with the results.

When the news broke about CCD in early ‘07, it tweaked my interest. It is well-known that a colony benefits from good nutrition. Perhaps the pollen box maneuver would provide better (or at least more) nutrition and help them ward off the effects of losses to CCD whatever other contributing factors might be involved. It was time to learn how, and when, the pollen reserve was used. All that was known at that time was that it improved wintering, was present in July, and had been consumed in late Fall. It had been left in position, empty, going into winter in prior seasons. (Serves the same purpose as the slatted rack.)

Some of what was learned in the ‘07 season has been factored into the season sequence up front in this submittal. There were several surprises in monitoring the pollen box use for the full season. In addition, the local season was quite unusual. First, the mild late winter had the bees and trees at least two weeks ahead of their normal schedule. Then, an Easter freeze (5 April) took out all pollen sources for three months. On the advanced schedule the colonies were checkerboarded on Mar 1 (late, but not too late.) The pollen box maneuver had been performed just before that (I didn’t record the date).

The first two surprises were how early they stored the pollen reserve, and how long they protected it. By mid March the shallow of brood lowered to the bottom board had been filled with long-term stored pollen. Not only did they store the pollen early, but they also protected it through several months of no new pollen coming in. They avoided tapping the reserve through very trying times. One could conclude from these indications that the pollen reserve is dedicated to a use later in the season.

A third surprise was when they did use the reserve. Consumption started in early August. I consider August summertime, but the bees apparently consider it Fall. Their processes are slow and deliberate. They started Fall buildup, using the pollen reserve, earlier than I expected. One could conclude from these indications that if the Fall buildup starts during the Summer doldrums, without the pollen reserve, Fall preps would be slowed. Now, I think I understand how wintering is improved. The colony with the pollen reserve in place gets started on the Fall build up in a timely manner regardless of field forage support. Over the eight years the pollen box was used, all colonies came through Winter with good cluster size. No weaklings to pet in the Spring. Enough promotion of the pollen box thing, but if I kept bees in more northerly locations, where winter losses are a given, I think I might take a hard look at the concept.

Back to CCD: The experts are charged with investigation of nutrition as a contributing factor. They have already concluded that there are multiple causes. Even the symptoms vary by time and place. What would be more common to all those variables than the hive design that we use? If, as I suspect, the Langstroth hive is a root cause, the experts will not come up with that answer. Any experiment that they contrive will be done with bees in our standard hives. No matter what results they get, the results are not likely to indict hive design. They don’t even know about the natural pollen reserve.

We, mankind, keep on adding new survival threats by importing new pests. Existing organisms keep developing resistance to our solutions as time passes. Add to these worsening conditions the vagaries of weather in a period of climate change. The big picture for honey bee survival is fairly bleak. The bees have been able to cope with these conditions with a little chemical assistance from us. They have eons of coping in their genes and we will likely not ever know the extent of those limits.

They have survived and performed in spite of our ignoring the protein requirements built into their natural, seasonal agenda. That’s a testament to the “work a-rounds” built into their genes. We lose some, but most make it.

Is it wise to continue to ignore protein requirements of our colonies? It is both simple and free to insure the pollen reserve is stored for building Fall strength. Is CCD not a Fall phenomenon?

Although this submittal is not well written, and a lot of detail left out, I have cast my vote.