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More on the Pollen Reserve

Beesource POV, March 2009

by Walt Wright

In the submittal on my opinion that Langstroth hive design inhibits storing of a pollen reserve in the early season (Sept. ’08), there was little substantiation of that opinion. In an effort to stay within Editor Flottom’s guidelines for article length, some details were omitted. Those details are included in this submittal to provide a little persuasion for the skeptics.

I recognize the futility of trying to change the mind of those who disagree. Did you know that the psychologists who study how the human mind works have demonstrated that first-learned information inhibits learning any info to the contrary? In other words, it’s normal for you to reject, without consideration, anything contrary to your beliefs based on earlier learning. Understanding the problem doesn’t make my life any easier. I’m the guy who spends much of his time promoting concepts that most beekeepers “know” are false. That’s not a rewarding task.

So, let’s start with stuff that’s not likely to trigger argument by long-time beekeepers or the experts. The early season foraging seems to be mostly dedicated to pollen. In late winter/early spring 80% or more of returning foragers are often bringing full loads of pollen. If building brood volume into overhead honey, the colony has little need for nectar. They do need water for thinning the honey to feed consistency, and some of those incoming foragers are bringing water. My watering stations get more traffic in late winter than a 100 degree day in August, and there are less foragers to apply in the early season. If you are not supplying local water, you do your bees a disservice. Water foraging is a hazardous duty.

Strayed from the subject with the advice on water needs. The subject is the colony emphasis on pollen foraging in the early season. However, there is a situation where the emphasis shifts to nectar foraging. The bees want all cells in the cluster to be in use. Significant empty cells will cause them to shift to mostly nectar foraging. Brood volume is limited to a size that can be kept warm on a cold night. If the insulating band is standing on empty cells, that’s a perceived crisis. Nectar foraging takes priority until those cells are filled.

Those early sources, locally, have nectar also. Although worked primarily for pollen, if the need exists, nectar is available. My bees are blessed with availability of American Elm. Elm not only starts early (freezing nights) but also spans a longer period than most tree sources. It spans the whole month of February and overlaps the beginning of later sources such as maple. If the bees get flying weather, both pollen and nectar are out there to gather, but the late winter colony chooses to apply that time primarily to pollen. This is not a casual effort. Nearly the whole adult population goes to the field to bring pollen. If several fully loaded bees hit the landing board per 5 second period that’s a lot of pollen brought in through a five hour, early season work day. It seems to me that incoming pollen is more than should be needed to feed the brood in a small early season brood nest. They feed some fresh pollen to older larvae when it’s plentiful, but it is not necessary. Here, they raise one brood cycle before field pollen is available. Hold that thought on excess pollen coming into the hive in the early season. We’ll come back to that later.

To substantiate my claim that Langstroth hive design inhibits storing of the pollen reserve it seems appropriate to describe the evolution of the concept. It was reported in the Evils of the Double Deep (Nov ‘03) that about half my colonies used the bottom deep for long-term pollen storage. The significant omission was that the 50/50 use of the bottom box for pollen was not seen prior to starting checkerboarding for swarm prevention. CB encourages continued brood nest expansion through the swarm prep period and overrides the backfilling of nectar at the top of the brood nest. That backfilling of nectar, the first action of swarm preps, puts downward pressure on the brood nest.

When it was concluded that saving of the honey reserve overhead initiated swarm preps, overhead honey was increased for wintering. The rationale was that it would take longer to build brood volume to the honey reserve limit overhead if there was more honey. Reproductive cut off was hypothesized at the time. (Repro c/o was not confirmed until well into CB.)

Over several years (late ’80s to 1995) the overhead wintering honey was increased from 1 ½ stories (deep and shallow) through double deeps to 2 ½ stories. At each increase in overhead wintering honey, swarming was reduced. That seemed to validate the hypothesis that reaching the honey reserve with brood nest expansion triggers swarm preps. Rather than waste additional marketable honey by stepping up to three deeps, the concept of checkerboarding was tested (’96). Three alternate frames of honey were removed from both the upper deep and shallow at the top. Those honey frames were replaced with empty drawn comb. That test was remarkably effective swarm prevention.

You didn’t have to know the evolution of CB. What is significant is that the bees did not store the pollen reserve until they were encouraged to expand the brood nest beyond the double deep. In progressing through increasing overwintering honey overhead, the pollen reserve was not noticed until we were experimenting with the CB concept and larger brood nests.

Seeing the lower deep used to store pollen on half the hives made me think that perhaps what I now call the pollen reserve might be a natural survival characteristic. If it had a role in survival I should help them get it stored. Two years were spent in adding a shallow below the brood deeps in the spring. The first year foundation was ignored. The second year drawn comb got some pollen stores in it, but it was not the solid pattern seen in the deeps. During this same period I was moving toward wintering with less honey overhead. The upper deep was being replaced with two shallows. If checkerboarding was still effective swarm prevention in a deep and two shallows, there was much to be gained; an extra super of honey in the tanks, simplicity of manipulation, and not having to handle a deep of honey.

Retiring the extra deep was not easy. The colony is very reluctant to give up rearing brood in a deep if the alternative is a shallow. The first step was to insert a shallow of nectar from overhead between the two deeps. They would typically continue to rear brood in the upper as additional shallows of honey/nectar were inserted between them. When brood nest volume reduction dictated they give up brood in one box or the other, they filled the upper deep with honey. Now, that deep of honey has to be removed from six feet up. Not fun!

With both the configuration change and pollen box investigation going on in parallel, hives were “every which way”, but when completed I was pleased with the results.

I was almost certain from the beginning of the pollen box investigation that placing a shallow of brood on the bottom board would produce the desired results. In the interest of minimum brood nest disruption, the box of foundation and box of drawn comb were tried first. When neither of those produced the right answer it accelerated the configuration change to a deep and two shallows. When the first shallow is mostly filled with brood and lowered to the bottom board, it is reliably filled with the pollen reserve. Colony preference for using a deep for brood likely contributes to the reliability.

Since submitting my observations for publication there has been more contact with other beekeepers. The reports of beekeepers outside my area suggest that wintering in three brood chambers often gets storing of the pollen reserve. If the box of brood is lowered to the BB, the colony growing through two more boxes sometimes uses the bottom box for the pollen reserve. The colony is not as severely affected by their dislike for the gap in comb at box joints with three boxes. The double deep with its gap where the colony wants its brood nest is more of a problem. With three boxes the colony can have the brood nest in the middle box and the gap in comb above and below are more tolerable. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the three boxes are deeps or mediums. The colony is satisfied to use the middle box for a mid season brood nest.

Unfortunately, storing of the pollen reserve is seen as a problem by some beekeepers. Referring to the condition as “pollen bound” and unaware of its mission, steps are taken to relieve the “problem.” That pollen is stored prior to the main flow and the beekeeper would like to see brood in that comb. Their bees would be better provisioned for fall if they left it alone.

There is a minor problem in the fall. The Lang break in functional comb strikes again. The colony is reluctant to move the established brood nest down into the pollen reserve across the gap. Brood stays in the brood chamber above while consumption of the reserve proceeds. Not that it matters, but consumption is lobed like the buildup dome; more in the center and trailing off to the sides. The result is that the pollen box goes into winter as empty comb. That may be problematic for the beekeeper, but is not a problem for the resident colony.

When assimilated, the above suggests that the pollen reserve is stored quite early in the pollen availability. If the pollen reserve is a strategic survival trait, and I believe it is, storing it early makes sense. Going a step further, it seems that it is stored while the brood nest is still expanding upward. While that would not cause a problem with the primarily vertical tree hollow, it would be problematic for the squatty double deep. In the double deep upward expansion is limited to less than ten inches. Strike three – the double deep is out. Realistically, I don’t expect anyone to change configuration on my recommendation. But I would be interested in how you propose to insure that the pollen reserve gets stored. Of course you can continue to ignore a survival trait and take your chances. They are only insects and you “own” them. You can treat them any way you choose.

Up front, we said we would come back to the excessive preoccupation with pollen foraging in the early season. There was an observation in the ‘07 season not included in the opinion article. In that season a freeze took out field pollen for almost three months, or it might be more accurate to say none was seen coming in at landing boards for that period. Concerned with lack of incoming pollen during that period, checks for feeding larvae royal jelly were made through the first two months. After that, accumulated honey overhead slowed inspections. The point of interest is that the colonies continued to feed royal jelly through three months without incoming fresh pollen. It wasn’t the normal large dollop that I was accustomed to seeing. It might be an almost transparent smear, but the larvae were getting some royal jelly. My impression was that the nurse bees were rationing resources.

Another interesting observation for that period was that the population was not commensurate with brood volume. The overhead population was less than those that should have been produced by the brood volume. Additionally, the brood volume reduction did not start when expected. Colonies were still expanding the brood volume well into the main flow when they would normally be reducing brood volume. Honey production suffered by having less than normal adult bees. Since I don’t understand why, no conclusions are offered, but I suspect I was seeing an unknown “work around” for an irregular season.

The royal jelly thing above was what I wanted to discuss a little further. The literature would have you believe that nurse bees are the young bees in the early house bee duty phase. After about 15 days as house bees, they graduate to forage duties. But in the ’07 season we had bees feeding royal jelly in excess of two months with no fresh pollen for them to eat. What gives?

We tend to forget that the honey bee is a forest creature. Their survival format is based on the availability of forage in the primeval forests of Europe. In the forest, pollen is plentiful in the early season of green-up when most trees bloom. It seems reasonable to me that they “make hay while the sun shines.” Pollen is required to feed replacement bees for the whole active season, and there will be less field pollen as the season progresses. Why shouldn’t they be preoccupied with gathering pollen in the early season?

You can guess with me on this last preliminary conclusion. Is it possible that preoccupation with early season pollen foraging serves two purposes? Creation of a cadre of “fat” bees to carry them through mid season and storage of a pollen reserve for early fall are the two purposes I had in mind.

So much for opinions, conclusions and guesswork based on observation. Changing your colony management would be time consuming but it wouldn’t be a big impact on a sample basis. You might be surprised by the results. You would be justified to ignore the rantings of the Tennessee crackpot, but it might be in your best interest. You can continue to manage bees in ways that are almost good enough.

Before I give up completely on you skeptics, let me try one last concept on you: It is generally accepted that your honey production starts in the preceding fall. That is, colonies supplied for wintering by adequate fall preparations are your best producers in the following spring season. That’s true, but I would back that lead time up a few months. If fall colony strength is supported by the pollen reserve stored in the early season (late winter) of that same year, that makes the lead time about a year and a quarter. Think about it. The honey bee survival format is a year-round set of operational processes. Complex, but not incomprehensible.

Dr. Farrar, in his 8 part description on honey production makes another valid observation. Not a direct quote, but he wrote that the colony needs to be strong all season to winter well, and wintering well will support production strength in the following season. I see this routinely with my management approach. In the interest of swarm prevention a simple manipulation is performed in late winter that changes colony motivation from reproductive swarming to filling overhead space with nectar. Strong colonies, early improves honey production. The combination of large brood volumes at the start of the flow, slow brood nest reduction, and pollen box support in the early fall build up yields colonies that winter well. You folks that believe stronger colonies are more likely to swarm will find that contradictory, but I can’t help you un-learn what you “know”. I’ve been looking for the right combination of words for ten years, without success. Hopeless! But I keep pecking away at it.

Dr. Farrar in his quest for greater honey production concentrated on maximizing colony population. He considered the inherent swarm prevention of hive body reversal to be a beneficial side effect. I attacked improvement from the other direction. In my quest for swarm prevention, an unexpected side effect was much greater populations (got lucky I guess). In both cases, the combination of swarm prevention and greater populations provides more surplus honey for the beekeeper. The increased production of my system is not just a small amount of five or ten percent that would not be obvious in year to year seasonal variations. I typically get 30 to 80 percent more honey than my contemporaries in the area. My average production is calculated on live colonies in the preceding fall. It doesn’t take many zeros (winter losses) to bring an average down in a hurry. In bad years, the increase is better. The nectar stored during build up is a hedge against a poor flow.

In the past, the improvement has been understated. Thinking that once you tried it, you would not “look back”, little effort was made to emphasize the advantages. But the experts and seasoned beekeepers are not going to try it. Steeped in the “wisdom” of yesteryear, they are certain that it’s just another scheme by a crackpot. Crackpots are everywhere and if you checked all the schemes of crackpots, the results would be a net loss.

So this crackpot is going on the offensive. Don’t be surprised if you find this crackpot referring to the skeptics as “deadheads” in the future.