What Do Bees Do With Pollen?

Do you think about this stuff? I do. I mean, I know what I know about bees and beekeeping and it serves me well enough to handle hives, to harvest honey and to report to you on important developments. But then sometimes I scratch my head and think... "Do I really know what's going on in there?" And when it's been raining so much and I know the bees are struggling, I think about ways I might discover to help them out. This led me to my recent obsession with pollen and the role it plays in the hive.

So, bee fact review. We have one queen per hive. She lays all the eggs. The drones, male bees, few in number, fertilize the queen. Then, for the most part, they die off or are killed off by the swarms of female worker bees (shocker). Bees have two jobs, both centered on survival. One: make more bees. Two: make honey to feed bees. (Yes, bees eat honey to survive.) In order to make honey, bees gather nectar from blooming plants, mix it with enzymes and turn it into honey. Plants are smart. They lure bees with deep-seated nectar and make sure the bees pass their pollen on the way. Then the bees carry it to another plant so the plants can bear fruit. Think about all those almond trees in California that rely on honeybees to pollinate them so I can put almond milk on my cereal every morning. So, pollen. Part 1: Bees move it around so we can have nuts and fruit. Thank you, bees.

But what do the bees do with the pollen when they get it back to the hive? You have probably seen pictures of bees with pollen stuck to their back legs. Bees bring it back to the hives, mix it with some special bee enzymes (like they do the nectar when making honey) and make a unique "bee bread" from it. Pollen, contrary to some misconceptions, is NOT used in making honey. It is used to make royal jelly to feed baby bees and larvae and without it bee production basically comes to a halt.

Pollen can be scarce in the landscape in times of drought and also in times of persisting heavy rain. In the fall, bees collect pollen like mad to store it for the winter. They scrape it off their legs into comb cells and mix it with an enzyme to preserve its nutritional value for longer (lactic fermentation). While bees are not producing a ton more bees during the winter, they will use the pollen to get their spring hive started up before any blooms start. Sometimes folks ask me if I have bee pollen or royal jelly for sale, but I am pretty sure our bees are using it all for important purposes... like survival!

I wonder about all the rain we had and if the bees suffered from not having enough pollen. I have learned that we can supplement the hives when conditions are not optimal. Pollen cakes look a little bit like an oversized Power Bar and can be placed inside the hive if pollen supplies are lacking. You can also create a dry pollen feeding station for the bees during a pollen shortage. Perhaps we can gear up for next summer with one of these in case the pollen index drops too low. Can someone let Santa know?

I have a feeling you will be in a meeting later today thinking about pollen. I know I will.

XOXO Farm Girl