Regenerative Beekeeping: Pollen

This post looks at how honey bee hives can be used for purposes beyond the obvious honey production, particularly with respect to farmers and growers using regenerative principles to help heal the land. We observe the natural behaviour of the bees in and around their hive and use this data to evaluate the landscape, and in the next few posts I will outline how this can be done, and over the course of the new beekeeping season, demonstrate this with hives in situ.

Conventional beekeeping involves running a production livestock system: this is the case whether you have one or a thousand hives if your methods and manipulations are intended to produce a honey crop. Sustainable beekeeping removes the pressure on honey bees to produce surplus honey, and therefore markedly reduces the workload and intervention required as we are not influencing the bees’ behaviour in order to fill those jars, and any honey we get is down to the bees’ natural productivity. Regenerative beekeeping takes this one step further: we are not managing the bees for honey at all, but actually using the information we can glean from the hive as our primary reason for keeping hives. Honey will be produced, but it is essentially a by-product of the wider advantages of using honey bees as a data-gathering tool.

Any hive can be used, and the bees will need to be a local swarm and therefore used to foraging in the area. More on sourcing the bees to use in future posts.

In this post I’m going to briefly outline how we can evaluate the pollen we have available for our bees by just watching the bees returning from their food gathering trips – a useful indicator of how important and effective our forage provision really is.

Bees fly 3-5km from the hive looking for a variety of nectar, pollen, and other plant products such as sap to equip their hive for optimal performance. The bee colony population is made up of workers (sterile females), a small and temporary population of male bees during the spring, and a single queen who is the mother of them all. The overwintering cluster of 5,000-10,000 bees swells in summer to a population of over 50,000 to take advantage of the summer blossoms and gather enough to overwinter on the stored nectar. This sophisticated organism needs a diverse range of macro and micronutrients to thrive, and the richer the floral environment, the greater the likelihood of success. The colony can live for many years in the same space, and reproduces by sending out half the colony to set up home a mile or so away from the mother hive–a swarm.

Many beekeeping practises override this natural rhythm and require the bees to stretch themselves to achieve equilibrium which can negatively impact on the wider environment, but by keeping bees that are not supported by human intervention, they give us a valuable insight in to how good the area is for pollinators. Honey bees are generalists and will gather pollen and nectar from many different plants, and because of their “waggle dance” communication within the hive, can exploit a rich source of pollen, or nectar as shown in this clip, in a systematic fashion:

Pollens have distinct colours, and we can see where the bees have been by checking the colour and quantity of the packs they carry. Here are bees coming in with thistle pollen on their legs:

Pollen is used to nourish the bee larvae (bees have the same lifecycle as the more familiar butterfly: egg; larva; pupa; adult) and the pollen is mixed with honey and enzymes, then fermented to preserve it and add beneficial gut bacteria, so variety and quality is essential for development. There are a number of simple pollen guides, or more advanced ones once you really get in to it. Here is my rather scruffy example:

Watching for pollen loads is simple and quick, and although not totally accurate or scientifically rigorous, gives a great rough guide as to where your bees are foraging, and whether or not they are working the crops you want them to! Honey bees love to forage on shrubby trees, and hedgerow flowers are some most favoured: blackthorn, hawthorn and even the wind-pollinated trees such as hazel and oak are also visited by bees, plugging the gaps that are missed by the breeze; this is also shown with grapevines, that have greater pollination success due to the honey bee making the flowers more accessible to wind pollination. Willow and chestnut are also valuable forage sources, and many fruit and nut trees, soft fruit and vegetables are incredibly useful to honey bees – and therefore us too. Remember that all pollinators work better in concert; having a hive will encourage other species, and the other species will focus the bees’ attention as they all work the flowers differently.

Using your beehive as a marker point around which to base your diverse pollinator strategy is a far more effective plan than flooding the area with hives and getting the same inefficiencies of honey bees endlessly repeated. The beauty of a hive is that of course, you have easy access to evaluating the bees’ choices by watching the volume of bees and the pollen they are collecting, unlike with the suite of other pollinators you may have on your land. No other species can be observed so easily and this is the edge honey bees have over other pollinating insects regarding their worth on managed land: they provide a proxy for the bumblebees, solitary bees, wasps, hoverflies, flies, butterflies, moths and beetles that will hopefully be present.

Some flowers have flowers that ‘brand’ the bees as they collect pollen, adding another method of identification. OSR and Himalayan balsam are probably the most well known as rape leaves a mark between the eyes of the bees, and balsam is really visible as the bees have their thorax properly scrubbed by the pollen and come back almost white:

More advanced analysis of pollen – such as that done by the Bee Informed Partnership in the US – can be used to establish levels of heavy metals, the value of the pollen for rearing bees, and the diversity of floral sources. This service is not currently available in the UK but perhaps there will be opportunities going forward for further research and investigation, and it is easy to collect dropped pollen without interfering with the bees. Taking pollen from the nest area requires a little more skill but is a small intervention for a potentially informative return.

Please let me know if you have any questions.

In my next post I will be looking at the importance of allowing your bees to build their own wax.

8 thoughts on “Regenerative Beekeeping: Pollen

  1. Hello Jen

    Sorry, this comment has nothing to do with pollen.

    I enjoyed your first Regenerative Beekeeping post and I hope, for the sake of balance, you plan to list the disadvantages of regenerative beekeeping some time in the future!

    For me, keeping honey bees is indeed about my admiration and wonder for these amazing creatures. But that’s not the only reason. I started beekeeping for the honey. I’ve always loved honey and have a childhood memory of comb honey always being on the table. So beekeeping is still, for me, a bit like having a small-holding, though I don’t have the chickens, ducks, goats or pigs that you might normally expect. Just the bees. And a garden.

    I care for them like I would for any animal in a small-holding. I keep them for me, not to ‘save’ them, and a good honey crop is essential. But if my interest was just to do something for the bees, I would plant flowers and trees for them, and leave cavities they could nest in, the sort of thing I do in the garden for other pollinators. 

    I think would-be beekeepers need to be clear about the fact that honey bees are don’t need saving – their future is secure because they make honey for humans. It’s the other pollinators that are in trouble. 

    I always read your posts and look forward to seeing where this new series takes us. I thought you might want to know that someone who perhaps does not share your philosophy is very engaged with your thinking and writing.

    All best, Archie

    1. Hi Archie, glad you also like Jen’s posts, me too! I learn about a lot of techniques and thoughts and resources I probably wouldn’t find otherwise and love her photos. It’s nice when we can find common ground around the love of bees (and honey!).

      One part of your comment I’d disagree with is that we don’t need to ‘save’ the bees because they give us honey, so man will find a way to keep them around, whereas the other pollinators are in trouble. Personally, I don’t want bees that can only survive if I feed them, or medicate them, I find this to be very unnatural and troubling because ‘science’ is not always right, or on the right side. If the honeybees can’t survive without so many inputs because they are being used too hard, or because the environment has become so unsuitable for them with all the pesticides and herbicides and weather modification/geoengineering at some point there’s bound to be a tipping point that’s far worse colony collapse and potentially cannot be recovered from. I think it’s a mistake to rely on so exclusively on science and technology to be constantly fixing the messes we humans keep getting ourselves into.

      The debate here between treatment-free beekeepers and the vast majority who follow all the commercial protocols can get pretty contentious and we few who are treatment-free are considered the equivalent of ‘anti-vaxxers’, so I think you can imagine it’s not a nice situation at all. In any case, my hope is a balance can be found and we can consider the various needs of a big planet! Cheers 🙂

      1. Thanks so much for replying! I think it’s great to have people’s input, and I appreciate your thoughts. I think it’s important to see the value of honey bees in the wider sense as well as appreciate their limitations. I look forward to sharing the journey with you 🙂

    2. Hello Archie, thank you so much for your comment! I think what I am showing here is how we can use honey bees to illustrate what we are doing on our land; there are many resources available for people who would like to produce honey from their hives but not much showing how bees can fit in to the landscape. If farmers and growers want to move to more holistic management then a hive can show what effects this has on pollinators, as long as the bees are kept in a way which does not give them an advantage over other species.
      This series is not really aimed at beekeepers, or those who farm bees commercially, but more showing that honey bees can have a place in a suite of diagnostic tools, and show us how our provisions can help or hinder with tangible evidence from the hive. Bees are often kept on farms (by contract or by invitation) but their impact is not established, nor is the information they accumulate over the season evaluated. I am hoping to show that bees can offer us a window in to our land use by simply observing them responding to their patch.
      I really appreciate you taking the trouble to respond, so thanks again for your comment 🙂

  2. Hi KenshoHomestead,

    I meant that honey bees don’t need saving because, being a managed stock, they’re not going to die out. Colony numbers are expanding hugely, world wide and in the UK.

    I agree with much of what you say about the need for finding a balance. I thought Jen’s post some weeks ago on the neonics derogation issue put that point very well.

    1. Thanks Archie 🙂 I think honey bees’ ability to respond to environmental factors gives them a vantage point like no other, and having a relationship with them means we are granted access in to that world.

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