I guess when most people consider keeping bees for other-than-honey purposes, it’s the connection with pollination and plants that springs to mind. This is a really powerful aspect of regenerative beekeeping, helping us to evaluate what is flowering and where, and when, and whether or not the bees regard it as a favourable source of food, be that pollen or nectar.
To recap: honey bees gather pollen to mix with honey and enzymes which is then fermented to form a substance called ‘bee bread’. This altered–or rather enhanced–pollen is fed to the young grubs as they develop, and the more diverse the pollen, and the more active the microbial environment, the greater the benefits for the growing bees. So in the same way that feeding our children a wide range of wholesome nutritious foods allows their digestive systems to mature effectively, so the same goes for bees.
Nectar is collected as it is the primary food for the adult bees, and like the pollen, is altered as it passes from one bee to the other and mixed with enzymes within the bee’s crop. When the ambient temperature is conducive, this gathered store of nectar is evaporated down to make honey, and this becomes the bees’ food store. The bees need this at all times, even though its main role is to feed the bees over winter when there are few flowers and it’s too cold and wet for the bees to fly. It also provides a thermal blanket over the top of the winter cluster; bees store their honey over the top and around the sides of the nest to envelop the brood area with an insulating margin. As with the pollen, the more varied the source of nectar, the more chance the bees have to ingest a wide range of nutrients. Just as dividing our food in to protein, fat and carbohydrate is a deeply simplistic way of interpreting “eating”, so talking about pollen and nectar in purely macro terms loses much of the vital nuance of bee forage.
So with regenerative beekeeping, we rely on our bees telling us what forage is out there. We might look at a swathe of flowers and think it’s a tremendous source of food, and yet the pollen is not from those flowers, and the bees are not growing as you wold expect from such abundance. Of course, we can’t determine the exact place that the bees are visiting, but watching bees gathering nectar (so using their proboscis but not packing pollen in to their leg baskets) as we are out and about in our locality will give us clues. Regenerative beekeeping is not about conducting scientific trials, but more tapping in to the insight that watching our hives can give us, and adjusting our land management accordingly.
Another essential element of this methodology is to not feed the bees. Standard practise is to remove the honey and feed sugar syrup in autumn. It is also standard practise to feed swarms, and again if there is a dearth of nectar. And to top them up during the winter if they seem a bit low on stores. Some colonies end up being fed at some point in 6 months of any given year. Is it any wonder that honey bees outcompete native pollinators? Or that “honey” is such an adulterated product? Not feeding sugar syrup or pollen substitute gives us a cold hard lesson in forage provision and population density: a colony of bees should have enough food available in their 3-5km radius to sustain them throughout the year. Observing growth rates and incoming foragers, as well as surplus honey produced is the benchmark for whether or not there is enough food, and watching where that food is coming from and matching that with colony increase gives us a marker for the richness of the wider environment.