Sunday, March 6, 2016

Pollen, Pollen Everywhere

Almond orchards in California
We are learning that pollen is often available, even when one wouldn't expect it to be about. That's what makes this an interesting time of year for bees. We receive a lot of questions regarding what happens with bees when they want to get out of the hive, but they have no place to get pollen. In large part, the answer to that depends on the local climate in general, and the day-to-day conditions. In some areas of North America, primarily California where almost 7 million tons of almonds are grown annually, the bees have been working for weeks already, pollinating almond trees, a substantial task, and a bit of a juggling act for beekeepers in the US. The need for the bees is massive, requiring bees to be shipped from one coast to the other in order to provide enough bees to do the job. The problem becomes ‘what do they do with them when almonds are done but nothing else is ready for pollination’. For bees from naturally colder climates, this is not a small problem.

Bee on pussy willow
However, we are blessed, especially this year, with our moderate winter and early spring. The bees, at least ours, are never totally locked away. They always have access to get outside the hive. On warmer days, they will go out to do their business – it can be a long time for them to keep their little bee legs crossed. Sometimes they take flight and realize too late that they underestimated the temperature, and we see a number of dead bees on the snow around the hives. They got too chilled to make it back. Some days, we see the results of their cleaning around their hives, where they have already started to remove those who didn’t make it through the winter.

When the bees start winter, they form a mass in the center of the bottom of the hive. They use their wings to keep the temperature constant and to create heat – hard work in very cold weather. Their only purpose is to keep the queen protected and alive, and they will keep their wings moving 24 hours a day to that end. They do not hibernate. As the winter progresses, the mass will move up the hive, dictated by the food they have stored away. They need to have enough depth of hive and enough food stores to last them through the entire winter. Once they get to the top, you know they have run out of food, and it becomes time to feed them, which we do every spring.

Female bloom on hazelnut tree.
So it’s early March in the Okanagan. This year, our snow is gone. The temperatures are above normal. The bees are out and about... and to our great surprise and greater joy, they are already bringing in pollen... a LOT of pollen. There are no flowers, no grasses, no crops. There are no leaves on any of the trees yet, although the leaf buds are definitely swelling. So, where are they finding pollen?

Believe me, it’s there, but the flowers are so small, you really have to look for them. The first source for them is the wonderful, woolly pussy willows. Remember how, as kids, we would cut them and bring them in, the first true confirmation that winter has passed, spring was coming as promised, and life was going on? It’s understandable, but please remember, these little fluff balls are critical to bees early in the season, so leave some for them. This is the source of the deep yellow pollen they are packing into our hives right now.

Female hazelnut flower with male catkin in background

The second source would be hazelnut trees. Most people never notice the blooms on them... they are early in the year, when people aren’t looking for blooms on anything, but they are there. The hazelnut tree has both male and female flowers, the female being a very small star-like purple flower on the end of the bud. Hanging around these little ladies are long, thick catkin, about 8 inches long. In reality, the tree is NOT pollinated by bees at all. The plant is designed so that the wind does all the work, but there is so much pollen on the male catkins, that it is a true feast for the bees. The bees have absolutely nothing to do with the small, delicate female flowers. The catkins would be the source for the paler yellow pollen being stored away in our hives.

Hazelnut tree with catkins evident. 
Our search isn’t done. Today we saw they are bringing in bright red pollen. The search is on to find the source of that! The top of our suspect list is the weeping willow. 

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