A Curious Beekeeper ponders pollen sub caused swarming

I promised myself I wouldn’t holler, yell or stand on my head.

It seems like every time I look somewhere on Facebook recently, someone is asking if they should start feeding pollen patties.

Let’s review. Pollen is, in the words of one Master Beekeeper, food for baby bees. And, in a roundabout way it is. First though, it is consumed by nurse bees who then produce Worker or Royal Jelly through food glands in their heads (primarily the Hypopharyngeal and Mandibular.) This is the food that is placed in the cells by the nurse bees.

The queen reacts to an abundance of jelly by stepping up her egg production.

Since I can’t yell, I’ll let Randy Oliver do it for me. This from his excellent website, http://scientificbeekeeping.com: “Practical application: there was no apparent benefit to feeding pollen sub when there was adequate pollen of high nutritive value naturally available. So don’t waste your money.”

In my words, you only need to feed pollen substitute when you want the bees to do something they wouldn’t normally be doing. Like increase brood rearing before going to pollinate Almonds, or more typical for around here, to increase the amount of brood & young bees for making splits. OR when there is a dearth of natural pollen, or the bees can’t get to it.

So what does all this have to do with swarming?

Bees have their own “prime directive” and that is colony reproduction. The most common way that happens is by swarming. When a Prime (or first) swarm emerges, roughly half the bees in the hive along with the current queen, leave. That’s not so good for the beekeeper who wants to make honey, as wise beekeepers before us noted “if you want to make lots of honey, you need lots of bees.” A swarm sets colony population back to where around here, there just isn’t time for them to grow into a booming colony with a population of 90,000 or more.

My fear is that with more beekeepers feeding pollen sub routinely, without some plan for the increased and early brood production, that more bees will end up in the trees, which is a nice way of saying the beekeepers haven’t managed to keep all their bees!

(Maybe we should talk about queen wing clipping now, but I don’t want the distraction.)

I don’t know of a sure fire way to prevent swarming. There are a variety of manipulations that can be done, but the easiest way is to not have to do anything. While no one swarm trigger has been identified, and having adequate room for the queen to lay is huge, I like the theory that it is queen produced pheromones that have the biggest effect, young queens produce more of them (plural) than older queens, and that some breeds and/or races of bees are less inclined to swarm than others.

So queens in their first full year that have been bred to head colonies not to inclined to swarm – like Buckfast – are primo. They are still going to swarm some – I’ve seen a figure of 6%, but that to me is much better than a three year old queen of unknown racial background whose colony swarming inclination might approach 80%.

That’s reason enough for me to not automatically feed pollen sub. I’m not sending bees off to Almonds, nor do I want to be making lots of splits. This is a hobby for me, so this way of chasing dollars isn’t my bee goal. I don’t want to loose my bees to swarms. This year, I want to make honey. Nor do I want to mess with Snelgrove and Horsley Boards in an attempt to control swarming.

I seem to be an old saying type of guy. Here’s another one: “You can either make bees or honey. Not both.”

What are you trying to accomplish?

Andrew Dewey