How to Harvest Bee Pollen
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by Leah Smith Many a beekeeper will eventually come to wonder how to harvest bee pollen, and when, and even if they should. What do you need to know first?
Pollen is the male germ plasm of plants, and the principal source of protein, fatty substances, enzymes, minerals, and vitamins for honey bees, as well as a source of antioxidants. Its consumption is increased in fall and again in late winter/spring when brood-rearing activities resume to build up the hive.
Though brood-rearing is stimulated by many factors, pollen is necessary for its initiation and continuation. Specifically, young adult workers consume large quantities of pollen, which stimulates their head glands to secrete royal jelly. Royal jelly is fed to queens their entire lifespan, and also to all larvae less than four days old. Therefore, ample pollen supplies means an increase in brood-rearing and, thus, bee populations. This means more foragers for nectar and pollen; more honey for harvesting; strong colonies for splits, divisions, and packages for sale; and better pollination services.
To Trap or Not to Trap
There are a few reasons to learn how to harvest bee pollen. It is a sellable hive product for human consumption, considered one of nature’s most complete foods and praised as a brain booster, muscle builder, and mitigator of the ill effects of stress and anxiety. It is also traditionally believed to ease asthma and allergy symptoms. Collected pollen can also be stored for future bee consumption, to be fed out during low and/or critical periods. Additionally, it is beneficial to have a pollen trap in place to check (at any moment) how much and what kind of pollen is being collected or, if pesticide contamination is suspected of a pollen source, to block it from being taken into the hive.
Pollen is clearly of the utmost importance, as a strong colony may collect and use 50 to 100 pounds during the season. Given its significance, it is necessary for hives to have sufficient reserves going into northern winters. For a two-body hive, this is roughly 500 to 600 square inches, or two to three hive body frames (both sides). However, in addition to their stored reserves, it is a great idea to establish strong sources of spring pollen; for brood rearing to continue after the winter pollen stores are (quickly) consumed, fresh sources must be available to avoid any inhibition of early hive development.
A pollen trap basically consists of an entrance, some manner of grid for the bees to pass through, and a collecting box or drawer to catch the pollen knocked from bee pollen baskets as they make their way through this “tight squeeze.” In the past, there was concern of honey bee damage caused by poor designs — in the form of torn off legs and wings. There are now many pollen traps available to select from (you can even find do-it-yourself designs). In considering wooden versus plastic traps; top-mount, bottom-mount, or exterior-mount designs; and removable versus hinged grids, don’t fail to look for assurances of honey bee safety!
Regardless of design, the pollen trap entrance must be the only one to the hive. If this requires a new entrance, establish it first and then block old entrance(s). Whether you decide to place out traps during heavy pollen flows only, keep them on all summer and periodically remove the collecting grid (or prop open hinged ones), or select a trap designed to remove only 50% of pollen gathered, some method must be used so bees get their pollen, too. Many keepers will follow a routine, like confining collecting to alternating weeks or three-day periods.
Collected pollen for storage must be free of debris and rogue insects. Fresh pollen molds quickly, especially in hot, humid weather. In the hive, pollen pellets are mixed with glandular secretions and capped with honey and wax; thus preserved, it is called bee bread. For the beekeeper, empty your traps every or every other day, storing it in one of a few ways. It may be dried, either by the sun or in a warm oven or dehydrator. In ovens or dehydrators, begin at 120°F for an hour to kill yeast spores, and continue for 24 hours at 95°F. Drying is complete when pollen will not crush or stick together when squeezed, and should be stored in a closed container at room temperature. Alternatively, fresh pollen pellets may be stored in a deep (0°F) freezer or packed in containers mixed with white sugar at a ratio of one part pollen to two parts sugar by weight. These methods clearly require different levels of preparation, complication, and cost, with your ultimate use for the pollen factoring into the method used.
Planting for Pollen
Now you know how to harvest pollen. However, an important step — one that should come first — is to provide your honey bees with a diversity of pollen sources. All pollen is not created equal; protein content can range from 8 to 40%, 20 being the minimum required to be of value. Many pollens are of an insufficient quality. Even a single source of high-quality (high protein) is not ideal for many reasons. No plant will bloom for the entire foraging season. Weather patterns will not favor it every year — disastrous during a poor year. Also, even the best of pollens are not likely to have all the required nutrition, with shortages leading to colony stress and decline. The Xerces Society recommends an optimum environment of 12 to 20 species of blooming plants with at least three blooming at any single time, creating in total the longest foraging season possible.
There are many approaches to diversifying your pollen sources. As mentioned, you want to span as much of the year as possible. Redbud, winter honeysuckle, and any willow though especially pussy are often the earliest spring sources. Flowering bulbs like crocus, snowdrop, and Siberian squill are also valuable; their pollen is colorful as well, being yellow, red/orange, and blue (respectively). To provide pollen into the late autumn, offer fall-fruiting red raspberries, goldenrod, sunflowers, and cosmos for bees to visit.
Achieving a diversity of pollens is helped by planting in a diversity of conditions, and will also lead to greater plant populations overall by utilizing more land. Spiderwort, wingstem, and the shrub inkberry grow well in damp, shady areas. Dry ground can be filled with prairie clover or wood mint.
Another approach is to opt for variety in terms of plant family and pollen color (and therefore nutrients). The greys of German bearded iris and borage; greens of buckwheat, meadowsweet, and rosebay willow herb; oranges of asparagus and native cherry [such as black cherry or chokecherry]; burgundy hues of white and red clover; and purple of phacelia offer both diversities.
You can also create variety by utilizing a variety of planting situations. For example:
- Plant hedgerows or perennial insectary strips with spring-blooming trees such as maple, oak, or native cherry; shrubs like American hazel, Manzanita, and the excessively-flowered hebe; and partial shade-tolerant hyssops and beebalms.
- Establish windbreaks of early spring sources like Siberian pea shrub, pussy willow, and Nanking cherry.
- Plant living mulches of the tenacious crimson clover, resilient white clover, and shade-tolerant cowpea.
- For ground covers or erosion control, use heather, kinnikinnick (also called bearberry), or mother of thyme.
- Ornamental landscaping offers opportunities, too. Lupines and coneflowers are excellent pollen producers, as are most of the vining clematis and the late-summer stonecrops.
- Annual insectary strips make use of many flowers with low-cost, easily gathered seed, including poppies, cornflowers, sunflowers, and cosmos. These options possess open, flat flowers, easily accessed and therefore speedily worked by bees.
- Cover crops that are allowed to flower will benefit honey bees as well as the soil. Exceptionally good pollen sources include sainfoin, mustard, and the clovers; you will find there is a clover that fits every soil type and growing condition.
- Orchards are advantageous locations for honey bee hives that benefit both the trees and the bees. Fruit trees such as plums, cherries, and peaches are simply loaded with blossoms, while apples have fewer blossoms but very valuable pollen. Populating your understory with currants, gooseberries, and black raspberries provides more pollen still.
Remember that many plants mentioned here have “horticultural hybrid” varieties. From weeping willows to speciality sunflowers, they have been selectively bred for commercial traits and often lack pollinator rewards. Selecting varieties that are long-established, native, or used for naturalizing is key. Now that you know how to harvest bee pollen, happy gathering — and planting!
LEAH SMITH is a freelance writer and home and market gardener. She works on her family’s farm in mid-Michigan called Nodding Thistle (certified organic 1984-2009, principally by Organic Growers of Michigan). A graduate of Michigan State University, she can be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.