March 30, 2023

What About That Pollen Flow (119)

What About That Pollen Flow (119)

It seems that pollen flows just don’t get the respect that a good honey flow does, do they? And you’ve got to wonder why? In today’s episode, Kim and Jim take a kind of long look at pollen flows, trying to figure out how to tell there’s a...

It seems that pollen flows just don’t get the respect that a good honey flow does, do they? And you’ve got to wonder why?

In today’s episode, Kim and Jim take a kind of long look at pollen flows, trying to figure out how to tell there’s a pollen flow going on in the first place. It’s easy to see when a honey flow is going strong, but is a pollen flow?

Bees don’t store much pollen compared to honey, and the way it’s stored it’s kind of hard to tell if it’s pollen, or bee bread, or honey.

Find out what you should know about pollen flows and your bees. Without the pollen flows you have, you won’t have the bees you have.


Thanks to Betterbee for sponsoring today's episode. Betterbee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customer BetterBeeservice, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, Betterbee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at


Honey Bee Obscura is brought to you by Growing Planet Media, LLC, the home of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, All We Know by Midway Music, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Copyright © 2023 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 119 – What About That Pollen Flow


Jim: Kim, another snowy, wet, rainy, cool day today. I shouldn't complain all the time. It's just late winter, early spring. The thing that just fires me off is that maples are in full bloom out there, and I know that my bees don't have access to the pollen and sometimes the nectar that maple provides. I'm anxious.

Kim: I'm looking out the window and I can see you talk about those maple buds. They're covered with snow right now.

Jim: We talk all the time about the nectar flow. We worry about the nectar flow to get ready for the nectar flow, but are you ready for your pollen flow?

Kim: [laughs] I'm not sure.

Jim: Let's talk about it for a few minutes. Hi, I'm Jim Tew.

Kim: I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: I want to see if Kim and I can spend some time today giving the pollen flow a fairer shake than it usually gets.

Introduction: You are listening to Honeybee Obscura, brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping Today podcast. Each week on Honeybee Obscura, hosts, Kim Flottum and Jim Tew, explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world. Get ready for an engaging discussion to delight and inform all beekeepers. If you're a long-timer or just starting out, sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honeybees.

Jim: Kim, I always think, I always talk, I always prepare for the nectar flow. I want to confess. When I realize that the bees have a decent pollen flow going on, I always feel good about it because that makes me think that I'm going to have a good nectar flow. The pollen flow always lives in the shadow of the nectar flow. Is that right or wrong?

Kim: I think you're probably more right than wrong on that one because, well, two things. When I look at a busy spring brood nest and there's uncapped brood and there's capped brood, and up in the corners there's nectar, not yet honey, maybe some honey, but that pollen ring that goes between the brood circle in the middle and the honey in the corners just never explodes. It's just always the same or less.

Jim: Yes, and that's weird, isn't it? I would think, if I were a bee, that I would be just as eager for pollen, the bees' protein source, as I would for nectar, the bees' carbohydrate source. Yet the bees seem to preferentially go for the honey. Is that too anthropomorphic? Too humanistic? Is that just me?

Kim: Well, one thing I don't know, and you'd think as long as you and I have been at this, we'd have a good feel for this. Once pollen comes back to the hive and the forager kicks it off and the house bee takes it and puts it someplace, how long does it last? How long is it good? That may be why there isn't much. I don't know.

Jim: Yes, I don't know. Why can you find honey and all these bizarre stories? I just read that honey was found that was 5,500 years old. They didn't find any pollen 5,500 years old. I don't think it has the same shelf life as honey. I think that in that regard, the bees lucked out that honey is so stable, but pollen seems to be - I'm out on thin ice here now - but it seems to almost begin to decline in quality about as quickly as they store it. It certainly declines over time.

Have you seen those old pollen frames that are a year or two old? It's like the bees give up. They don't try to clean it out. They don't try to throw it out. It's just like they'll put a light capping over it and just work around it. I guess it's of no value at all to them, and it's just too hard to clean up.

Kim: Eventually, it's abandoned, or is it?

Jim: Yes.

Kim: They don't clean it out right away because they're busy collecting nectar, but will they clean it out next October when they're done collecting nectar for the winter? I don't know.

Jim: I don't know.

Kim: It's because I've never looked.

Jim: I got to rush to say I don't know why you were saying that. That pollen, once they're stored mixed with honey and saliva becomes this partially fermented product called bee bread that apparently has a more digestible characteristic than just straight pollen. That stuff gets hard. It gets really hard, like cement. Hardens up. Do those bees have the mouth parts to deal with this hardened pollen, because bees are usually drinking more than they're eating?

We say they eat pollen, but they don't really have mouth parts that are designed to eat. They have to put everything in some slurry or liquid. You got me. I don't know if bees can really go back to that old pollen and do anything with it or not.

Why we got down this rabbit hole was because you said correctly, I think that this stuff doesn't store indefinitely the way nectar does. Bees seem to be taking it for the moment. A big expression of that is, if I just say the word robbing, I bet you every listener out there will know immediately what robbing is. Let me ask you and those listeners, are you thinking they're robbing pollen? No.

I've never understood why not, why weren't they in there? If they're pilfering their neighbor's stores, why didn't they take the pollen too? My guess, before you shoot me down, my guess is that there's just not a ready way to put toothpaste back in the tube. They can't get that pollen out of the cell and put it back in their pollen basket, their corbicula, the way they did when they collected it at the flower. Now I'm finished. You shoot holes in that.

Kim: Well, I go back to that ring of pollen. It's sitting around the edge of the brood nest underneath the corners where the honey is. I'm wondering, does the pollen come in there right next to the brood nest and it sits there and they use it as they need it, but does some of that pollen either stay there and get mixed with honey on top and then capped, or get moved someplace and mixed with honey and capped? Maybe I'm looking at what I thought was capped honey and it's really capped bee bread or what?

Jim: Now you got me thinking. The only time I've seen anything that I knew was capped pollen seemed to be pollen that, a bit ago, you called abandoned. When I would gouge down to it and gouged through that- I don't know, it wasn't wax cappings, it was just a layer of hardened pollen, it looked like pollen underneath. I don't know if it had lost its value, or if it had some natural toxicity to it, or if pesticide contamination. Do the bees have the brain power to realize that and cap over it to ostracize it, to contain it?

Kim: Well, what happens when you put a pollen patty on a colony?

Jim: Goodness [chuckles]. What are you trying to do? Hold me underwater here? I can't keep up with you on these unimaginable questions. Take a break and let's hear it from our sponsor who has pollen supplemental products available to you.

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Jim: All right, let me go back. You've got me backed up about three or four questions here. They're putting that ring of pollen right close to the brood because you said that it takes about a cell of pollen to produce one bee. I've heard you say that. You going to stay with that right now?

Kim: Well, a cell of pollen and a cell of honey.

Jim: A cell of pollen and a cell of honey to produce a bee. All right. Adults need pollen too. Throughout their lives, they need pollen. Adults don't carry a lot of food reserves. They're basically like teenagers are eating all the time, a little bit, just a steady process of eating all the time. If they come across pollen that they're not happy with, got too old, they sense has no nutritive value I guess they just abandoned it. I guess they leave it. I guess they don't know that they cap it over with wax. They might move it. They might not. I think you and I agreed that we didn't know what they did with that, but we do agree that it has no nutritive value, so there's that.

What about a pollen patty? I spent a lot of time with those things when I was in graduate school in Maryland. There were scientists at the USDA working with brewer’s yeast and various simple concoctions that you could make your own pollen patty because none were available. I suppose that, and other work around the world, was the foundation for developing these pollen patties that you can readily buy. I love that stuff. Since nectar and the ease at which we can mimic nectar by using sugar syrup was not the same with protein, beekeepers today really have it made in that you can just put a pollen patty and put it on if you think that your bees don't have the pollen flow coming in.

Yes, I use pollen patties, if that's where you were going. I use them eagerly. I buy far more than I can use, and then I freeze it. The day I need a pollen cake or a patty, I get it out of the freezer, let it sit for a while and take it out.

I've often sensed, Kim, that the bees are not crazy about this material, that they're eating it as it were more because it's in the way. I've got it right stuck in the middle of their brood nest. I don't know that they're eating because they just love it, or because they're just trying to clean the hive up. Help me with that.

Kim: Good question. I'll throw something else out here about a pollen patty ask your question. Have you ever put a pollen trap on a colony and a pollen patty on the same colony at the same time to see what happens to the pollen patty? And you can do this. You got two colonies. One, you put a pollen trap and a pollen patty on it, and one, you don't put a pollen trap on and you put the pollen patty on it and you just measure the difference.

Jim: Measure the difference in brood production or what?

Kim: Or what. How--

Jim: Productivity?

Kim: Yes. How fast does that pollen patty disappear? How much brood is raised? How much of that pollen patty gets stored? Does it- any get stored? A pollen patty get stored, didn't that ring a pollen around the brood? [laughs]

Jim: I'm trying to think of any way to respond to that. I feel like I'm taking an oral exam here today.

Kim: [chuckles]

Jim: Number one, I put pollen traps on, yes, lots of times. Secondly, I put pollen patties on, yes, lots of time. I don't recall ever intentionally putting a pollen patty on a colony that I had a pollen trap on to see anything. In my defense, I was either putting on the patty or putting on the trap for specific reasons. I was not trying to combine those reasons to see if the patty was taken faster, slower, more bees, more brood, fewer bees? No, I've never done that. I hope you have. I haven't.

Kim: Well, back before small hive beetle, way back before small hive beetle, we looked at that and tried to figure out what was going on with-- This was right in the beginning of pollen patties. This is back when I was working USDA way back when. We were looking at pollen patties with and without pollen traps. We never came up with an answer but the behaviors were different between the colonies. The colonies with the pollen traps took some of the pollen patty, but not all of it. The colonies without the pollen traps didn't take as much but they took some, so they were eating, both, just depending on more pollen or more pollen patty, and whether they were getting pollen. That's as far as I ever got with that. I haven't looked since. Does that make any sense?

Jim: It does, but I've got to leave this with you. I've never done anything to compare and contrast those things. I've always just used pollen patties to supplement brood production and pollen traps on those rare occasions when I thought I might want to trap some pollen for future use or whatever.

I can quickly say if those pollen cakes had any natural pollen in them, they're much more attractive than just brewer’s yeast or whatever was being used to bring the protein components together.

Many researchers, some researchers, frequently researchers give concerns about that because you can spread chalkbrood and some other fungal and bacterial type diseases with contaminated pollen. It's not really something eagerly done but I would readily trap my own pollen and then mix it with something and feed it back just because I would be more comfortable using my own pollen that's there anyway. If there's a disease there, it's already there too. It's not like I'm getting someone else's disease and introducing it. Does that make sense?

Kim: That makes perfect sense because that's what I do. I trap pollen, make pollen patty out of it got them in the freezer if I need to feed a colony because it's weak or for whatever reason, then I stick one of those on and a sugar syrup feeder and get out of the way.

Jim: Yes. I wasn't sure I was going to tell this story. I'll keep it short. Have you ever tasted Royal Jelly?

Kim: That's a good question. I don't think so.

Jim: Well, I just couldn't resist it. Here's this food that makes the queen. I took a sample of that and I got to tell you, I didn't find that to be very appealing. It wasn't at all sweet or good. If you are using honey as a measuring stick, no to Royal Jelly.

Of course, I had to sample a little pollen cake. It's not toxic, is it? I didn't eat a whole pollen patty, but no, it wasn't very good either. I didn't add that to any menu item I had. Years ago, just like you were talking about, I trapped pollen and there was beautiful rainbow colors of pollen there. It was all nice and fresh and there were pounds of it.

I just took my hive tool and dipped up what I- probably a teaspoon half a tablespoon or so and pop that in my mouth. My first thought was to spit it out.

Now, I don't want to offend people who eat pollen and really enjoy it. I overdosed myself, I was told. Later, I had a bit of an asthmatic reaction to that. I never really added pollen to my human diet either even though I know many other people have. High protein source, all that kind of thing.

Where's all this going? We have right now, lots of ways to supplement that pollen flow which is as critical to the bees as the nectar flow, but I think it's remarkably different from the nectar flow; the way the bees collect it, how much of it they collect, how much they store, how they store it, the long-term use of it. They’ve got to have it but it is definitely not the same product as a nectar source supply coming in.

Kim: You've got that right exactly. Take a half a step back and visualize the nectar flows. Some plants are heavy nectar and no pollen, heavy nectar and lots of pollen, heavy pollen and almost no nectar. If you know your plants, you can tell what's going to be going on inside and maybe supplement it a little bit so that they don't get short of pollen or short of nectar. I think we've worn this one out today.

Jim: I know you've worn me out. When we started this, I was thinking we'll discuss various ways that bees need pollen and protein and we did, but it's just not neat and clean is it? When I began this discussion by saying that everybody loves a nectar flow, well that's because the nectar flow is so lovable. You’ve got a honey crop coming. You can see whiting on the combs. You can see miraculous nectar appear seemingly almost overnight.

The only thing about a pollen flow is that you see a lot of bees coming and going at the entrance carrying pollen loads. You see that band in the brood comb you talked about. For most beekeepers, that's pretty much it.

I'm back to where I started. If you have a good pollen flow, I'd really like to see that because it probably means I'm going to have a good nectar flow that I really wanted to see.

We punched it out. I don't want to make recommendations on our podcast, Kim, but I do feed pollen patties, pollen cakes. I do want to believe that it's helpful.

Just before we quit for those of you who have small high beetles, Kim, you mentioned that a bit ago, sometimes those pollen cakes can really go a long way toward increasing small hive beetle populations. If you leave them on long term, you may have to watch that more than the rest of us who don't have big problems with small hive beetles.

Kim: I'll tell you a quick trick and then we can go about pollen patties and small hive beetles. I put a pollen patty on top of a strong hive and they're not going to do much with it. They got pollen coming in, they got nectar coming in, they're raising kids. The small high beetles in that hive will find that pollen patty. You come back in three or four days, and it's loaded with small hive beetle larvae.

You grab that pollen patty and rush it over to the chicken coop and throw it in the chicken pin, and I've got the happiest chickens. They get pollen patty and small hive beetle larvae for lunch.

Jim: I have no response to that. I love the idea, but that implies that now I've got to have bees and chickens.

Kim: Well, I'll tell you how to get some chickens next time, all right?

Jim: Yes, I'll just buy your old ones, the ones you've already got named and tamed. I just wanted to defend the pollen flow for a while. It never gets its fair share because it always lives in the shadow of the nectar flow. Without a pollen flow, the bees are not going to be able to do anything with a nectar flow.

Kim: Exactly.

Jim: You’ve got to have them.

Kim: Exactly. Good time.

Jim: We punched it out. We punched it out. I'm done.

Kim: Okay, see you next time.

Jim: All right. Thanks for talking.

[00:21:15] [END OF AUDIO]