A healthy, averaged-sized bee colony is likely to bring in around a hundred pounds of pollen in a single season. Although nectar is the substance that ultimately becomes honey, pollen collection is just as essential for the health and continued existence of any hive.
Pollen stored as food is essential not only for the sustenance of a hive but also its development as well. After collection by foraging worker bees, pollen is broken down and made consumable by a special enzyme within the digestive tract of the bees. It is the nutrients absorbed from pollen consumption – specifically a range of proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, vitamins, and minerals – that allow nurse bees to secrete royal jelly. It is the length of time over which a bee larva is fed royal jelly (before the diet is changed to other substances) that will determine whether it develops into a worker, a drone, or a queen. There is no understating just how essential pollen is to a bee colony.
A single foraging worker bee will collect either solely pollen or solely nectar on their trips out of the hive. A single worker can carry half its own weight in pollen back to the hive, which accounts for the exceptionally large volumes of the stuff that a bee colony can collect over a single season. Once back at the hive, the pollen-carrying bees will store the pollen in cells around the brood comb. During the brood-rearing season it is used up quickly; over the winter it is stored away for considerably longer.
Given how essential pollen is for the sustenance and development of a colony, a shortage of it can have profound consequences. Accordingly, beekeepers may become seriously alarmed to discover that their bees are not collecting pollen. Yet while it is very certainly true that this can indicate a serious problem, it is essential to keep in mind that there could just as well be nothing to worry about. Bees do not collect pollen constantly the year round and in all weather conditions. A good knowledge of when bees can be expected to forage for pollen is therefore essential before you start imagining the worst-case scenario.
Why Do Bees Stop Collecting Pollen?
If you do not notice any pollen foraging going on, it could be down to a perfectly natural cause and be no reason to worry. Remember that just because bees are not collecting pollen does not mean that they do not have enough stored away. Furthermore, bees will not forage for pollen when they do not need it. This is a principle of bee behavior that is important to keep in mind before any drastic action is taken to address a perceived pollen shortage.
Here follows then a list of circumstances under which bees will not normally collect any more pollen. In most cases, the problem will lie elsewhere, and the low pollen collection rate will only be an indication of something else. Thankfully, there is nearly always something you can do about these issues.
There is Enough Pollen in Stores
As mentioned, when bees collect pollen, they will do one of two things with it. It will either immediately be used to feed the brood, or it will be stored in special cells around the brood comb. When there is enough pollen, bees will simply not collect it. This means that even during the foraging season, when you will see bees coming and going from the hive, they may in fact only be collecting nectar. As I stated above, certain bees collect only nectar and others collect only pollen, which allows colonies to discriminate between the two substances and collect only what they need. Even sick or queenless colonies will still collect pollen, meaning that the bees’ actual ability to do so is rarely diminished. To put that another way, if your bees are not collecting pollen, it is highly likely that they are choosing not to.
It is Too Cold for Pollen Collection
Another quite simple reason why bee colonies will stop collecting pollen is temperature. Into fall, as the foraging season draws to a close, you may find that the odd cold snap will stop your bees collecting pollen. It is precisely for this eventuality that pollen is stored. As the winter draws in and it becomes impossible to forage for anything, your bees will most likely be feeding on their stores.
Of course, if your local weather is unseasonably cold for an extended period of time, this can present a more serious problem. Bee colonies have evolved to be able to last through winter months, but if pollen and nectar collection is disrupted because it is too cold to forage when they should be foraging, then there is a chance that your bees might be facing starvation.
The solution to this problem is not to worry about whether or not they are collecting pollen but instead to start thinking about feeding your bees and keeping up the strength of your colony.
The Hive Has an Unproductive Queen
Due to pollen’s unique importance to the raising of new bees, the rate at which it is collected is very often dependent on the number of larvae that have to be fed and, in turn, the rate at which your queen is laying.
Therefore, if your hive is blighted with an unproductive queen, this might be the reason why your bees are not collecting pollen at the usual rate. In such cases, it might be worth trying to requeen your hive or again look into feeding your bees, which will increase the energy of the queen.
A solid way of telling if this is the case is to count the brood comb over a length of time in order to ascertain the rate at which new brood is being created. If you have multiple hives, this problem could be indicated by a disparity in the pollen collection rate when compared with those other colonies.
Whatever the reason your bees are not collecting pollen, there is nearly always some immediate action you can take. Always remember that sometimes no action at all is the best course. To a large extent, these highly evolved eusocial creatures know precisely what they are doing. If your bees already have enough pollen, there is nothing to worry about.