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Monday morning myth: alder pollen is bad for bees

I don’t know if this rumor is everywhere, but you certainly hear it here in the Pacific Northwest and in southwestern Canada. We have a lot of red alder (Alnus rubra) in this area, so that’s probably how it got started. I was reminded of the rumor when I saw my bees packing in alder pollen during yesterday’s hour of sunshine.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with alder pollen. In fact, it is one of the first pollens to be available in many areas. In this part of the country, fat alder catkins start spilling pale yellow pollen while snow is still on the ground. Being available so early, alder can be an important part of early spring build-up.

Alder trees are monoecious, meaning that both male and female flowers (catkins) appear on the same tree. Male catkins of alder are long while the female ones are shorter and rounder. Alder is wind pollinated, so the trees produce huge quantities of small-sized pollen grains that can float on the wind for great distances. But honey bees—as well as some other pollinators—collect the pollen to feed their young. The pollen is high in starch, so it is a good source of food energy for the developing bees.

Like most pollens, however, alder does not have all the nutrients and amino acids necessary for producing baby bees. Bees raised on alder pollen alone will not be as strong and healthy as bees raised on a variety of different pollens. Because alder pollen matures so early, it is sometimes the only pollen available—and because a colony eating nothing but alder pollen may not build up as quickly as one with a more diverse diet, alder pollen developed a bad reputation.

But it is silly to blame the alder tree. There are very few—if any—pollens that have all the nutrients necessary for bee development. Rather than fretting over the alder’s less than perfect pollen, beekeepers should celebrate its existence—over the years it has kept many a colony from biting the dust. If you want to assure your bees have a more varied diet, you can feed them a pollen patty along with the alder. In any case, it won’t be long before other pollens are available as well.

Rusty

Comments

jess
Reply

Is this alder pollen?

Rusty
Reply

Jess,

I don’t know for sure. It looks a little on the whitish side, but that could be just the color balance in the photo. It has the right size and shape. Alder pollen is really tiny and at the beginning of the season, alder pollen baskets are small and elongated like that.

Bryan
Reply

My alder tree is blooming now (Dec 21) and is covered in bees. Located in San Diego county at 1200 feet. I am happy that there is pollen available at this time of year. The native bushes will be blooming soon.

Jan
Reply

In northwestern Washington State, our many alder trees bloom during March. I don’t think it’s warm enough then for the bees to venture out. At least that’s the excuse we give when the cherry trees bloom, later on, in below 50-degree weather, and the bees are a no-show.

Rusty
Reply

Jan,

On those few warm days in March when the bees can fly they will collect alder pollen. This last weekend there were a few hours on both Saturday and Sunday when my bees (south of Olympia) were bringing it in like crazy. But the collection stops when the temperature drops. If the temperature is below 50-degrees, no honey bee will be collecting any type of pollen because they can’t keep themselves warm enough to fly. Many orchardists keep mason bees for fruit tree bloom because mason bees can function at lower temperatures than honey bees.

Andrea
Reply

So wind-pollinated trees/shrubs benefit from insect pollinators too? I guess I just assumed alders, for example, didn’t “need” bees since their pollen is built for wind dispersal. Yet animal pollinated plants can’t do the reverse, right? In other words, they can’t rely on wind pollination because their pollen is too heavy. I’m trying to wrap my mind around this….

Rusty
Reply

Andrea,

You are right about alders, they are wind-pollinated plants that have no need for animal pollinators. But most bees have a tremendous need for pollen which is the primary food for the larval stage. So even though the alders have no use for the bees, the bees are delighted to have alder pollen as a food source. Biologically, a relationship where one organism benefits while the other organism is neither helped nor hurt is called commensalism.

One such relationship that has been in the news a lot lately is the one between corn and bees. Corn, like all grasses, is wind pollinated but bees gather loads of pollen from the mature tassels. Unfortunately, the corn pollen is often loaded with pesticides, some of which are hurting the bees.

Animal pollinated plants are usually specially adapted to receive the pollinators they have evolved with and usually cannot be pollinated by the wind. It may sometimes be the weight of the pollen but it may also be the structure of the flower that prevents wind pollination. Each plant is different. In some regions of the world where the natural pollinators have been destroyed by insecticides, pollination is being done by hand. This is happening in some parts of China where humans are pollinating cherry trees.

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