Can a colony collect too much pollen?
The standard answer to this question is no: “There is no such thing as too much pollen.” “The bees know what they are doing.” “Don’t worry about a good thing.” “Lots of pollen means lots of brood.”
I’ve heard all these arguments many times, so I found it especially interesting when this subject came up last year in a beekeeping class. The class had a large number of extremely experienced beekeepers, and among that group were people who added a qualifier to all these standard answers: usually. Most often lots of pollen is a good thing, but on occasion an excess of pollen can signal queenlessness or a soon-to-fail queen.
More pollen than necessary
Bill Hesbach, a Connecticut beekeeper, described how he had a colony that plugged every available cell with pollen. He wrote, “I thought pollen collection was stimulated by brood pheromones, but this hive just kept collecting pollen long after there was any need to do so. The hive population crashed, all the frames are basically plugged with pollen, and I have my first dead-out ever.”
Another beekeeper explained that when he sees frames with solid expanses of pollen shrinking the brood nest he becomes suspicious of queenlessness. It seems that even though the need for pollen has decreased, the rate of collection remains the same, and the combs soon become filled with pollen in excess of normal.
Personally, I’ve only seen this a few times, but I don’t keep hundreds or thousands of hives like some of the others. Still, in the instances I recall, the colonies had normal egg-shaped brood nests surrounded by arcs of pollen. But later inspections revealed these colonies had begun backfilling the nest with pollen until there were literally no cells for the queen to use.
Looking normal from the outside
The first time I noticed this I went into the brood box with the intention of removing some of the pollen to keep for later, but it was too late. The queen was gone and the colony was crashing. Oddly, from the outside everything looked normal: bees were coming and going carrying great loads of colorful pollen. Nothing seemed amiss.
Since the class ended, I’ve been trying to learn more about this phenomenon. Several commercial beekeepers have mentioned that the presence of massive amounts of pollen serves as a warning that the colony should be checked further. It may mean nothing—an excess of pollen may result from a genetic propensity to collect more than average. On the other hand, too much pollen could mean a failing queen. A quick inspection of the brood nest will tell the beekeeper if he can ignore it or not.
Too much pollen? Check your queen
I still haven’t found an explanation for the excess pollen. I don’t know why the bees keep collecting even though the need is steadily decreasing. Still, I like the solution outlined above and recommend it as a management technique: If you see too much pollen, check the queen and replace her if necessary. If the queen looks good, don’t worry about the pollen and let the bees do their thing in peace.