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Collecting pollen from honey bees

For several reasons, I have never collected pollen from my hives. I never considered pollen to be human food, it seemed like a lot of work to process, and I never wanted to steal it from my bees.

But this past winter I’ve learned some things that caused me to re-evaluate the whole pollen-trapping idea. For example:

    • While older papers claim humans are not capable of digesting pollen, some newer work has shown we can digest at least some of it[1]. I remain skeptical but interested in learning more.
    • Easier-to-use pollen traps have become available. I never wanted a trap that fit under the hive, because you have to remove it just when the hives are at their heaviest. But now alternate styles of trap are readily available.
    • Many papers have reported on pollen substitutes and bee health. Nearly every report I’ve read says that although honey bees can survive on pollen substitutes, to really thrive and maximize their potential, they need the real thing, or at least a mixture containing the real thing[2].
    • Pollen inventories can be fun. By separating your pellets by species, you can learn what your bees are collecting and when, and what the proportions are. Furthermore, you can actually see how adjacent colonies stock their shelves differently. Beekeepers and palynologists in your local area can help you identify many species by examining the individual grains under a microscope.
    • Just as honey bees make excess honey (enough for us to harvest) they also collect excess pollen. By using good judgment, a beekeeper should be able to collect pollen without harming the colony[3].
    • Once collected, you have the choice of eating it, selling it, or saving it for bee feed—so many options. I’ve heard that bee-collected pollen sells quickly to both beekeepers and the public.
With all that in mind, I’ve taken the first step and purchased a pollen trap, opting for the Sundance II, a wooden, top-mount model. The Sundance II is more expensive than many, but I like the idea that I can easily move it from hive to hive, or take it off completely, with little hassle. Also, beekeepers say the pollen comes out cleaner in a top-mounted trap. I’m taking their word for it at this point, but I will let you know what I find.

The Sundance II came with a detailed set of instructions, including how to use the trap and how to collect and store the pollen. But I have to say, I’ve never spent so long trying to figure out a piece of bee equipment.

When the trap arrived, I read the instructions twice, and turned the thing over and over while looking at the diagrams of where the bees go before I finally got a mental picture of what goes on in there. Once I understood the basics, I painted the outside a bright canary yellow, and now I’m itching to put it on a hive.

Standing in front of my hives on these weirdly warm February days, I can already see a respectable assortment of pollen: creamy white, mushroom, butter yellow, orange, rust, and emergency red. I’m really looking forward to taking a sample, dividing it up by color, and then trying to figure out whence it came.

I don’t know how many beekeepers trap pollen. When I think back over six-plus years of answering questions, I don’t remember anyone asking me about it. Not that I could have answered, but it gives me the feeling that not everyone is into it. Still, in the space of one winter I went from not caring to being overly eager, so it could happen to you too.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite


1Wang, W., J. Hu and L. Xu. 1987. Study of the digestibility and absorptibility of unbroken-walled pollen. Food Science (Beijing) 10:1-4.

2Standifer, L.N., M.H. Haydak, J.P. MIlls, and M.D. Levin. 1973. Value of three protein rations in honey bee colonies in outdoor flight cages. J. Apiculture Research 12:137-143.

3Hellmich II, R.L., Kulincevic, J.M., Rothenbuhler, W.C. 1985. Selection for high and low pollen-hoarding honey bees. Journal of Heredity 76:155-158.

Sundance-II-pollen-trap
The Sundance II pollen trap with rear drawer partially open. © Rusty Burlew.
Red-pollen-in-February
February honey bee with red pollen. I would love to know what that is. © Rusty Burlew.

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Comments

AramF
Reply

This bright red packages remind me of the post where you gave us a run down of exactly how the worker bee packs loose pollen into tight parcels of goodness.

Rusty
Reply

Aram,

The red was just so pretty! I couldn’t get over it.

Flatliner
Reply

Totally new keeper here waiting on my bee packages. Can you elaborate a little on WHY you would do this?

Rusty
Reply

Flatliner,

Because overwintered bees will build up much faster and healthier on real pollen than pollen substitute. Also, people who raise queens use it to feed the workers who will rear the queens. They get better results using real pollen, but real pollen is usually in short supply by spring unless the beekeeper saved it from the prior year. Also, people sell pollen for high prices as a human supplement and a racehorse supplement. It’s just one of many hive products that are sold, including beeswax, royal jelly, venom, propolis, and of course honey.

Morris
Reply

Rusty, That red pollen looks like it came from Red Dead Nettle.

Bob R
Reply

Maybe you can get pollen collection ideas from a two or three year beek.

Ken
Reply

Rusty,

I purchased 2 or 3 of the same pollen traps around 5 years ago. I still don’t understand how to use them. Since I can’t seem to get a mental image I just put them up. Don’t want to hurt my colonies. If you can explain it to me better than their instructions I sure would like you to email it to me.

Emily
Reply

I went to a talk by Master Beekeeper Pam Hunter last weekend and she told us pollen rapidly declines in nutritional value – by about 75% after a year. She advised us not to stockpile it for this reason. So don’t hang on to the pollen too long, fresh is best!

Rusty
Reply

Emily,

The Hive and the Honey Bee (2015) quotes many papers on this issue. In summary, it says that pollen stored for one year lost 76% of its effectiveness at stimulating hypopharyngeal development in workers, but that pollen properly dried and frozen was still adequate for brood rearing 11 years later. Apparently, it must be dried gently, then frozen immediately.

Emily
Reply

Interesting, thanks Rusty. So freezing it is the way forward. By the way, thank you for my unexpected card – was a lovely surprise and it’s up on my fireplace helping make my home even more bee-themed!

Muzafar
Reply

Today I saw lot of bees sucking dew in grass going deep at roots I already put water in front of their hive to help them, but they did not go there. Is there some thing special with dew?

Margaret
Reply

I love your spelling of sceptical . . . . . . !

Rusty
Reply

Margaret,

I know it looks like I’m on honey bee overload, but that is truly the American/Canadian spelling. I doubted myself at first!

Pedro
Reply

Could the pollen be propolis instead? It is so shiny!

Rusty
Reply

Pedro,

I wondered that too, but up close it looks definitely like pollen. Like others have mentioned, I think it may be red deadnettle.

Nancy
Reply

Rusty,

I’ll try to find an old image for you, of my bees foraging Deadnettle (Lamium purporea). That bright red-orange pollen has to be it.
It’s a rather drab member of the mints, Lamiaceae, with an earthy scent and small mauve blossoms. But it’s one of the earliest winter annuals to begin blooming, usually in early March, and bees around here depend on it between the Water Maple and the Locust.

Obligingly, it dies when the soil warms enough to set out Basil and Tomato seedlings. I weed it up and leave the plants where I want it to drop seed, which will sprout in November and live through the worst winters. So altho a prolific weed, it doesn’t interfere with gardening, in fact it makes a handy natural cover crop.

And that bright red pollen really stands out in a jar (if you sell pollen) or on a frame, which is where I leave it.

“Palynology,” huh? Thanks!

Nan
Corinth, Kentucky

Rich
Reply

Eliminate third comma in first sentence of third paragraph following the list.
“bees go, before” should not have a comma.

Rusty
Reply

Got it.

Bob Hooker
Reply

Rusty,

Thanks for a new perspective. I also did not collect pollen, for the same reasons you mentioned. Your comments are causing me to rethink that. I especially like the idea of feeding it to the bees when needed.

Rachel
Reply

The pollen is from henbit, which looks very similar to dead nettle, but is a different plant.

Rusty
Reply

Rachel,

I see a lot of dead nettle here, but I don’t have any henbit that I know of . . . I will probably need a photo of the pollen grains.

Jeff
Reply

Hey Rusty, how did this work out for you? I just blocked off the bottom entrance today and widened the top entrance on the inner cover to prep for Sundance II. The instructions say to let the hive acclimate to top entrance for two weeks before adding trap – do you think that amount of time is necessary?

Rusty
Reply

Jeff,

I’m in that transition phase to the top entrance. I think 5 to 7 days is probably enough.

Jeff
Reply

Any update on this Rusty? I ended up letting the hive adjust to a top entrance for 2 weeks because it took them awhile to adjust to top entrance. I just put the trap on today. The telescoping top doesn’t fit entirely over the trap because of the drawer, did you end up keeping an inner cover to raise it up?

Rusty
Reply

Jeff,

My colony never did orient to the top entrance. Of all my colonies, it was the only one that didn’t have a top entrance during the winter, and they just didn’t like the idea. Finally, I just put the pollen trap on anyway, and they seem to be handling it just fine. So much for that advice. I ending up using two inner cover to hold up the telescoping cover. They never mention that in the instructions, do they?

Jeff
Reply

Hey Rusty, I like the idea of two inner covers – I wonder why they made the face of the drawer so big, if they had made it smaller it would have fit. In the instructions they mention either using an inner cover or nothing, but I don’t see how it would work if you just put telescoping top directly on of the trap. This is my third day using it, and I have collected about 4 oz each day so far. I’m thinking it will take them some time to get used to it. It has also made them a little agitated (I’ve gotten stung twice just checking the drawer). Lastly, I didn’t realize how using a top entrance exclusively would put so many bees in the air during inspections, it definitely feels more chaotic than checking a hive with a bottom entrance.

BeeHappy
Reply

If you wish to eat pollen, you should consume it when you collect it, at its best strength. It does have all long and short chained amino acids, we humans currently claim to know about. I sprinkle it on a honey toast with a spoon, with the honey it does not taste bad, actually I would call it acquired, in 3 months you will find it fine. The reason that you get less honey is that the bees will adjust to the pollen loss, let’s say the 30% previously mentioned, by having 30% more pollen collectors. Pollen collection has priority over nectar collection, Basically all “extra” bees collect nectar. Pollen collection is part of brood rearing and a more immediate need. So long term trapping will eventually result in more pollen collectors and less collecting nectar. I would agree with previous comment to never trap a week house or NUC etc. IMO when you hit about 3 deeps of bees is a good population to collect from, moving back and forth between 2 or 3 houses is ok but the bees would then need to adjust more often. I think drying and then freeze drying with some of the new gadgets claiming 25 year shelf life should get you food for the bees in the spring and for yourself. It is basically another foraging activity. As far as the 75% loss after a year, just use 3 spoon fulls on your toast instead of 1, by next year you will be use to the flavor.

MANDEEP RATHEE
Reply

Worth a site…….
May I ask a simple question how to dry and store pollen grains collected by installing pollen traps? Is there any standard or good method which will not affect their quality as I have to feed pollen during dearth period?

Rusty
Reply

The best way to preserve the quality is to collect the pollen daily and freeze it immediately. Keep it frozen until you are ready to feed it to the bees.

Riziki Messa
Reply

Hi Rusty

Nice to be here for learning on honey bees’ products.

May I please know how many kilograms of bee pollen can be collected from a standard :angstroth bee hive per year?

Riziki Messa

Rusty
Reply

Riziki,

There is no way I can answer. It will depend on your climate, the available forage, the weather, the competition, the strength of your colony, and many other factors.

Tricia Dragoo
Reply

Has anyone ever tried freeze drying pollen?

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