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.