What is pollen and why is it important?
Here is the 'birds and the bees' bit for those not familiar with biology. Pollen is the sticky powdery part of a flower (stamen) which mates with the female parts of a flower (pistils). Pollen is basically flower sperm and the bees love it. It jumps onto the hair of the bees as they search for nectar and the bees clean it off and pack it in their hind legs. It is their source of protein (nectar is their carbohydrate) and is essential to hive productivity and health. There is more protein in pollen per weight than beef. It is the building block for all the essential elements of life.
It is so important that... no pollen, no bees!
It's fascinating to watch the bees bring in all colour of plant pollen. You mostly see yellow/orange/red and white however they also bring in other pollen and materials. I am often looking for the source of some of the colours.
When bees return with plant pollen it is handed to hive bees who then mix it with enzymes from their saliva as well as some nectar. The saliva includes Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) which creates lactic acid in the mixture. As well, there are powerful probiotics, yeasts and fungi in the final mixture and the result is called 'bee bread'. The bees cap it with a drop of honey just to keep it sealed. Bee bread is a rich source of protein, carbohydrate, vitamins and minerals, fatty acids and a few other important things. And due to the pH being reduced to 4.1 it no longer ferments but stays preserved for years. (Just one more reason to never use fungacides around bees.) The bees pack the bee bread into cells close to where brood will be raised and also into the base of some of the honey cells. This gives them multiple sources of the rich bee pollen. From winter solstice onwards, they will be searching for pollen and it is used almost as fast as it is brought in to feed the growing levels of brood in the colony.
The role of pollen in producing worker and/ or queen larvae had not been understood until very recently. It was thought that royal jelly was the substance that determined the sex of larvae and many beekeepers will tell you that larvae developed in nutrient rich royal jelly produce better and healthier queens. It is not surprising they thought this may have been determining the sex of a bee however it is the withdrawal of pollen from the larvae that turns on the queen making hormones.
What you want to see on a frame is a good mix of nectar in the top corners then pollen and in centre a good area of brood, but sometimes when a colony is struggling they can lay up large areas of pollen near the brood frames and beekeepers have thought this is an early indication they may be preparing to swarm. Where I see this pattern, I look for signs of disease, the health of the brood area, queen cells, and room for the colony to expand its brood area. If you find old dark comb replace as much of it as possible.
Bee pollen is a highly valued health and food supplement. It is seen as a superfood used by many including athletes and allergy sufferers. Some beeks trap the plant pollen as it comes into the hive and sell this as bee pollen. In fact it is not bee pollen but plant pollen. Often it is taken by people with allergies and hayfever as a way of helping their condition. But caution should be noted as the plant pollen may cause increasing symptoms and allergic reactions. Bee pollen (that properly processed by the bees and removed from the comb) however, is more likely to see an improvement in these symptoms. Of course, eating locally produced, unheated, unfiltered honey is the best way to consume bee pollen for improving your health.