While mite infestation is the #1 issue facing most honey bee colonies in West Virginia, it is highly suspected that nutritional issues are a major factor contributing to winter collapse. In our operation, we want to see a sustainable honey bee population that will survive from year to year without pesticide medication while still producing some surplus honey. Optimal nutrition is essential for every aspect of honey bee behavior including demonstration of mite resistance. When mite pressure is higher, nutritional stress could become the difference between death and survival.
Honey bee nutrition is a very complicated topic. However at the foundation of all honey bee nutrition is the plants upon which the bees forage, which by itself is also a very complicated topic. The Appalachian region is rich in plant diversity and gives rise to a great deal of mystery regarding which plants are most used for honey bee forage. While nectar provides bees primarily with carbohydrate, it is pollen that supplies the protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. Historically, honey production has been the focus of most honey bee foraging research, but it is evident that pollen foraging is equally important.
Using field observations to pinpoint which plants the bees are working for pollen often has severe limitations. Beekeepers often forget to not corbicular pollen when observing honey bees working a given plant. Assuming pollen of a particular color came from a particular flower can be extremely misleading. Quantifying is practically impossible. Getting an accurate overall picture of the 2000+ acres covered by a colony is daunting. Some plants are attractive to bees only at a certain time of day. Some plants bloom high in the treetops.
The project leader has studied pollen foraging extensively and developed the protocol used in this study for trapping polyfloral pollen pellet samples suitable for quantitative analysis that will give an accurate snapshot of the pollen foraging behavior on a given day.
Having some of these foundational questions answered will lay the groundwork for ascertaining the status of honey bees nutritionally as well as what can be done by farmers, landowners, municipalities, mining companies, governments, etc. to provide better honey bee forage.
The goal of this project is to provide for the first time, in an easy-to-understand format, a set of fact-based charts describing the relative abundance of each plant type in its contribution of pollen to honey bees during the summer and fall months (July-October) in Appalachia as bees and beekeepers prepare for winter. We will use pollen trapped at hive entrances according to a standardized protocol, pollen treatment with acetolysis, and microscopic examination of a minimum of 200 random pollen grains per sample to answer the following questions:
• What pollen types are the bees collecting?
• What is the percentage of each type at each time period?
• When are the bees bringing in the highest and lowest quantities?
• How much does it change from one location to the next?
• How much does it change from one year to the next?
• Which wild plants are most valuable to honey bee nutrition and health?
• What gaps in natural honey bee forage need to be filled?
• Are there preferable bloom periods for harvesting pollen for marketing or for supplemental honey bee feed withoutjeopardizing colony health?
The pollen used in this study was gathered according to protocol by the project leader in 2013, 2014, and 2015, and by four other farmers in West Virginia in 2015. One polyfloral pollen pellet sample consisted of two 1-oz vials of pollen pellets taken from the mixed pellets of 3 or more traps in one apiary, trapped throughout one daylight period, labeled with the date, and contained in a sealable bag with a completed Pollen Sample Record Sheet. The samples had been collected weekly or biweekly using plastic front porch pollen traps and kept frozen until analysis.
Analysis of two or three samples from each month from each of the 5 locations will provide enough data for a rough but acceptable picture of pollen foraging/intake. 62 samples were chosen for the July-through-October analysis.
Prior to analysis the pollen needed to be treated with acetolysis and stained to make the pollen grains identifiable with light microscopy. 22 July samples had already been treated in the 2015 Pollen Project, leaving 40 August-October samples to be treated.
In September the project leader sent the 40 August-October. samples to Texas A&M University for treatment and began analysis of the July samples treated previously.
For analysis a small amount of treated pollen was added to a small drop of glycerin on a glass microscope slide, covered with a coverslip, sealed, and examined at 400x magnification, or at 1000x magnification when necessary. 400 individual pollen grains were counted and identified as accurately as possible to the family, Genus, or Species level. The project leader decided to count 400 grains instead of 200 grains to increase the accuracy of the percentages. Pollen image references were supplied by the Technical Adviser to aid with identification. Knowledge of the region’s flora and honey bee preferences helped to narrow the possibilities. A few unidentified pollen grains were photographed with a Nikon DS-Fi3 microscope camera and sent to the technical adviser for aid in identification. Data collection continued on the July and August samples through early December.
So far we have measured the percentage of each pollen type in the polyfloral samples from July and August and observed the changes that took place as various species came into bloom and faded away.
Dominant pollen family types observed in July included Fabaceae (clovers), Anacardiaceae (sumacs), and Vitaceae (creepers), and less commonly Poaceae (corn), Amaranthaceae, and Asteraceae. Dominant plant family types observed in August included Anacardiaceae (sumacs) and Asteraceae (Sunflower, Ragweed, etc.), and less commonly Fabaceae (Clovers) and Ranunculaceae (Clematis).
Some of the Asteraceae types of similar size and spine length were difficult to differentiate, partly due to incomplete references. 15 samples of individual pollen pellets previously collected from the field from bees working known plant species were sent to Texas in December to help fill in these references.
At the time of this report the charts and graphs have not been assembled. The charts and graphs produced in the 2015 pollen project were satisfactory and the intention is to produce the same style of report as was produced in 2015.
One question we had was whether the bees would gather a larger diversity of pollen types when pollen was scarce. When an abundant pollen source becomes available it seems likely that the honey bees would maximize on that resource, while at times when pollen is scarce, the bees might fly further and make use of a wider variety of less desirable pollen types. However our initial observations have not consistently supported this hypothesis. The answer to this question may become clearer as the charts are developed.
We sought to identify which plant types provided what percentage of the bees’ pollen intake at each point through a given season and thereby come to a much better understanding of honey bees ecology in our region, i.e. their relationship to the surrounding plant life that sustains them, or at times, may fail to sustain them. This knowledge could have an extremely wide array of applications related to understanding how human activities that impact the landscape can either enhance or be detrimental to pollinator health.
We also seek to learn at what times pollen income is superabundant, allowing beekeepers the opportunity to harvest excess pollen for human use, winter feeding, etc. Furthermore we can project what pollen types this product is likely to consist of at various times of the year.
So far analysis has been completed on the 22 July samples and the 15 August samples to produce relative abundance values for each pollen type. The charts and graphs to visually display the resulting data have not yet been assembled.
So far the study has revealed great variation in the amount of pollen collected by honey bees from one year to the next. Hence it is important for beekeepers to watch the amount of both pollen and honey stored in the hive on a regular basis and not assume that forage in a particular season will be plentiful.
In 2017 the Honey Glen operation noticed an extended summer dearth period in which very little pollen and nectar was available to the bees. It is likely that the rationing of food stores led to a greater susceptibility to pest and pathogen issues. As a result a larger amount of feed was required and pollen was not harvested in the fall months to allow the bees a better chance of recovery before winter.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Knowledge of honey bee forage. Selecting apiary locations. Awareness of the importance of plant species diversity in the landscape.
“It’s nice to know if we have a fall crop that it could have Ragweed pollen in it for the people that have allergies and consume honey for relief. This whole project is eye-opening because of the bees bringing in different pollens that we had no idea about including the Sycamore in the spring” – Beekeeper from Harrison County
“Your pollen survey has definitely opened my eyes to the importance of maples in the spring. I understand that silver maple is even earlier than red maple and I have added silver maple to my list of trees to introduce in the landscape. I historically have looked at silver maple as a trash tree but your research has changed my mind. I fully agree with your assessment of Winged Sumac. I have seen this shrubby tree in the wild in Fayette County in early August and it was loaded with every kind of pollinator possible including honeybees.” – Beekeeper from Fayette County
“I have certainly gained knowledge, attitude and awareness from the pollen project. Thanks for all your work!” – Organic grower in Elkins area.
“It has been very beneficial to me to learn what types of plants and trees are providing pollen sources for honey bees in our area so I can help my bees to survive and prosper in these difficult times when we are losing large quantities of bees due to a variety of reasons including lack of the proper feeding sources for the honey bees. Before the project I could only guess what types of pollen might be needed by my honey bees and I was never sure what types of pollen they preferred. This study has provided that information and there have been several surprises to me on what types of pollen they were bringing in. This project has provided me valuable information to allow me to know what types of plants and trees to look for in new locations where I will place my bees as I expand my operations. It has also given me information on where to move some existing apiaries I currently have to better provide pollen resources for my current operations. I am very much appreciative of the knowledge that has been obtained through this study and am appreciative of the hard work and dedication that Michael Staddon has provided in gathering this knowledge through his leadership and the many hours he has spent on this project in working with others and performing much of the work himself.” – Beekeeper from Jackson County
We have been very satisfied with the approach taken and grateful for the groundwork and experience gained prior to the beginning of the project which enabled it to be successful so far.
The greatest struggle in the study has been lack of microscopic imaging and software equipment to accurately measure the pollen grains and their surface features and send quality images to Professor Bryant to aid in identification. A microscope and camera purchase is in process with the needed features for this type of research, which could be used in future projects. This could be especially useful for the end-of-season samples yet to be analyzed.
This project needs to be duplicated in other states, habitats, and regions all over the country. It could be especially significant to do this type of study pre-urbanization and post-urbanization of a particular location.
The Project Leader’s region is in the heart of the coming massive shale drilling operations. Future studies could be used to assess the impact this may have on pollinators and habitat.