Pollen loads of the honey bee

A post from Sarah, about honey bees. 

Today, me and Ronnie spent the afternoon at The Bluecoat at a ‘show and tell’ event organised by Mr Seel’s Garden about the project they’ve been doing looking at how food has been grown in Liverpool in the past, and how that could inspire current communities in Liverpool who grow food. Ronnie’s written about the event here.

One of the people I met today was a beekeeper, Andrew Hubbard, who has hives across Liverpool and sells his delightful ‘postcode honey’, with the jars beautifully labelled with L25, or L8, depending where the hives are located.

'Postcode honey'. Delightful.

‘Postcode honey’. Delightful.

If you look at different jars of honey, you will see that the honey from different places are different colours, especially the L25 honey. That’s because honey varies depending on the different flowers that bees feed on, because pollen colour varies. On Andrew’s table was a small guide to the colour of pollen. A little brochure with squares of colour indicating what flowers produced the different colours. You thought pollen was all the same colour right? Sort of yellow. Well, a lot of it is yellow, or orange, but it can vary tremendously and even be red, green or blue.

This is how I found out this fascinating fact.

Ronnie has always been a good one for interesting birthday presents for me. In September 2007 he presented me with a place at night school to study for my RHS Horticulture certificate. The following year it was a beekeeping course. As bees aren’t very active in the autumn and winter, the next course is in March 2009. In Gloucstershire, at Hartpury College. (The website doesn’t list beekeeping courses there any more).

As it happens we had visited Hartpury before, the churchyard in the village is home to the famous ‘Hartpury bee shelter‘. So I went and had another look at this extremely unusual piece of Victorian stone carving.

The Hartpury bee shelter.

The Hartpury bee shelter.

Yes, a bee shelter. A carved stone ‘building’ made to hold straw ‘skeps’ (which you see in the lower shelf), which were a traditional way of keeping bees, before hives were developed. Nearly demolished in the 1960s, it was saved and now is thoroughly restored. The only one of its kind.

Anyway, I digress. Back at Hartpury college, I spend five days getting to grips with the honeybee. Mornings were theory classroom work, and afternoons were practical. In the idyllic location of the bee hive field, among the early flowering white blossom of blackthorn (a good food source for bees as it’s one of the first shrubs to flower in spring), we learnt all about honeybees.

Bee hives at Hartpury college.

Bee hives at Hartpury college.

Blackthorn.

Blackthorn blossom.

Kitted out in our bee suits, I think we look vaguely medical or like astronauts.

Kitted out in our bee suits, I think we look vaguely medical, a team of surgeons, or like astronauts.

We learn how to approach opening a hive.

We learn how to approach opening a hive.

The frames in the hive, after the lid has been taken off.

The frames in the hive, after the lid has been taken off.

Inspecting the frames.

Inspecting the frames.

Close inspection of the frames, revealing lots of information about the state of the hive and the bees.

Close inspection of the frames, revealing lots of information about the state of the hive and the bees.

And observing the bees at close quarters.

And observing the bees at close quarters.

And of course getting pictures taken of ourselves in the novel bee suit outfit!

And of course getting pictures taken of ourselves in the novel bee suit outfit!

We also learn how to move a hive. Bee hives are used to take colonies of bees to places where they are used as pollinators, to increase food crop production. Bees are valuable in this way, because a third of what we eat, and much of what we wear, relies on pollination by honeybees. That’s why it’s important that we look after bees, as they are declining in large numbers. In the book ‘A World without Bees‘, published in 2008 (and partly what sparked my interest in honeybees) authors Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum provide compelling argument for the need to protect our bees.

This is the hive we have moved into place. The opening of the hive goes into the glasshouse.

This is the hive we have moved into place. The opening of the hive goes into the glasshouse, so that the bees pollinate the strawberry plants inside.

And when you start to examine bees at close quarters, you begin to see different things.

Here's two honeybees sitting on the shoulder of someone.

Here’s two honeybees sitting on someone’s shoulder. Can you see the colour of the pollen on their back legs?

Bees collect pollen to use as food sources for raising baby bees (brood). The female bees have special ‘pollen baskets’ on their back legs where they collect pollen and transport it back to the hive. The bee on the left has pollen that is yellow, I don’t claim to be an expert, but that could be willow. And the bee on the right has dark blue pollen, and that’s almost certainly from spring squill, a early blue flower. As part of collecting the pollen, it also causes some grains to fall into the female parts of the flower, and hence pollination happens, so the flower will go on to form a viable seed (and also fruits if it produces them, like apples, which are just the fleshy covering of apple seeds).

Whilst getting some books out the library at Hartpury for my homework, I come across this amazing book.

The Pollen Loads of the Honey Bee, by Dorothy Hodges.

The Pollen Loads of the Honey Bee, by Dorothy Hodges.

Inside are colour charts of the colour of pollen. All stuck in with little squares of card, like a paint chart.

caption

Early summer pollen colours.

caption

On the top right you can see both willow and squill listed next to each other as early spring pollens.

The book is exquisite. Published in 1952, it’s out of print now, and I wondered if I could get my own copy. But I discover it’s quite rare now and prices are in the £100s. At least I’d thought to take some photos of it. There are some modern guides to pollen load colours, including one by Dorothy Hodges son, William Kirk – here. And also on Wikipedia there is a guide too – here.

The frontspiece in the book is gorgeous.

caption

That flower actually looks like a stylised squill flower.

Squill flower under my USB microscope.

Squill flower under my USB microscope, blue pollen clearly visible.

In the second half of the book, there are Dorothy’s drawings of pollen grains. Under a microscope all pollen grains from different plants are different. The information on the pollen grain allows it to act like a key in a lock when it lands on the female flower parts, to create successful pollination in the same species. Which is why honeybees, in fact all bees (and other pollinators), are important to us.

Different pollen grains

Different pollen grains

So next time you see a honeybee, they are the small brown ones, or the larger ‘furrier’ yellow and black bumblebee (who also collect pollen), take at look at the hind legs, and maybe you’ll be able to see different coloured pollen collected there. And just think how amazing that every grain from different plant species varies. Nature shows us so much to inspire us.

The lovely honeybee.

The lovely honeybee.

The British Beekeepers Association website has lots of information about keeping bees.

5 thoughts on “Pollen loads of the honey bee

  1. cheethamlibMandy

    This is so interesting Sarah and may I say that you look quite fetching in your bee suit. The Hartpury bee shelter and Dorothy Hodges book are both amazing adjuncts to the fascinating world of bees. Where would we be without them ?

    I have heard of the other 2 books you mentioned. About 2 years ago, a swarm of bees decided to make a home in my letter box so I called a bee man who carefully removed them and took them away to bushland just outside Perth.

    Reply
  2. lindsay53

    Lovely Sarah! Yes, we too have noticed a great difference in colour and taste of our honey, depending on when we harvest it. The early harvest yields quite dark, strong tasting honey, whilst the later harvest is light in colour, very clear & lovely & fruity tasting. We too are still facing so many factors that could potentially destroy the honey bee. Not just pesticides & insecticides but the lies that are told around their use. Plus, natural predators like the Asian hornet and disease like varroa. We try to provide a little micro haven for our bees but it is so difficult to stop outside influences getting in. Like the farmer spraying albeit, he said, half strength pesticide in his field, just over the hedge from our hives! We do now have an arrangement with him whereby we place a couple of our hives on his land. (He felt guilty. We have more space for the bees to forage. Everyone is happy). This is an arrangement we’ve extended to our other friends who have many acres of woodland nearby. There we have a placed a couple of top bar hives, the type they use a lot in Africa & the Caribbean. Supposed to be a more natural way for the bees to build their colony. Do you have hives on your plot now? Love to hear how you get on! X

    Reply
    1. Sarah Horton

      I’ve not heard of the Asian hornet, I didn’t realise they had these predators as well. Great that you have been able to negotiate some extra ‘hive spaces’ there and educate your neighbour about the danger of pesticides too.
      I learnt also about those top bar hives on my bee course too, they are much cheaper than a traditional hive as well.
      After doing the bee course, I actually decided not to get hives, but I was interested in learning more about it, thinking I might want to get hives – but I didn’t realise how complicated it was and also how many problems, like varroa, there are. But we do have two hives at the allotments, on a shared plot about 50 feet away from Plot 44, and there is a ‘bee team’ who share the responsibility of looking after them. They are doing fine, currently wrapped in bubble wrap for winter. In the milder weather we had earlier in January, I saw lots of them around the mahonia… must have come out for an additional bit of food! I love having them so near, nothing like the sound of the happy hum of lots of honeybees!

      Reply
      1. lindsay53

        One of the benefits of being an island, don’t think the asian hornet has crossed the channel yet, but it is heading steadily northwards, here in France. We have heard of beekeepers being totally unable to manage the ‘invasion’ and simply having to give up. I have faith in the bees though and in their ability to adapt & respond to the threat. It seems in Asia, where the bees are accustomed to the hornets, they surround it & then beat their wings to raise the temperature to 50 degrees C in order to suffocate it. Amazing creatures!

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