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Planting for pollen protein

hi forum

so, theres been a bit of discussion on this, but awhile ago, in the quickly changing modern world. i’ve been planting with bees in mind for the last few years, but only started actually keeping any a few weeks ago, & i’m quickly noticing that my bees aren’t showing much interest in a lot of my painstakingly researched introductions that are so popular with the bumbles.

at the moment we seem to be getting nectar from blackberries, thyme & marjoram, & pollen mostly from opium poppies, the striking blue/grey colour of which is what got me looking closer.

a bit of research tells me that the protein content of pollen has a massive effect on the bees’ well being, with well protein-endowed bees living longer, coping with stress better & being more resistant to a range of diseases. also, suprisingly, that whereas bumble bees are known to be selective in their gathering of pollen, concentrating on more nutritious sources, honeybees apparently just take home more or less anything with the right sized particles. presumably, before we came along & wiped out swathes of the flowering plants, this worked fine.

so what i’m asking myself now (and anyone else interested in the subject) is, where can i find the pollen protein content of plants listed? i know this information exists, as i keep coming across tantalising extracts of it, but the only place i can find detailed info is for australia (i’m in the uk).

then, which of these plants are bees actually interested in? i found a research paper citing the solanaceae (potato family) as having enormously proteinaceous pollen, but my bees are flying straight over a freely flowering potato patch with zero interest shown. likewise comfrey, a close relative of the famous vipers bugloss, which i’d thus assume to have similarly high quality pollen, & definitely chucks out nectar by the gallon, i’ve had a long row of it for years, permanently buzzing with bumblebees as long as theres light to see the flowers, but i’ve not seen a honeybee stop at it once.

& lastly, is there anything we can do to steer the bees in the direction of those plants that are best for them? i’ve heard that individual honeybees only forage on one plant species at a time, so prefer things growing in big stands. don’t know how much of a part proximity to the hive plays, or what influence flower colour has on pollen gatherers. maybe they’ll prefer flowers they’ve previously gathered nectar from?

i’ll be looking at all these things over time, but if anyone has any info/experience/leads, i’d love to hear it…

Opium poppies :astonished:. Can you send me some of your honey :wink::stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye::shushing_face::rofl::rofl:

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ha! don’t think the active ingredients get into much of the plant. seeds are perfectly innocuous & used in bread, plus i’m sure i remember reading somewhere that poppies don’t make nectar, just pollen.
though now you say it, don’t know if you’ve ever watched bumblebees in an opium opppy? not that unusual for there to be a queue, & they sure look like they’re enjoying themselves once they get in there…

Think of bumbles as amateurs and honey bees as professional industrial pollen gatherers and you’ll be on the right lines.
Bumbles can flit from flower to flower and gather whatever is suitable for their mouthparts.
Honey bees, on the other hand, make decisions on what is the best source on a cost/benefit basis and then can send many bees to harvest this.
This often involves them ignoring a nearby pollen source for another further away which they feel is richer, taking into account the extra flight time etc.
And this dynamic changes, so a plant ignored today, or this year might be top target next time.
Best is not to try to choose the bees diet for them but to use plants that flower are various times of the year and the bees will use them if they need to.
In the UK crocus, snowdrop, winter heather are useful in gardens as they provide early pollen which might be useful when there is nothing else available, provided weather consitions allow the bees to fly.

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well…i’m not in a position to contradict anyone who’s been keeping bees longer than a fortnight! got to say though, thats at odds with what i’m finding in the literature-

In contrast to nectar quality (sugar concentration), there is only some evidence that bees can reliably separate high from low quality pollen and adjust their collecting behavior according to their needs (Nicholls & Hempel de Ibarra, 2017). However, recent work suggest that bumblebees are able to do this impressive feat on an individual level (Ruedenauer, Spaethe & Leonhardt, 2015) and that honeybees can on a collective level (likely using feedback from their larvae; Pernal & Currie, 2001; Ruedenauer et al., 2018) if quality differences are sufficiently large. These promising findings suggest that by adding selected high quality pollen resources to agricultural landscapes social bees would likely benefit directly, while at least some solitary bees will likely be able to utilize such additional resources (Hass et al., 2019; Scheper et al., 2015).

full article, if you want it, https://peerj.com/articles/7394/

We found that pollen protein concentrations were highly conserved within plant genera, families, and divisions. We found that bees did not collect pollen that was unusually rich in protein, whether they pollinated or merely robbed their host plant


the suggested explanation i’ve come across is that, while honey bees do the whole industrial gathering thing really well, they don’t have access to all the information because the foragers don’t process pollen themselves but take it back to the hive & hand it over to nurse bees who haven’t left the hive yet. so by the time anyone is in a position to notice its not very good pollen, the gatherer has already gone off to get more, based on the quantity/ease of harvesting.

not intending to diss the bees’ abilities here by the way! its evident that their system works well, but i feel like we’ve put them at a disadvantage in modern times by wiping out much of the diversity of available plants & replacing it with big blocks of monoculture crops, from a limited range of plant families. i’m in a fairly agricultural area here, with a decent range of trees too, & what i’m hoping to do with our approx half acre plot, as well as growing my own food, is plug any gaps in the bees’ supply as effectively as possible. i’m on it with the seasonal range of flowers, & we’re well covered for early pollen, i think- tons of snowdrops when we arrived, which we’ve been spreading around, we’re gradually introducing crocus & i also planted, largely for my own use, a stand of hazel, which is one of the big early pollen sources. put a few patches of hellebore in as well, which have a rep as a good early nectar plant, i don’t see many bees on them, but i guess you wouldn’t expect to that time of year.

so i’m sort of fine tuning now, or hoping to. interesting you mentioned mouthparts by the way, i spent an informative couple of hours a few years back watching the bumbles on my comfrey. i read somewhere that the nectaries can replenish themselves every 45 minutes, & its definitely true that bees keep working them continuously as long as they’re out- even in light rain sometimes.

but what i was seeing was, long tongued bees were going round the front in the approved way, but the short tongued ones (had a few species about, which i managed to identify with the help of a bumblebee poster i’ve got) were biting a hole in the top of the flower tube, in the way my mum used to grumble about them doing with her runner beans. & they weren’t doing every flower, just, presumably, enough to make harvesting easy, then subsequent visitors were using the same holes again & again, & bypassing flowers that hadn’t been holed. & long tongued species weren’t using the holes as a shortcut, but still hanging upside down to get in the front. so i wonder if my ladies don’t have long enough tongues to get into comfrey, & if so, whether they’ll eventually notice theres a lot of flowers with an alternative route in? another thing to look out for! any idea if honeybees do the hack-a-hole trick? i’ve never seen it, but haven’t really been looking up to now…

You are completely correct about the risks of monoculture agriculture and need to take that into account. A feast in spring can result in huge build up and then you have colonies that are too big for the available resources during the summer period. Alternatively a feast in autumn can aid building up of winter stores etc.
Yes, you are very observant about the hack-a-hole as you put it. This is a trick of the bumbles. As far as I know honey bees dont do this.

Hi @richT.
Have a look.

Unless you have hectares to plant or serious part of the community around you shares your goal, your effort does not make much difference for bees in relation to pollen availability bee


Bumble bee queen is able to pull out whole gig on her own where honey bees cannot. Bloody talented amateur I say! :grinning:

mm, interesting, thanks. had one visitation of a honeybee on my spuds so far, & i’ve had bumbles working them pretty well in the past. we don’t get b.impatiens in the uk so presumably someone else here is interested too.
it occurs to me that a large percentage of modern potato varieties are male-sterile, so if theres no/very little pollen & no nectar, no wonder bees aren’t interested! presumably potato researchers will have thought of that though, & when you get a good fertile variety they’ll chuck pollen out by the bucketload.
as for not making a difference, all i can say is, you do what you can, right? i live in quite an agricultural area, so theres various trees, patchy but frequent flowers on the verges, & the occasional bonanza of rape or broad beans. we’ve made efforts to ensure theres pollen & nectar available here virtually year-round, & the gardens frequently full of masses of bumbles, mason bees, beetles, butterflies, hoverflies & droves of flying insects i’ve yet to identify. could be they’d all just go somewhere else when the beans go over or the verges get mown, but a stable food source surely must make life easier…& anyway, its not so much of a sacrifice to have flowers all over the place…

whilst I am unsure of the protein ratio- I am very sure that the pollen from perennial basil is brilliant for my bees. There are innumerable varieties of perennial basil- ideally you want to find one of the infertile ones that have to be propagated via cuttings as they constantly produce flowers all year around. One variety is called Holy basil or Tulsi and it is highly esteemed in India where it is considered a sacred plant. I have planted perennial basil everywhere and every day my bees and all types of insects are all over it- all year round. The bees only get small balls of dark red pollen- but I am convinced it is a high quality food for them. They also get a fair amount of nectar and it is said to make very tasty honey. I have also convinced myself that it is very medicinal for the bees just as it is medicinal for humans. I have read that herbaceous plants produce the most nutritious pollen for bees and basil is a plant that bees favor over almost all others.

you can read a little about it here:

and here is a great video from an Australian beekeeper- see how he plants one basil at the head of every row in his garden- that will surely attract many pollinators and increase pollination of vegetable and fruits:

this next video mentions many uses for Tulsi Basil - for teas, baths and more:

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jim, just anticipated my next thought there. i eventually tracked down some info on good pollen plants, & found many of them were things we’ve already got around. but nearly everything has already flowered or is just coming to the end, & i think there is enough stuff flowering in general this time of year that the bees won’t go hungry, but i’m now wondering where good autumn pollen comes from? we’ve a lot of ivy around here, which i read can make up 80% of bees’ autumn pollen supply or something, so no problems in terms of quantity.
quite a lot of oak trees too, & i’m starting to suspect my bees are getting honeydew from them at the moment. can’t find anything else that could be tempting them away from the flowers, & a couple of times i’ve seen groups of bees coming back followed by a couple of wasps, who’re much in evidence in the trees just now.
oh well! long as they’re eating…

thanks semaphore, that does look like a fine plant to have about. don’t think it’d last the winters where i am though (northern uk), & i might try & get a plant or 2 in the greenhouse/conservatory, but wouldn’t be enough to be a serious food source for the bees.
by the by, i share your instinct about herbs & their medicinal qualities. i’ve got quite a big bed of thyme in the garden, partly because we do use a lot of it, but also because i’ve seen thymol listed as a treatment for some bee illnesses & i figure i can’t do any harm to give them access to their own supply. & its one of the few of the few of my good nectar plants i’ve regularly seen them using.
if you’re in a warm weather area, have you come across echiums? the family of vipers bugloss, which has mightily proteinaceous pollen, a friend of mine had one of the bigger species she managed to overwinter (its a biennial) & year 2 it produced a flower spike about 6 feet high that the bees were all over for weeks. then self seeded. seemed to be doing alright in partial shade as well.

Stumbled across this the other day for anyone interested, includes many non indigenous plants not just Australian natives:


Heaps of other fact sheets here too:


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Yes, ivy is very good, It comes at just the right time to build up winter stores. If you are using flow supers, make sure they are off by then as ivy crystallises very fast and hard!
Tom Seeley estimated that in his area of NE USA the bee colony was in feed surplus for only 2 months of the year; the other 10 months, to a greater or lesser extent, were using stores.

I have heard the name echium- but will have to look them up to refresh my memory.

and yes- the perennial basil is very resistant to most diseases and issues and just grows like mad- cuttings take very easily: but it’s one downfall is frost. If you grow a variety like Tulsi or African blue basil from seed though in the UK I imagine it will do brilliantly in the springtime and summer months. It’s great for the soil too and keeps away pests. The smell is wonderful too.

now…being new to online forums, i’m not sure of the etiquette of replying to multiple posts in one go…but i’m sure someone’ll tell me if i’m breaching it!
so, thanks stevo! i’m interested, thats a very useful resource, with a gratifying number of things in it that i already grow for one reason or another that i can start encouraging a bit more. i tend to let things i like self seed & then practise selective weeding among subsequent crops, doesn’t make for a tidy plot, but one full of quiet interest. i do wish european scientists were as interested in bees as australians though…
ivy; i’d been wondering how to deal with crystallising honeys, only other one i think we get in quantity here is rape, which flowers in about may & i’m hoping the bees will mostly use up over the summer. so you reckon take flow supers off & leave the bees to store it (ivy) in normal frames? thought i remembered reading something ages ago about crystal honey being hard for them to use in cold weather, & i was wondering whether to try & extract it quickly & replace with either syrup or runny honey from earlier in the year? simpler the better though…

going to have to try this perennial basil too! i bet i can do cuttings, if i can get one plant to overwinter in the conservatory.
i think this

is the thing in my friends garden. its a fairly shady garden in town, with lots of walls & established trees about, which i think gives a bit of frost protection. clearly can take a bit of shade though, & you do not see many things growing that fast in this part of the world!