Middlesex Beekeepers’ Day Part 2: David Aston, Plants and honeybees

A follow-up post to ‘Middlesex Beekeepers’ Day – Terry Clare, Queen rearing for the average beekeeper‘.

Below are my notes from Dr David Aston’s talk. David is President of the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA), a Master Beekeeper and holder of the National Diploma in Beekeeping (NDB). I have paraphrased, but the thoughts and facts are his.

David Aston

David Aston

Look about you next time you travel across the country. The UK environment is experiencing destruction everywhere, with hedgerows being slashed and the mechanical flail whipping back foliage that creatures could live in. Meanwhile, in our gardens many of us are obsessed with tidying away any mess; in doing so we are taking away the homes of creatures that could have lived there.

As beekeepers we should not blame the weather for everything. We can overcome most of the problems. At a recent conference on the health of honeybees which David attended, one of the themes which emerged from the papers presented was that well fed bees are more resistant to disease. Their ability to cope with pesticides is very dependent on how well fed they are. Just like with us humans, nutrition is key.


Honey bee colonies require around 120kg of nectar a year just to survive. Bumblebees live on a knife edge as a bumblebee worker only has about 40 minutes flight time on a full stomach. (So next time you see a sluggish bumblebee on the ground, don’t assume she’s doomed. If you can get her to a flower that provides nectar, she could regain her energy).


A colony will only keep a supply of about 1-2 weeks worth of pollen at a time. Pollen is important in late summer for laying down winter storage protein; the workers will need it to start feeding young brood in spring.

Bee with orange pollen

As well as protein, pollen also supplies essential amino acids (+K, Na, Ca, Mg) and lipids, which are essential for brood food production by the workers. Each worker requires 125-145mg pollen over her lifetime.

Not all pollen is equal: the bees need a mix of pollens and those high in protein are especially valuable. David showed us a chart of the percentage of crude protein in various pollens, which I jotted down hurriedly and will try to replicate here.

% of crude protein in pollen
Inadequate pollens
  • Pollens which are inadequate for honeybee nutrition: blueberry, weeping willows, sunflower
  • Coniferous trees such as pine, spruce, fir and cedars are also especially poor.
Poor pollens
  • Sunflower: 13%
  • Maize: 15%
  • Weeping willow: 15%
  • Lavender: 20%
Average pollens
  • Pussy willow: 22%
  • Oil seed rape: 24%
  • Vetch: 24%
  • Dandelions, sweetcorn, elm, ash have average pollens too
Above average/excellent pollens
  • Almond: 25%
  • White clover: 26%
  • Pear: 26%
  • Vipers Bugloss: 35%

When beekeepers in France take their bees back after leaving them at sunflower fields for pollination contracts, the bees are so protein deficient it tends to take 3-4 months for them to get back to normal protein levels.

If you are worried that your bees are not finding enough pollen, David mentioned that he uses Nektapoll twice a year (a kind of fondant containing pollen substitute).

Time of dehiscence (when flowers are open for business)

Most flowers do not release nectar all day long; there are particular times of day at which they provide the most nectar. The bees are aware of this and learn when to visit particular species. For instance, poppy provides nectar in the early morning, dandelion mainly morning, crocus at midday, apple & pear mainly afternoon and the broad bean in the afternoon.


Dandelions and daisies in the sun

Adaptation of bees to flowers (and vice versa)

Scientists know now that bees carry an static electricity charge: a flying bees has 450 volts potential. The stigma of a flower is well earthed and the anthers well insulated. Pollen is drawn towards the charged bee and can be pulled across a 0.5mm air gap.

The shape of bees’ eyes is really crucial. The spherical shaped eyes allow bees to measure angles accurately in flight.

We should train ourselves to watch where nectar and pollen comes from and how bees work the flowers. If we become used to watching bees away from the hive this closely, we may begin to notice details inside the hive more readily.

National Pollinator Strategy

David reminded us that the government is putting this in place to improve forage for pollinators and it will hopefully be coming soon.  There is more information on the strategy at gov.uk/government/publications/bees-and-other-pollinators-their-health-and-value. Talk to your friends and neighbours, try to encourage them to plant bee-friendly flowers.

A member of the Harrow association asked for ideas on how they could meet the increased demand for training from new members. David suggested that rather than just offering beekeeping classes, local Beekeeping Associations could try holding taster days for people who would like a chance to see some bees and learn about how to help them, rather than keep bees themselves.

My thoughts on the talk 

I’m going to continue my summer walks looking for bees on flowers with renewed enthusiasm. There is so much to learn about bees’ diets and how they interact with flowers. At some point I plan to take the BBKA’s Module 2 exam, Honeybee products and forage.

As I looked around me during the talk, I couldn’t help noticing that most people were probably about thirty years older than me. I don’t think a single other person was in their 20s or 30s. And I thought about how most people my age in London don’t have a garden, or a home of their own, or any prospects of being able to afford one.

How can my generation increase bee-friendly forage? Other than getting involved in community projects, guerrilla gardening or giving money to charities like treesforcities.org, I don’t think we can. That will have to be enough for now.

On Saturday morning I’m going to help out at the new Radbourne Walk project to create a wildlife corridor along the Northfield allotments, we will be clearing a section of path, sowing a wildflower meadow and making a loggery for stag beetles. I have some gingerbread in the oven 🙂

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper who has recently moved from London to windswept, wet Cornwall. I first started keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary in 2008, when I created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully! - future successes.
This entry was posted in Bee biology, Disease prevention and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Middlesex Beekeepers’ Day Part 2: David Aston, Plants and honeybees

  1. Nikki vane says:

    Excellent post as ever Emily, thank you. I particularly picked up on David’s suggestion that BKAs should perhaps offer taster days and pollinator friendly information rather than continue to run beekeeping courses. This is something a few (very experienced) Beekeepers were suggesting and trying to promote in London at least 4-5 years ago.


    • Emily Heath says:

      Having helped out at a local library talk last year, lots of people did seem content just to learn about the bees and then go on a tour of a local nature reserve. Similarly I’ve been on reptile finding tours and days out with birds of prey before – I wouldn’t want to do that every weekend, but they were great one-off experiences that made me more appreciative of the creatures involved.


  2. Another excellent blog Emily 🙂


  3. A good report on an interesting talk. I think he gave similar at teh Bucks beekeepers seminar a year or two back and I found it very interesting. Actually really like the bucks seminars – the next one is March 8th


  4. Reblogged this on Apiarylandlord's Blog and commented:
    A good summary, well worth reblogging.


  5. Thanks for this summary, Emily. I myself have always ascribed to the ‘wild gardening’ philosophy (as in The Wild Garden by William Robinson, 1870). Of course, I have only been able to put a name to it, having just recently learned about Robinson. Before, I was the lazy, unkempt gardener. Now when neighbours and friends look disapprovingly on my garden, at least I can say I am part of a movement of some kind. The bees and the birds approve, at least!


  6. Wendy says:

    A fascinating post, Emily. I was particularly interested in the protein percentages in pollen, and I was surprised that dandelion doesn’t do better because bees love it so much. I’m going to a talk on bee nutrition myself this weekend, so I wonder if it will be raised then, too.
    I’ll certainly keep protein value in mind when I’m buying seeds and flowers for this year.


    • Emily Heath says:

      I was surprised about the dandelions too until I remembered that some flowers are attractive for their pollen and others for their nectar – dandelions are an important forage source for bees, but this is probably because of their nectar. Within a hive most workers will specialise in collecting nectar, a large number will specialise in collecting pollen, and a few will collect both.

      Lavender is on the list as having poor pollen quality, but the nectar it supplies makes it one of the best plants for attracting bees.


  7. Grower says:

    Thanks for sharing your notes. I especially found the protein content bit interesting. I always just assumed pollen is pollen. My beekeeping partner has talked about collecting cattail pollen but I just looked it up and it’s only around 17% crude protein.

    I understand your concern about how little you feel your generation can do to help the bees, but I think there is more than you realize so don’t abandon hope and keep up the good work!


  8. Another inspirational post, apart from being very interesting about the different protein levels in bees. I think you touched a chord. It is a very good idea to encourage gardeners to plant bee friendly plants but it leaves all the people without gardens at a loss. I love the idea of community gardens and perhaps schools with land could be encouraged to think of bee friendly plants and hedging.


    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks. There is a lot of evidence that having green spaces is good for people’s mental and physical health. That means that having public gardens and parks could actually be saving the NHS money as well as being homes for wildlife – it will be a great tragedy if we lose these spaces in the future.


  9. Brilliant – thanks again for the great information


  10. solarbeez says:

    Vipers Bugloss is a type of echium which I’m happy to say I’m growing…also that it’s considered high in good pollen. Seems to me that I read somewhere (can’t find it now) that echium releases it’s nectar all day, not just certain times.
    In my bee club, there are few young beekeepers. Most are near retirement age although with the newly built bee yard, it is hoped that we will get some high school aged kids to be interested. I think it’s wonderful that you will be participating in creating a wildlife corridor.


  11. Fascinating post, thank you. The Radbourne Walk project sounds great and I am sure they will enjoy your gingerbread.
    The BBCT has a useful guide to planting bee-friendly flowers etc: http://bumblebeeconservation.org/get-involved/gardening-for-bees/


  12. P&B says:

    Thank you. I learn something new about bees every time I read your blog.


  13. Pingback: Middlesex Federation Day Part 2: Pam Hunter, How nutrition affects colony health | Adventuresinbeeland's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.