Nectar for carbohydrates, pollen for protein, and water are the basics needed by bees and they can be easily seen on flowers gathering the first two of these but less so when drinking water which they will take from any available source such as the underside of leaves, from damp moss in a lawn, the edge of the dirtiest puddle on the track, or a pet's feeding bowl. They also gather other necessities when in season such as resin from shrubs and trees for making propolis, and fungal mycelia from soil which they use as an anti-viral for colony health (more on mycelia and honeybees).
Honeybees will travel great distances to exploit nectar and pollen sources. Trees, shrubs, flowers and farm crops are the usual sources of forage. The location of good forage is communicated by the bees within the hive and a good flow will be visible at the entrance to the hive. Pollen is clearly visible on returning bees when they have it, and it is a sure sign of brood in the hive when this occurs. Different plants produce pollen and nectar at different times of the year, spring, summer, autumn, and some in winter. There is a period between spring and summer that beekeepers know as the June gap, when spring flowers are finished and summer flowers are not yet in bloom, in this period it is sometimes necessary to artificially feed colonies if you have taken an early crop of honey off. The availability of a flowers pollen and nectar largely depends on how accessible it is on the flower, and the length of the insects tongue. Honeybees have relatively short tongues while bumblebees, moths and butterflies have much longer tongues and can reach far into deeper flower-heads.
Pollen and nectar is available right across the seasons from a wide range of plants that flower at different times of the year. The availability is affected greatly by the prevailing weather conditions. Pollen observed on the bees at the hive entrance can be identified from the Pollen Colour Chart
We enjoy a unique temperate/oceanic climate in the UK swept by ocean currents, the gulf stream and prevailing winds which greatly influence the timing of the seasons, the associated weather, the way vegetation grows, and ultimately how and when pollen and nectar is available to our bees. More detail on our Scottish Climate.
As the temperatures rise and the daylight hours extend, vegetation that has been dormant through the winter spring into life. By the end of February spring flowers will be in evidence followed by early flowering trees and shrubs such as hazel, willow, alder, and sycamore into March and April. These early flowering species provide an abundant supply of the nectar and pollen that the colony needs to feed the growing number of larvae in the hive. By the middle of May the colony will be fast approaching full strength when the remainder of spring flowers have burst into bloom.
Break crops such as Oil Seed Rape, peas, or beans present an irresistible forage opportunity for your bees but beware of the effects that an abundant but single source of pollen and nectar can have on your colonies. The bees may reach a frenzied level of foraging resulting in all adult bees leaving the hive to forage leaving no nurse bees and consequently a hive with reduced brood, and stores of pollen and nectar that lack the variety needed for a healthy colony. This can lead to serious problems later in the season. The overall effects of OSR on honeybee colonies, and the associated chemical and biological treatments they are subjected to is not yet fully understood.
Towards the end of May and into June the colony will have been exploiting all the foraging opportunities in your area, and will have built up to full strength, perhaps 50 -70 thousand bees. The variety of forage will be evident from the range of colours of the pollen the bees have been returning with, and makes a good study. Supers that were put on in the middle of spring will be full of honey, perhaps 30lbs or more, time to harvest.
But caution is required here due to several factors. Firstly the bounty of spring flowers will be over and it will be some time before the summer flowers are producing pollen and nectar. Secondly by removing the honey surplus the colony will have nothing to sustain it until the summer flowers appear, and this will be greatly dependant on prevailing weather. And thirdly colony strength will be at its greatest, meaning that they will starve even quicker should there be no stores available. Harvest with care! Be prepared to feed with syrup as necessary! Keep colony inspections regular to ascertain stores levels and swarming tendency (queen cups/cells).
Weather is a critical factor during the summer months and into autumn. Too hot and the flowers don't produce enough nectar, too wet and flowers are spoiled and bees don't get out to forage. Vigilance is key here to ensuring the colony has enough stores should the weather be inclement. With any luck you may get a late summer crop but as previously stated, be wary of sudden starvation. Big colonies means a big appetite and quicker death should they run out of food. Be prepared and have a supply of syrup feed ready if necessary.
As the season rolls on your focus will turn to preparations for winter. By late autumn major foraging opportunities have passed leaving only a few late flowering species such as goldenrod, gorse, and ivy to provide pollen and nectar if the weather permits. Attention should be given to feeding up the colony for winter with heavy syrup until the low temperature prevents conversion, this is usually be when it gets below 8℃ and the bees can't successfully fan the excess water off. The bees may take the syrup down into the cells but with a high water content it risks spoiling in the comb and causing dysentery. At these lower temperatures it is time to use fondant or candy directly on the frames.
Although the temperatures fall to sub zero during UK winters it is widely recognised that perhaps with the exception of the furthest north locations, honeybees continue to lay throughout winter albeit not to the levels seen during spring and summer. Even on a bright day in the middle of winter the bees will be out foraging on anything available. Ivy is an important winter source and is evidenced by the orange coloured pollen. If there are Helleborous flowers blooming in nearby gardens grey pollen will be in evidence even in January. Careful monitoring and feeding with fondant or candy directly on to the bees will see the colony through to the spring, but be wary of isolation starvation when the bees are clustered together for warmth and have used up the immediate stores but physically can't move to reach the stores that are on the next frame.
Chilly winter drafts are a killer in the hive, ensure good seals between boxes and lids after inspections. Open mesh floors should be made draft proof or replaced with solid floors, and mouse proof entrance guards put on. Take care to ensure top air vents are closed and that reduced entrances are not blocked with dead bees and debris. With this taken care of the bees will have no difficulty controlling moisture levels.