Pollen patties: when and why?

So-called pollen patties usually contain no pollen, but are designed to simulate real pollen. They can be purchased ready-to-use, can be made at home from a purchased mix, or can be made at home from scratch using a variety of recipes.

The thing to understand about pollen or pollen substitute is that it is used to feed larvae. Eggs don’t eat, pupae don’t eat, and adults eat honey, but the larvae are dependent on a supply of nutritious, high-protein food that is provided by pollen. The feeding system is indirect: nurse bees actually consume the pollen, usually in the form of bee bread. This rich diet allows them to secret the royal jelly that is fed to the youngest larvae. As the larvae mature, they are switched over to a diet of bee bread and honey.

The availability of pollen or pollen substitute to the colony increases the production of brood. Because of an enriched diet, the nurses are able to secret lots of royal jelly. So they prepare cells for eggs and the queen deposits them.  Suddenly, brood production is in full swing.

But do you really want enhanced brood production in late fall or early winter? Under normal circumstances, the brood nest is at its smallest this time of year. The queen may completely stop laying eggs and brood may be non-existent.

The lack of brood at this time of year is a good thing.  Consider the following:

  • The queen gets a much-needed respite from egg laying and a period of rejuvenation.
  • The center of the cluster can be kept at a much lower temperature when no brood is present. According to Caron and Connor, in Honey Bee Biology (2013), when a colony is broodless the center of the cluster is kept at about 70°F (21°C), as opposed to about 94°F (34°C) when brood is present. This lower temperature conserves food stores.
  • With little brood, a smaller adult population is maintained, which also conserves food stores.
  • Perhaps most important, the break in the brood-rearing cycle provides a break in the Varroa cycle. The mites cannot reproduce when no honey bee brood is present.

Furthermore, you don’t want your colony population to peak before the nectar flow. If you build up your colony too soon, you will have a cajillion bees with nothing to eat. Not good.

As you can see, maintaining a sizable brood nest all winter long may not be the best thing for your bees, so it follows that stimulating brood production too early may not be wise. My rule of thumb for a hobby beekeeper is to withhold pollen substitute until after the winter solstice. The colony is attuned to changes in photoperiod, so after the solstice, as the hours of daylight gradually lengthen in the northern hemisphere, brood production naturally increases. To coincide with that increase, you can provide pollen.

Are there exceptions? Absolutely. Anyone who is going to move their bees into almonds or some other southern crop needs to build populations sooner than someone with stationary hives.  Also, commercial beekeepers taking their bees into monoculture crops have to deal with the limited nutrition that comes with single-species foraging. So that is a second reason for feeding an enriched pollen diet. In fact, I think this is how all this early pollen feeding got started: the commercial keepers do it so everyone does it. But the commercial keepers have good reasons that the hobbyist normally doesn’t have.

We tend to think that if our colonies need sugar, they also need pollen. But aside from the fact that only larvae require it, pollen availability differs from nectar availability. Pollen is available earlier in the spring and later in the fall. We’ve all seen bees collecting pollen with snow on the ground, or in between winter storms. My bees are still bringing in pollen now, in mid-November, due to a warm spell.

Part of this is because many plants produce pollen even though they don’t produce nectar. Early trees like alder provide heaps of pollen without a trace of nectar. Grasses, evergreens, and many others are similarly pollen-heavy. I find it rare that a colony is actually short of pollen, either fresh or stored as bee bread.

Even so, there will be times when supplementing your bees with pollen is advantageous. Local weather and climate will have an impact on pollen supplies, as will the selection of local plants, the types of bees, the size of the colony, and many other factors. So by all means, if your colony needs pollen, give it to them. But for a normal colony in a normal year, I strongly recommend that you at least wait until after the solstice.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

Mike
Reply

Thanks Rusty,

I finally understand more. I didn’t know why I would need this or when.
I was becoming confused with all these types of patties and candy, etc.
I was also wondering when the multivitamin pill was going to be available!
:-)

cgrey8
Reply

Excellent info. I’ve often wondered just how necessary pollen patties are. And this post sums it up far better than I’ve read anywhere else.

Mark Luterra
Reply

This makes sense to me. I haven’t fed pollen patties at all over the past year, and the bees still built up too fast to swarm in mid April. They seem to be able to find pollen whenever they need it, and I never take any away from them so I trust that they know how much they will need for winter. If we ever get a spring that is so cold and rainy that the bees can’t get pollen from the abundant flowers, or if (heaven forbid) I find myself keeping bees in the middle of a weed-free monoculture then I might consider feeding pollen patties.

Ken
Reply

Rusty, what about the so called winter patties? I am wondering if they should be used, when, and so forth?

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

I’m not familiar with the term “winter patties” but I think that’s what I’m talking about here.

cgrey8
Reply

I’ve never heard of the term “winter patty” either. However if I had to guess, I’d say it’s someone’s term for sugar candy.

Nancy
Reply

Thanks as always, Rusty: adding the timing info to my mental calendar.

Two hives I combined at the end of summer wound up with 4 leftover frames of just pollen. Should I freeze it, and could I use it in the spring? I set it near the hives to see if they would salvage it but it attracted yellowjackets (which I stood there happily squushing with my heavy gloves) so I moved it to a tote in the shed.

BTW the frames of just pollen were from a “laying worker” hive. I have heard that they will use up stored honey in summer rather than foraging, because they are kept busy feeding so many drones. These sure did. Have you ever heard of this?

Thanks!
Nan

Rusty
Reply

Nancy,

You should probably freeze the pollen frames to protect them from beetles and moths.

No, I haven’t heard of laying worker hives not foraging, but it’s very possible.

Mark Luterra
Reply

Winter patties appear to be candy boards with some added Honey B Healthy and pollen substitute.
http://www.dadant.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=1281

I’m not sure if forcing bees to eat protein by mixing it with their food is actually a good thing, as there is no natural equivalent (protein-rich carbohydrate food) in the bee diet. But it seems to work well enough for Dadant to sell them in bulk…

Rusty
Reply

Mark,

Some people make plain sugar patties and, before they dry, sprinkle them with pollen substitute. That puts the pollen in a separate layer so the bees can decide whether to eat it. Reminds me of those plates with three little compartments . . . meat, potatoes, veggies all in their own place.

cgrey8
Reply

I thought raw honey has pollen in it. Doesn’t it?

Granted, it’s not a lot and it’s not there because the bees “put” it there. It’s just there because where there’s nectar, there’s often pollen so they often get mixed. Also, I thought that what gives raw unfiltered honey the cloudy look is pollen (and other various contaminants which probably are also protein sources).

If all this is true, there may be some plausible argument for including a small amount of pollen substitute to add protein to the high-carb candy.

Thoughts?

Rusty
Reply

Chris & Mark,

Chris is right; raw honey does contain a small amount of pollen. Although it is not enough for raising brood, it is probably enough for any minor needs the adult bees may have. Although the conventional wisdom is that adults need only carbohydrates and not protein, I have always wondered if there wasn’t a small need for protein for such things as healing damaged tissues or producing hormones. My thought is they may get enough from these embedded grains.

When I was working on my thesis I came across several photographs of pollen grains that had gone through a honey bee digestive tract. Only a certain percentage get digested and the rest go through the bee intact. Pollen grains have weak spots, the germination pores, which are attacked by the honey bee digestive system, but not all grains are compromised and many pass through unscathed.

Although health foodies attest to the benefits of eating pollen, it seems that humans are not nearly as adept at digesting pollen as bees. Most pollen consumed by humans just barrels through the human digestive tract like a kid on a Disney ride and emerges unscathed at the end.

Anyway, I digress, but I think the subject of pollen as a protein source is fascinating. In truth, I have always mixed a small amount of pollen substitute in with the sugar candy starting in January or February and my bees have done well. But I like the idea of sprinkling it on the surface before the candy hardens so the bees have a choice. A lot of undigested pollen would seem to be a problem if there were too many “no fly” days in a row.

Ken
Reply

Thanks Mark. That was exactly what I was referring to. But I really didn’t know what they were and didn’t want to order some to find out. Sounds like candy boards, sugar patties, and sugar placed on newspaper in the hive is about the best bet if a person doesn’t have good honey. I wont bother with the “winter patties”. Thanks again for the clarification. That’s why I love this post!

Marty
Reply

Winter patties are usually 3:4% protein and about 80% carbs, with the high carb content it is thought to help the bees maintain the brood nest temperature. This enables the bees to actually raise brood during colder temperatures. I do almond pollination and never (hardly ever) put “pollen patties” on my bees before January 1st and then I do it because if the weather goes south the bees have a “pollen extender” until the weather breaks. I fully agree queens need a break that is how they evolved, if given a break I feel they lay heavier in late winter or early spring and build better and faster than queens that have been pushed year around. Just my thoughts after 38+ years of observations.

Rusty
Reply

Marty,

Thanks. Good info.

Rich Y
Reply

Thanks good info. Was at a meeting with our state guy (Jerry Hays) in a Dadant facility. The question came up about pollen patties. What Fflorida found was that the bees didn’t consume the pollen patties they just carried it out of the hive.

Rusty
Reply

Rich,

It depends on how badly they need it. I can’t imagine bees needing pollen very often in Florida, even in the northern parts.

Diana
Reply

I have old dark frames in storage that are packed with pollen. Are these still worthy? How old is too old for pollen? I kept these aside to use for splits but they might be four or five years old.

Rusty
Reply

Diana,

Old pollen pellets dry out and become hard as rocks. Usually I don’t use it. If you put it in the hive, the bees often pull out the little marbles themselves and drop them on the bottom board.

Leave a comment

name*

email* (not published)

website