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

Recipe for dry pollen substitute

The addition of vitamin C is optional, but many beekeepers believe it encourages the bees to consume the pollen substitute. The mix can be put in an open feeder (such as a birdfeeder) in early spring when the bees are flying but not much is in bloom.

Dry pollen substitute

Serves Many
Prep time 15 minutes
Allergy Milk, Soy
Dietary Gluten Free, Vegetarian
Meal type Side Dish, Snack
Misc Pre-preparable
Occasion Spring, Winter
For beekeepers who prefer to feed dry pollen substitute instead of patties.

Ingredients

  • 3 Parts soy flour
  • 1 Part brewer's yeast
  • 1 Part dry milk (instant or non-instant baker's milk)
  • 1 teaspoon vitamin C (for every 6 cups of mixture)

Note

It is best to measure these ingredients by weight instead of volume. For example, if you use three pounds of soy, use one pound of yeast and one pound of dry milk.

Directions

Step 1
Put the the first three ingredients in a bowl.
Step 2
Take some vitamin C tablets and crush into a powder.
Step 3
Add one teaspoon of crushed vitamin C for every six cups of mix.
Step 4
Thoroughly combine the ingredients.
Step 5
In the winter, the dry mix can sprinkled on the top bars or put in a feeder above the brood box. In the early spring, the mix can be placed in a bird feeder near the hive.

What vitamins should I give to my bees?

I am in no way an expert on honey bee nutrition. But in the past few years—especially since the advent of colony collapse disorder—many knowledgeable people have been studying bee nutrition under the theory that healthier bees are better able to withstand the onslaught of diseases and environmental stresses that face them. In my opinion this is an excellent line of inquiry. Living things in general do better when they are well fed.

Like most animals, honey bees need a variety of carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, vitamins, and minerals for optimum health. In nature, bees get the majority of their carbohydrates from nectar (honey) and the other components come mostly from pollen. Pollens vary in their nutritional composition, but since honey bees normally consume many different types of pollen, they are able to meet their nutritional requirements.

Trouble can occur in the hive at the end of winter when food stored the past summer is largely depleted. For this reason, beekeepers often feed pollen substitutes in the early spring. Since a full complement of amino acids (the substances that make up protein) is required to produce brood, feeding pollen substitutes in spring can help colonies get off to a good start.

Many companies now produce pollen substitutes that can be made into patties, mixed with syrup, or fed dry. Each product has been designed with a slightly different profile of the essential nutrients, but I am in no position to say which is best. I would probably trust any of the commercial preparations.

In the past, I have always fed pollen patties in the early spring and, in general, they have been poorly received. Usually they were only partly eaten before they dried into hockey pucks and I tossed them out. This year, in place of pollen patties, I decided to experiment with making hard candy enriched with pollen substitute.

The first time I put the pollen-enriched cakes in the hives I also put in some leftover plain candy cakes—I just wanted to use them up. So in each hive I put one plain candy cake and one candy cake fortified with pollen substitute. A week later when I checked the hives, I was amazed to find the pollen-fortified cakes gone and the plain ones still there. Obviously, there was something in there the bees wanted.

I have repeated this three times in the last month. My bees just love the stuff and I’m very curious to see how they do as spring approaches.

Hard candy, of course, is not something to use with a new package of bees. Although I’m not starting any new colonies this year, if I were, I would try one of the liquid amino boosters in sugar syrup along with Honey-B-Healthy. In the past I’ve used only Honey-B-Healthy and syrup, but after watching my bees munch down the pollen substitute, I’m pretty much sold on the idea.

I’m very interested to see how these overwintered colonies compare to those I’ve overwintered in the past. I will also be on the lookout for the results of controlled experiments where these “designer diets” were used. It is all fascinating.

Rusty

How to make protein-enriched candy boards

I just made my first batch of candy cakes enriched with pollen substitute and I am very happy with the result.

For years I’ve been messing with pollen substitute in different formats. Many times I’ve tried making it into patties. Some of these patties got runny and dripped down between the frames. Some dried up and turned hard as hockey pucks. Some sprouted furry green mold. I’ve tried pressing them between disks of wax paper and rolling them in granulated sugar but nothing seemed to keep them palatable.

Last year, I mixed the substitute with heavy syrup and poured it into plastic zip bags which I split open like baggy feeders. Some of these got eaten and some grew the furry green stuff in the shape of an X, right where I cut the bag.

Then I read that you could mix pollen substitute into the sugar syrup when making candy boards or candy cakes. Thing is, I worried that the high temperature of the syrup would degrade the proteins, so I was reluctant to try it. Finally, I wrote to the makers of MegaBee and asked them about the heat problem.

I was quite impressed with the timely and thorough answer from MegaBee. According to the answer I received, they have sent the enriched hard candy to independent testing labs for analysis and found no significant degradation of the amino acids. They also provided me with an updated recipe for the boards which they say will stand up better to variations in ambient humidity.

Since I’m getting ready for spring build-up, I immediately mixed up a batch. It was easy to do and I actually liked the way it smelled—sort of malty. As soon as it was ready I poured the mixture into paper plates the same way I do when making plain candy cakes. I am eager to see how the bees react to it because it was much easier to handle than any of the messy preparations I made in the past.

If you try this, make sure you work quickly after you pour in the MegaBee because the mix will harden in mere moments. And just a reminder: use extreme caution when making candy. The mixture is very hot and could cause severe burns.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite