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.