If you haven’t heard, the Purina company is marketing a new protein supplement for honey bees, called Hearty Bee. The ingredients include something called “spray dried poultry blood,” which may sound unsettling. Since my mail is running strongly against feeding animal blood to vegetarian bees, I decided to look at the issue more carefully.
Rewriting the menu
The truth is, bees are basically vegetarian, just like wasps are basically carnivores. But the operative word is “basically.” Wasps also drink nectar and bees also eat meat.
For example, honey bee workers are known to cannibalize certain larvae within their own hive. The term beekeepers use for this practice is “reabsorb”—a dainty substitute for eat. Munch. Scarf. Swallow.
When worker bees find diploid drone larvae in the brood nest, they eat them. From a biological point of view, this prevents the workers from spending a lot of time and energy feeding a drone that will be sterile. Instead, it takes the nutrients already spent on those larvae and reuses them as food.
Similarly, when the queen lays more eggs than the workforce can care for, the eggs are sometimes eaten by the workers. Eggs are full of protein and it doesn’t make sense for the colony to waste those valuable nutrients.
Carnivores are actually common in the bee world. Many species of cleptoparasitic bees eat the brood of other bees. They enter a bee’s nest, lay their eggs on the pollen ball collected by the homeowner, and sometimes eat any eggs or larvae found in the nursery. Bees are survivors, so they do what’s necessary.
The beverage bar
It is also well known that honey bees prefer water that has an odor. Bees are frequently attracted to pools with chlorine or salt. They like mossy bird baths and slimy stones. Many believe that the bees find these water sources by smell rather than sight. In addition, water with an odor probably contains nutrients the colony requires.
Regardless of the reason for selecting the liquids they do, honey bees are not picky. If you watch carefully, you can see honey bees drinking dog urine or the liquid oozing from fish guts and cow pies. Even slimy pond water has plenty of animal life in it, both dead and alive. Honey bees simply don’t have strict definitions for human concepts like “vegetarian.”
The source of the protein
Because honey bees have these flexible definitions, blood from an animal is probably not such a terrible thing in the bee diet. More to the point is whether bird blood is good for bees.
Although we often speak of the protein content of foods, it’s more telling to look at the amino acid content. Proteins are made from strings of amino acids. When an animal needs a certain protein, it can take the amino acids it ate and string them together to build the protein. Even more awesome, if an animal eats one protein, it can take it apart and re-string the amino acids to make a different protein—the one it actually needs. Conceptually, it’s a bit like Legos.
Animals can manufacture many of the amino acids they need, but some must be consumed. So when looking at a honey bee winter supplement, we need to consider the amino acids the bee can’t produce herself. These “must eat” amino acids are called essential. In other words, they are an essential part of the diet.
I don’t recall exactly how many amino acids are essential for honey bees, but I think it’s about 10. The manufacturers of winter supplements do a good job of making sure these are all well-represented in their products, so I don’t spend a lot of time checking up on them.
Contaminants are everywhere
Although I haven’t studied it, I’m sure bird blood is a fine source of amino acids. But still, you may question the unknown components.
For example, might it contain antibiotics? I’ve read that poultry are still fed antibiotics, especially in the first day or two of life. Could these become concentrated in the dry blood? And how about antibiotic-resistant bacteria? Some articles say antibiotic resistant-bacteria is common in poultry. Can the spores reside in dried blood? And if so, does it matter? I simply don’t know the answers to these questions, nor do I know if they are important.
However, I do know that the natural bee diet is loaded with contaminants. We know, for example, that pollen is laced with all sorts of pesticides. Are these more acceptable than whatever might be in poultry blood? Who knows? My point is simply that in our modern world, contaminants are everywhere. We can’t keep ourselves or our bees free from them. Instead, we manage. Evaluate. Decide.
A product for commercial bees
I admit my first reaction was “Yuck.” But after thinking about it for a while, I’m okay with it. Reports from those who’ve tried it are mixed. Some like it, some say the powder is too finely ground.
Purina was offering free samples to large operations—those with at least 1000 hives. To me, that indicates that commercial beekeepers are the target audience for this new product. I suspect that they knew commercial beekeepers would be more open to this particular protein source and, sure enough, that seems to be borne out when I compare comments from large operations (it’s fine) to hobbyists (it’s a terrible idea).
If it helps, why not?
Personally, I’m not going to run out and buy Hearty Bee, but I’m a hobbiest and tend to be a little soft in the head about my bees. But you never know. This could be a product that answers some of the health issues our bees are facing. If it helps honey bees, that’s a good thing. If it doesn’t, both beekeepers and manufacturers will move on to something else.
To me, it’s a bit disingenuous to fret about chicken blood while at the same time we ply or bees with formic acid and thymol, gas them with oxalic acid vapors, or spike their hives with commercial pesticides. Compared to that raft of chemicals, chicken blood is not even on the radar.
Honey Bee Suite
Hmmm, my first thoughts were Yuck as well. They did feed cow parts back to cows for the exact reason, protein. Now lets think about this. they will not use the small operations, organic chickens blood, too costly to collect. They will go to a large operation that is letting blood so to speak daily with volume and collect this. These may have had some antibiotics, and or have been fed non standard foods, IE other animals, bone meal blood meal. etc, since it is a commercial operation. Also, birds carry various strains of bird flu. One would have to “ASSUME” bees gut bacteria would completely destroy any types of flu/virus H1N3 etc. I am not convinced that feeding blood to bees is necessary. I would rather collect pollen and add it to fondant patties. To me the risk of getting something funky in my honey and hives is not worth the risk. As well I would like to see on the label in the store “my bees fed chicken blood for the winter months.” “May contain virus strands or partial strands.” IMO feeding animal parts from commercial operations is BS: Bad Suggestion. Now I am sure to not buy honey off the shelf at the store, you just convinced me. I like my honey raw. Blood from chickens should be cooked. This is still Yuck in my mind, with a mad cow twist.
You are such a great writer. Such a thoughtful flow through pro and con arguments.
One of the pro-beek forums was discussing this recently so I’d heard about it. Despite the facts re hymenoptera “puddling” behavior (I’ll send you the article) I can’t get excited about any product manufactured by Purina. As the HuffPost article noted below mentions, there’s a lot not to like even in the alleged “premium” pet food brands: incidents of ingredients sourced from China laced with various contaminants, and the presence of listeria et al discovered in an unacceptable % of pet food. I don’t know what I’d be feeding a pet if I owned one now, but it sure wouldn’t be Purina products, so why would I feed it to my bees?
I’d prefer ingredients from a company whose main focus is bees – not one for which it’s just another market to get into. I did a quick check and found Hearty Bee sells for about the same price as conventional bee protein supplement. The professional beeks are more sanguine about using Hearty Bee (no pun intended), but I say, no thanks!
Yours is a legitimate worry and one reason I began trapping my own pollen and making my own supplement. But I believe pollen trapping is hard on the bees too, albeit in a different way. In beekeeping, easy answers are hard to find.
Your argument is based on a mistaken assumption about Purina pet foods, which is that Hearty Bee™ is manufactured by Nestlé Purina, but it is not.
Hearty Bee™ is a product of Purina Mills, LLC, which is the farm animal feeds unit of Land O’ Lakes. The Purina pet food products with the sordid history of contaminated ingredients from China are manufactured by Nestlé PetCare, the pet food division of Swiss-based Nestlé S.A. They are two entirely different companies.
Thank you SO much for the clarification.
I had no idea, and therefore, I never thought to look it up.
Um, no thanks. Soylent green or close to it.
Thanks for sharing your thought process, Rusty. Good stuff. I imagine large-scale beekeeping poses some real challenges, so if it improves life for/reduces stress on bees in those situations, I suppose that’s a good thing. I do worry about whether we’ll go the route of other large-scale enterprise and wind up with “bee mills” and “bee feed lots” — or maybe we already have them? But I know nothing about that, so will speculate no further. Again, thank you! I so value your knowledge and insight.
The bee feed lots are already out there. I think the important issue for beekeepers is to be aware of what is going on in the industry. Unless we know what’s happening, we can’t constructively approve or disapprove.
Can avian diseases, whether bacterial, viral, parasitic, or prion in nature as examples, spill over into my hives, and thus me/mine through honey/wax use or consumption?
Thanks for the mind expanding.
Where is this product for sale or is it gonna be?
I honestly don’t know. I got the impression that is’s for sale now, however. Maybe someone else knows?
I admit it, I have contacted Purina and requested a small sample to test out in an over winter nuc. This is my first of 4 winter where there is no pollen in a hive. Here in Montgomery, TX, my bees have collected pollen every month since April 28, 2014. In early December there were 3 cells with a yellow/orange substance that kinda of looked like pollen. On Friday when I added some crystallized honey to help with the cold snaps we keep having, there was none.
I see this as an opportunity for me to test or evaluate pollen substitutes. If Purina spent money to create a product for bees, I would like to try it. With no pollen in the hive, means no eggs in the hives. The evaluation would be for the the whole season into next winter. I could compare past increases and determine if it’s worth the early start to use supplements. I’m a bit excited Purina has tossed their hat into the ring. As far as the blood of chickens, I get the idea of taking a by-product, scrap, or waste and finding a use for it. There is always the possibility they reversed engineered what the bees needed and determined a good building block is chicken blood. I look forward to commercial feed back and a hope I can get just a little bit to test on a nuc.
As always thank you for your insight and balanced approach.
Sorry for the typos, my time is limited tonight and my iPhone is having trouble keeping up.
Rusty, I believe I have sent you photographs of honey bees sucking on chunks of freshly slaughtered beef. Bees are not silly enough to play by our rules, bees know what bees want at any given time and although we may not always agree with their selection of nutrient supply. If it works for them, all power to them.
I had forgotten about that, but you certainly did. I’m going to try to find those. Thanks for reminding me.
Definition of disingenuous: “not candid or sincere, typically by pretending that one knows less about something than one really does” and synonymenous with “insincere, dishonest, untruthful, false, deceitful, duplicitous, lying, mendacious; hypocritical, “that innocent, teary-eyed look is just part of a disingenuous act”.
Rusty, Mmm, not sure, mad cow disease, salmonella eggs, etc etc. We should have learned our lessons by now.
Joke for you:
Two cows standing in a field, one says to the other
“Terrible this mad cow disease”
the other says
“Yeah, but it doesn’t bother us squirrels!”
I appreciate your joke!
But here’s a question: I associate the spread of prion disease, specifically mad cow, with feeding cows to cows. I think feeding bees to bees would be a huge mistake. But does feeding birds to bees rise to the same danger?
I just think if cows wouldn’t naturally eat cows, pigs (mostly) wouldn’t eat pigs, and chicken feed shouldn’t contain animal protein. By the same token bees may ‘reabsorb’ eggs/larva but they wouldn’t eat chickens blood! The same goes for GM crops, we are messing with nature! Call me an old fuddy duddy, (my wife regularly does) but best let nature decide whats best before we have too many two headed critters!!
I’m not disagreeing. I’m interested in what people think and where we’re going with this.
I’ve heard a few times through the grape vine that it has been observed honeybees sucking something from carcasses. I don’t believe I’ve ever read any research that has looked at this or that it is common place. For all we know they do this out of desperation of lack of water or other. We hear of starving animals eating all kinds of strange things that have no food value to them such as rocks. Just because see something once doesn’t make it normal behavior. Bees will collect saw dust in certain situations. What good do we think they are getting there.
The references I remember reading say bees seek out water sources with low level of salt. Sorry but I can’t remember the percentage; it seems it was about a half of a percent. But I do believe that blood falls within the parameters that they like—just slightly salty. Especially if salt is not otherwise available, I can easily imagine them using blood. I don’t believe there are any terrestrial animals that don’t need salt, so that is probably why I often see bees on urine, too.
It may not be as simple as feeding chicken blood to bees. There are the bird flues and what ever virus loads are in the blood. I would think the bees’ gut bacteria would not not have evolved to handle blood. But in large scale chicken operations, think 1000s of birds. the feed they get has “body parts” in it, bone meal, blood meal, and perhaps chicken scraps. so the chicken blood may have cow and pig parts in it as well. We can hope that all this is properly broke down by the chickens digestion and the bees digestion. However ” what IF”??. Its also a slippery slope, if chicken blood is ok , then why not turkey blood, or cow blood. I realize it may be out there. Deciding if/when to use it is up to each individual. I just wish we had a more complete understanding of the risks associated with bee consuming, industrial farming by products.
So some questions to ponder.. How will we know if the package or NUC we buy from somewhere was fed these animal by products? If a bee fed chicken blood, drops to the ground and my chickens eat it ,will the virus from the original chicken now be in my “free range” chickens or eggs? Will the H1N7 virus in the chicken blood eaten by a bee be in the sting venom? Will my bees rob out a hive that died during the winter, that was fed blood products, can H1N3 survive in Honey, until some other bee robs it? Seems to me more testing should be done, we may have this in purchased bees and NUCs or from a rob out and not even be aware. Enjoy your honey on toast or in your tea, but do you really know where it came from?
I’m just a backyard beekeeper but I can understand how financial necessity might dictate a large commercial operation’s decision to feed their hives a protein supplement containing animal blood…it’s probably cheaper. But I think there might be a huge price to pay in damage to the reputation of the honey they produce and, more broadly, the honey we all produce. As was pointed out early on, there’s a giant yuk factor in all this. Regardless of whether the chicken blood even comes close to the honey, how many honey-consumers will be repelled by this idea? Why couldn’t they use whey or soy or some other protein source that’s not blood?
With regards to bees as carnivores, I’ve been looking into ancient forms of beekeeping and there’s a “back to the future” aspect to this blood and bees issue. Ancient Roman/Greek beekeepers believed that a colony of bees could be generated from the carcass of an ox. It sounds more like myth than practical advice but it’s a recurring theme in classical beekeeping advice: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bugonia
I can imagine, in deserty areas especially, that bees could be quite attracted to an animal carcass, if for nothing else than the water it contains.
This reminds me of the heath natural food/medication debates. If a drug company makes digitalis and some one takes it, or a person eats foxglove, they are both going to probably die if they eat enough. They are the same thing. It makes NO difference that the foxglove is “natural.” A chemical formula is the same wherever the source. As an example….me.. an aging woman…there are these ‘natural’ sources of estrogen, its also just so false, an estrogen pill is likely the same. A rose is a rose….
Protein is protein…..the chemical formula says so, chicken blood as a protein source is no different than any other chain of amino acids. We seem to put a lot of emotion into science.
However…I would be very curious of the transmissible disease aspects.
I agree. I see the same “emotion” about table sugar (sucrose). Whether it comes from beets or cane, it is still C12H22O11, and once it’s refined it contains very few impurities of any kind.
One thing I would be extremely concerned with is what door our government is opening to China for putting more things in their honey that will be legal just because they can and based on Mary Ann Kae comments its also highly believable that purina cat chow dog chow has no business sticking their noses into bee food supplements putting bird blood into bee feed horrible idea . I am not a scientist by far but sounds typical of a huge corporation trying to screw up something by grinding up tires and wood put it in dog in cat food now chicken blood and create another issue …i would play it safe, provide forage and good feed from mann lake or other companies and blow off purina cat and dog chow greedy corporations scrounging is what it sounds like and our bees now dont need another set back not worth the risk .
Thanks for that. I also imagine they are looking for salt when we see these odd collecting behaviors. I know that often I have bees licking sweat from my arms when working too hard in the yard during the hottest periods in summer. I also keep a pile of seaweed for garden use and see the bees regularly drink the liquid from it. If the seaweed dries they no longer visit but when I water it down they come around again. I don’t believe bees can collect dry salt so possibly they need it in a liquid solution.
I tend to view anything that comes from “big ag” with a bit of trepidation. They have a habit of being somewhat less than honest. In this case we seem to be faced with a plethora of questions but not many answers. I think I’d want a lot more answers before I’d be willing to try this.
First to DJ…. although on occasion a hive here or there will run out of pollen (it happened in mass during the drought of 2011) I have never found feeding pollen patties to be necessary here (about 45 minutes north and west of your location). In most years pollen comes into the hive 12 months of the year and the net effect of feeding pollen substitute is zero only if you do not consider the problems associated with the small hive beetle. I should also mention unless you have a goal in mind that requires pumping up a hive early, any action like this does have consequence just down the road that you need to understand and plan for < ie pollen patties can pump up population which will require a large increase in food resources.
I am guessing here Rusty that the amino acid that is limiting is trytophane (sp???). I think it is the same amino acid found in some quantity in egg (yolk or white I cannot recall). Certainly one form is expensive and the other more reasonable in terms of price. All animal feed and supplements work or do not work based on the most expensive and least available 'limiting resource' < at this point nutrition is more about basic economics than biology.
I very much like your writing style Rusty and your subject matter…
Gene in Central Texas…
Firstly, how many of the worried replies believe Purina are pouring wet, freshly gathered raw blood from slaughtered chickens is being added to this product and secondly who that has replied has ever seen a commercial blood drier in action?
I do appreciate your article and insight.
Large scale commercial pet food producers such as Purina have done and continue to do a great disservice to the health of companion animals everywhere. Read “the truth about pet food.” This is likely just a way for them to sell another waste product of their industry under the guise of “bee nutrition.” If feeding chicken blood to bees proves beneficial by studies performed by researchers *not* employed by Purina then I’ll consider the thought. But I’d certainly procure my own from a legitimate local source. I wouldn’t feed Purina anything to my dog and I certainly wouldn’t feed it to my bees.
Good, thought-provoking article (as usual!). My concern in these matters is one of scale. I am sure that bees (and mammals/humans) can cope with and use a wide range of foods. What may happen here is that the bees are given ONLY blood-sourced protein. That ‘industrialisation’ always seems to be a recipe for unintended consequences. Bees choose to feed themselves from a range of pollen proteins (even if they are placed in a field of borage etc), so it is more of the ‘single source’ issue that discourages me.
I see your point, but winter protein for bees is usually just a supplement. As soon as pollen is available again, they will quickly abandon any protein feed you give them.
“Vegetarian” bees? It is widely held that lacking sufficient protein, a colony will cannibalize larvae. An animal that eats it’s own young can hardly be called vegetarian.
Isn’t that what I just said?
Wouldn’t “insectivorous” be more precise?
Probably, except when they find and feed on bloody mammals, fish, and birds.
I love your site and learn so much from you! I think that there is more to the question, though, than you address here. Sure, you can argue that chicken blood might help a hive of bees through the winter, but as you say the product is targeted at large scale operations. It seems to me that it is just another way to profit off of one more waste product from all the sad and unhealthy animals that die in huge slaughterhouses. Personally I find the way that industrial poultry is raised to be extraordinarily cruel. The picture you show is of healthy laying hens, in the outdoors, but those are not even close to the animals that are being processed in a Purina slaughterhouse. The antibiotic and viral considerations alone are huge, especially for those of us that keep birds too, but I’m also more skeptical that the point is to get bees through the winter rather than to provide a cheap and profitable way to get bees through monoculture pollination contracts. The nucs from most of our ‘local’ beekeepers come from almond fields in California. They come on black comb, and many of the bees are hopelessly sick on arrival, where they’re sold to well-meaning people that pay a lot for them, only to have the colony fail. The bees will eat anything they can to survive but I believe that using the waste products of industrial slaughterhouses in the food supply of bees is a slippery slope – it is so similar to the way cows are now fed grain and chickens are ‘vegetarian’ (they aren’t) and soon the whole ecosystem is out of balance. To me there is something amiss, not only ethically but in the spirit of doing what’s best for the birds and the bees. While I understand and appreciate your point that it is meant to be used only for a brief period, I have to wonder if it won’t be used to justify more transport of bees to pollinate crops and clean up the waste of slaughterhouses at the same time.
YES Annie, I couldn’t have said it better myself!
I too will pass on the blood laced feed. I’d like to keep things as simple and natural as I personally can.
People are always messing with nature, at the thought of a fatter wallet, and look at where it’s gotten us.
In my opinion, bees are much too important to mess up, so why take that risk?
A lot of things I can’t control, but THIS I can.
We’ve had opossum bothering the bees. Finally caught and dispatched this morning, I found bees on the blood this afternoon. I first though how odd but then remembered reading about it. I don’t think it’s for the water as we’ve had about 4″ of rain in the last week and they are about 500 feet from a large, never-dry pond. I have to trust they know more about being bees than I do.
I was considering trying fish meal as an ingredient to protein supliment. Why not bird blood? I would try it.