Is it true that honey bees will store dry pollen substitute but not pollen patties? Is it possible to overfeed pollen in the fall?
To answer the first question, picture a bee’s anatomy. The entire organism—front to back and top to bottom—is designed to collect pollen as dust. In the field, electrostatic charges accumulate on the bee’s body as she flies, and these charges attract pollen. In addition, hairs on her body hold the pollen in place until the bee grooms the pollen into the pollen sacs on her rear legs.
Bees have many specialized structures that aid in collecting and transporting pollen in its dusty form, including antenna cleaners, brushes, and pollen presses. But when it comes to moving chunks of pollen that has been glued together with nectar—as in a pollen pellet—or pasted into a patty with other ingredients, honey bees fall short. Their legs and mouthparts are not designed for picking up solid objects and carting them from place to place.
If you look carefully at a landing board or a bottom board, you can often see pollen pellets that have been abandoned by the colony. The pellets may have been accidentally knocked off by another bee, or perhaps the worker missed her target when she attempted to offload her pellets into a storage cell.
It’s instructive to remember that honey bee foragers pass nectar loads and water loads from bee to bee before those products reach their final destination within the hive. But pollen loads are different. They are awkward and difficult to handle when they are no longer attached to a bee’s leg, so pollen loads do not get passed from bee to bee but are deposited directly into a cell by the bee that collected them.
Invariable someone will say, “But I’ve seen bees move pollen pellets with their mandibles!” I have no doubt that this happens from time to time. Honey bees are creative and adaptable and may, on occasion, attempt to move an errant pollen pellet. But that is not business as usual. Moving pellets by mouth is so difficult and time-consuming that the bee is better off simply collecting a new load. Better luck next time.
Because of their format, it is highly unlikely that a bee would store pollen from a patty. Instead, the colony members eat the patties as needed, and the need is greatest during brood rearing.
Feeding too much?
Can you feed too much pollen? This, I think, is a complex question. Normally, I would say “no,” especially if any type of pollen dearth is going on. This can be especially true if your autumn weather is hot and dry with few flowers. An open feeder for the bees to use while they are still flying may be just the ticket to build up pollen stores before winter and to keep the winter bees well supplied. In fact, watching the bees roll in it is great entertainment.
On the other hand, real pollen is superior to a man-made recipe, so if plenty of pollen is available in your area, I wouldn’t try to give a supplement as well. As long as the colonies are packing it in, I would let them find their own sources of natural pollen. This, of course, is my opinion and you may want to check with experienced keepers in your area.
Moving into winter
Autumn is one thing, but winter is another. When bees are not flying due to the cold, pollen patties offer a viable alternative to powdered supplement. Instead of just hoping your colonies have enough pollen tucked away, you can regulate how much they get and what it contains. Although it may not be as good as wild-caught pollen, it’s certainly better than nothing.
The thing I find more concerning is offering too much pollen substitute to an overwintering colony before spring build-up begins. Nowadays, I wait until after the winter solstice to begin adding pollen patties to a winter colony. Remember that even though you may see no pollen in the hive, most of the protein stored in a winter colony is tucked away in the winter bee’s fat bodies. A protein source is available, you just can’t see it.
The presence of pollen supplement stimulates brood rearing, and if you raise too much brood too soon, it is easy to starve your overwintering bees. More and more bees in a colony require more and more feed, and if you fail to keep up with the increase, you can lose colonies to starvation. Those of us who have made this mistake know how fast things can spiral out of control.
If you feel like you would like more brood-rearing sooner, that’s fine, but watch the feed situation like a hawk. Even without rushing things, it pays to remember that the overwintered food supply will be at its lowest just as the bees’ need for it is greatest.
To summarize my own preferences, I like to:
- Encourage natural pollen collection whenever possible
- In times of pollen dearth when bees are flying, provide a dry substitute the bees can collect if they choose
- Use little, if any, substitute in late fall and early winter when colonies are clustered and small
- Add pollen patties after the winter solstice or at the new year
Honey Bee Suite
Thanks to Kevin for this timely question.