feeding bees

Dry pollen substitute vs pollen patties: which is best?

Freshly-collected-pollen

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.

Lost pellets

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.

Bee-collected pollen pellets.
Bee-collected pollen pellets.

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.

An open feeder can be used for feeding real pollen or dry pollen substitute. Photo by Naomi Price.

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.

My preferences

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

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Thanks to Kevin for this timely question.

22 Comments

  • Rusty,

    Can you sift pollen substitute directly into an empty honeycomb for the bees to use? I’m wondering why we would take the pollen sub – but it into an orange juice container on a tree and hope the bees fly it back home when we could simply take an empty drawn frame, sift the fine powder into the frame, and put it in the hive like a frame feeder.

    So far I have taken it and mixed it into my own patties and given it that way, but as you said that is for current needs for brood rearing and not so much for future storage and use later.

    • Herb,

      I don’t know. Pollen is mixed with nectar and some digestive enzymes before it is stored in the comb. This mixture ferments into bee bread, which is more digestible to young larvae. The process breaks down some of the pollen and accelerates the release of nutrients and amino acids. So would bees be able to collect the pollen from a frame of pollen dust, mix it with nectar, and then store it properly for fermentation? I don’t know the answer to that.

  • Rusty, when one talks about pollen dearth how would us novices learn to get a handle on that? I’m slowly learning the need to also be something of an amateur horticulturalist, but wondering if just observing the bees coming in if there was some kind of ratio of bees visibly carrying pollen in that could be used as a benchmark, especially in the later months of summer/early to mid-fall? Hope the question makes sense. PS: I owe you a long narrative on Lemon Queen sunflowers and will use your blog post to share what we learned this year, an odd year for sure here.

    • Gary,

      I don’t have a way to tell. Truthfully, around here I don’t worry about it much because pollen is usually available. As fall approaches and brood rearing is reduced, you are not as likely to see much pollen coming in, just enough to feed a very small brood nest.

  • Thanks for this great summary, Rusty!

    A follow-up question – I read lost of suggestions about how much honey stores should be available to colonies at any given time, but are there any guidelines for how much pollen a colony should have stored expressed in terms of frames of pollen? Especially for late fall and winter?

    Kevin

    • Kevin,

      This is a good question. Personally, I never check for pollen stores before going into winter. Whereas honey lasts for a long time, pollen doesn’t keep well. It usually dries out and turns to little stones before long, even when mixed with nectar and enzymes. Winter protein supplies are stored in the winter bees’ fat bodies, and that is what is fed to the growing colony in late winter and early spring. Even autumn feeding of pollen is questionable. Research has shown that it’s the lack of pollen in the fall that causes the formation of winter bees, and if too much pollen or sub is provided late in the year, the formation of winter bees is delayed.

  • Well explained. I provide my bees with previous season pollen mix either as outdoor or another method. I just spray 80-100 g pollen mix collected earlier and spray with a little bit of 50:t0 sugar solution in a frame itself. It was consumed, quite fast without going on energy-wasting flights.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Do you think that with all the smoke in air (here in Oregon) it causing the bees to consume more of their winter stores of honey? As if there is a wildfire about to burn their hive. I have heard that when a beekeeper smokes a hive it tiggers the bees to consume honey in anticipation of their home being destroyed by fire. Guess I am wondering if I need to feed them more than usual this fall.

    • Steve,

      That smoke response usually disappears after about 15 minutes. Still, if they can’t be out foraging, they will use more food from their hive.

  • OK. This is off-topic. Sorry. Hope you’ll comment just the same. I have searched your blog archives and didn’t find any commentary.

    What is your preferred time of day for hive inspections?

    The conventional wisdom is between 10-2 sunny day. Bees are out. etc But hornets are out, and a big backlog of returning bees gather around and want to get into everything. (BTW I follow the herd on this)

    BUT my thinking: Early morning at 8am. Bees are slow. Hornets the same. Everybody is home & easier to gauge colony size, or dribble OA treatment, etc.

    Your comments would be appreciated.

    Regards, Jim in Newberg

    • Jim,

      I hate wearing protective equipment because I get super hot, cranky, and impatient. So, regardless of what the bees are doing, I choose one of the cooler times of the day, usually early morning. We have lots of bald-faced hornets here, and yellowjackets, but I’ve never noticed them being a problem during inspections, so I’ve never tried to work around them.

  • Talt,

    To do hive inspection I need to determine which kind of inspection I am going to perform:

    1. If I am going to check broods, eggs, queens, I am choosing the time when bees are mostly out (between 11 am and 2 pm) in my area. I will not have so crowded frames, and my inspection will flow faster and easier.

    2. If I am going to check how big a colony is, I am doing that inspection earlier, before working bees are going out.

    3. If I am doing oxalic treatment, I am doing it in the early evening, when my colonies are at homes.

  • I have tried to locate dry pollen substitute without any luck. I thought I would try your suggestion.

    Could you give info as to where it could be purchased?

    Sincerely
    Robert Gifford

    • Robert,

      A quick internet search shows many suppliers of dry pollen substitute, including Mann Lake, Dadant, Glory Bee, Amazon, Betterbee, Kelley Bees, and on and on.

  • I feed 1-to-1 sugar water with pollen mix till middle October or until temperatures get to 32. I mix 1 cup of pollen, 12 drops of tea oil, 12 drops of lemon oil in a 1/2 gallon jar. Mix pollen in a blender with oils add to 1/2-gallon jar, add water to fill the jar. “MIX WELL.” Mix 1/2 cup of mix to 1 gallon of 1-to-1 sugar water.

    Temperature lower than 32. I have shims 2″ high and the size of HIVE BODY high with 1″ vent holes on each side, hardware cloth in the bottom, I cover with a paper towel, take 10 lb of sugar mix in a larger bowl with” ONLY “1 cup of pollen” MIX WELL.” Press MIX into the shim on top of the paper towel. Let sugar mix get hard. FEED ON TOP OF HIVE.

  • My second year having bees. They died last fall probably due to varroa. Installed package this spring in a horizontal hive and they were the nicest gentlest bees ever. Had robbing this spring in a Langstroth hive which I finally stopped with robbing screen. Transferred later to a new horizontal hive which has no way to put the screen back on. Hive inspection later showed combs built, plenty of brood, and several frames of honey which I accidentally dropped one on top of frames. What a mess! Cleaned it up and gave it back to bees in the hive but apparently, the odor triggered another round of robbing which pretty much cleaned out their stores.

    I have started feeding fondant inside the hive. I have shut down the hive twice to stop robbers but they continue to return and my bees are noticeably less. There is a strange odor coming from the hive which I think is fermentation but am reluctant to open the hive. A huge problem also is that the bees have become very aggressive and pursuing us for no reason when even just looking at the hive from several feet away – a big problem as the hive is close to the house due to limited space.

    Sorry for the book but am at my wit’s end what to do to calm bees and halt persistent robbing. There are no beekeepers close so assume is a feral hive.

  • Rusty,

    I have been asking around and looking for info on this idea I have. Can’t find a thing. Your input would be great, I am a first-year beekeeper and would like to know if can I store honey and uncapped honey/nectar from a super then feed it back to the hive in early spring from a super frame. Everyone says you can feed bees their honey back but never with regards to the size of the frame.

    See I had to rob one of my two deep boxes of a frame of honey for a swarm that showed up on my doorstep. I followed directions and boxed them, but since I’m a first-year I only had one frame of drawn comb to give them and one frame of capped honey. I’ve been feeding 1:1 sugar water with honey-b-healthy and pollen patties to give them the best shot. But I want to know can I feed frames from a super to them in a deep box? And can I do that for my other hives that I don’t extract any honey from the supers?

    • Kellie,

      Of course. At worst the bees will build more comb under the bottom bar, but with a hive tool, you can scrape that off in seconds.

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