Table of contents
- Sugar and pollen answer different needs
- Honey bees use an indirect feeding system
- Is fall the right time to increase bee populations?
- Reasons for delaying pollen supplement
- The timing of pollen supplements is vital to bee health
- A warning about winter bees and pollen supplements
- Local conditions may require a protein boost
So-called pollen patties usually contain no pollen. Instead, they are pollen substitutes. Pollen patties imitate real pollen and include all the protein honey bees need for good health. You can purchase pollen patties ready-to-use or you can make them at home from a purchased mix or from a recipe.
Nurse bees use pollen or pollen substitutes to feed larval bees. Remember that eggs don’t eat, pupae don’t eat, and adults eat honey. But the fast-growing larvae depend on a continuous supply of nutritious food made from pollen. If natural supplies of pollen run short, pollen substitutes can save your colony.
Sugar and pollen answer different needs
If our bees need a constant supply of sugar, don’t they also need a constant supply of pollen? Often, they do not. Aside from the fact that only larvae require lots of 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. I’ve seen my bees bring in load after load of pollen in the middle of a November warm spell.
Many plants produce pollen even though they don’t produce nectar. Early blooming trees like alder provide heaps of pollen without a trace of nectar. Grasses, evergreens, and many others are similarly pollen-heavy. And flowers like crocus poke through the snow with ample supplies of the fluffy yellow stuff. I find it rare that a colony is actually short of pollen, either fresh or stored as bee bread.
The limitation on bee-collected pollen is usually the weather. But if we get a break in the weather, honey bees can usually find pollen, if they need it. And often, they don’t need it, partly due to an indirect feeding system.
Honey bees use an indirect feeding system
The youngest larvae do not eat pollen directly. Instead, nurse bees eat pollen, usually as bee bread, so they have the nutrients they need to secrete royal jelly from their glands. The nurses place the royal jelly into the wax cells containing the young larvae and constantly monitor the supply, assuring no bee goes hungry.
Indirect feeding may seem unusual, but it is common in nature. Nursing moms—even horses, dogs, and kangaroos—need to eat a nutritious diet so they can provide a constant supply of milk. Nurse bees do the same: they eat a nutritious diet of pollen so they can provide a constant supply of royal jelly.
As the larvae mature, the workers switch them to a diet of bee bread and honey. Like baby mammals, the larvae get solid food as soon as they can digest it.
Is fall the right time to increase bee populations?
When plenty of pollen or pollen substitute is available to nurse bees, they can feed more brood because they secrete lots of royal jelly. But the nurses need a place to put all that jelly, so they prepare cells for eggs. This gives the queen a place to lay, and before long, brood production increases.
But as a beekeeper, ask yourself if you really want enhanced brood production in late fall or early winter. It’s a management question that depends on local conditions, but huge colonies going into winter can be a problem.
In North America, the brood nest shrinks as the days become shorter and the nights colder. The queen may completely stop laying eggs and brood may be non-existent. Many new beekeepers panic, thinking they should “do something” about the lack of fall brood. But maybe not.
Reasons for delaying pollen supplement
The lack of brood in fall is actually good for your colony. Here’s why:
- The queen gets much-needed rest from egg laying and a period of rejuvenation.
- The bees can keep the center of the cluster at a lower temperature when no brood is present. According to Caron and Connor (2013), when a colony is broodless, the bees keep the center of the cluster at about 70°F (21°C), as opposed to about 94°F (34°C) when brood is present. This lower temperature conserves food stores throughout the winter.
- With little brood, the colony does not require a large adult population of caretakers. A smaller adult population also conserves food.
- 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, so varroa populations plummet.
- When spring arrives, 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 gazillion bees with nothing to eat. The colony can easily starve to death.
The timing of pollen supplements is vital to bee health
As you can see, maintaining a large brood nest all winter is risky, so beware of stimulating brood rearing too early. Instead, I encourage hobby beekeepers to withhold pollen substitutes until after the new year, at the very least.
Bees are aware of changes in day length. After the winter solstice (December 21) as the hours of daylight gradually increase in the northern hemisphere, brood production naturally resumes. To coincide with that increase in bees, you can provide pollen substitutes in moderation. A low-protein feed supplement such as a winter patty can be the perfect answer.
Are there exceptions? Absolutely. Anyone who is planning to move their bees into almonds or some other early southern crop needs to build populations sooner than someone with stationary hives. Almond pollinators need their colonies at full strength in February, much early than those further north.
Also, commercial beekeepers taking their bees into monoculture crops need to consider the limited nutrition that comes with single-species foraging. In fact, this is how early pollen feeding got started: once the commercial keepers began feeding supplements, everyone followed. But the commercial keepers have good reasons that the hobbyist normally don’t have.
A warning about winter bees and pollen supplements
A colony of bees raises so-called winter bees (diutinus bees) in the fall. These bees have special internal fat bodies that allow them to store nutrients and produce vitellogenin, a substance that allows them to secrete brood food in the absence of pollen.
This is how wild and feral colonies survive from year to year without a beekeeper adding pollen patties. It also means that in most cases, you don’t need to supply pollen either. More often than not, we add pollen patties because we can, not because we must.
Knowing that winter bees are important for colony survival, many beekeepers feed fall pollen substitutes hoping to increase winter bee populations. But here’s the catch: Some researchers believe it’s the natural lack of pollen in the fall that stimulates the production of winter bees.
Therefore, it is possible that excessive fall feeding of pollen may delay or inhibit the production of winter bees, something that could seriously weaken a colony. For this reason, many beekeepers do not feed high-protein pollen supplements in the fall. Period.
Local conditions may require a protein boost
However, sometimes a pollen substitute can be helpful. Local weather and climate will affect pollen supplies, as will the selection of local plants, the strain 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 winter solstice.
Personally, I keep a ten-pound pail of Bee Pro in my shed. Some years I don’t use it, but when my bees need a boost, the dry powder is easy to use. Although the pre-mixed Bee Pro patties are quicker, the dry powder is easier to store and cheaper, too. Mann Lake FD200 Bee-Pro Pollen Substitute Pail, 10-Pound.
If you prefer pre-made patties, I like these: Mann Lake FD357 Bee Pro Patties with Pro Health, 10-Pound.
Remember to remove any uneaten patties before they grow mold or attract pests like small hive beetles. The best patties will eventually become unpalatable to the bees, so get rid of them if they begin to look dry, brittle, wormy, or moldy.