feeding bees

Pollen patties: when and why?

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.

Pollen stimulates brood production

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 secrete 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 (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.

In the spring, 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.

Timing of pollen supplement is important

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.

Sugar and pollen answer different needs

We tend to think that if our colonies need sugar, they also need pollen. But 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. 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.

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 as well. 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.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

81 Comments

  • Thanks Rusty,

    I finally understand more. I didn’t know why I would need this or when.
    I was becoming confused with all these types of patties and candy, etc.
    I was also wondering when the multivitamin pill was going to be available!
    🙂

  • This makes sense to me. I haven’t fed pollen patties at all over the past year, and the bees still built up too fast to swarm in mid April. They seem to be able to find pollen whenever they need it, and I never take any away from them so I trust that they know how much they will need for winter. If we ever get a spring that is so cold and rainy that the bees can’t get pollen from the abundant flowers, or if (heaven forbid) I find myself keeping bees in the middle of a weed-free monoculture then I might consider feeding pollen patties.

  • Thanks as always, Rusty: adding the timing info to my mental calendar.

    Two hives I combined at the end of summer wound up with 4 leftover frames of just pollen. Should I freeze it, and could I use it in the spring? I set it near the hives to see if they would salvage it but it attracted yellowjackets (which I stood there happily squushing with my heavy gloves) so I moved it to a tote in the shed.

    BTW the frames of just pollen were from a “laying worker” hive. I have heard that they will use up stored honey in summer rather than foraging, because they are kept busy feeding so many drones. These sure did. Have you ever heard of this?

    Thanks!
    Nan

    • Nancy,

      You should probably freeze the pollen frames to protect them from beetles and moths.

      No, I haven’t heard of laying worker hives not foraging, but it’s very possible.

    • Mark,

      Some people make plain sugar patties and, before they dry, sprinkle them with pollen substitute. That puts the pollen in a separate layer so the bees can decide whether to eat it. Reminds me of those plates with three little compartments . . . meat, potatoes, veggies all in their own place.

    • I thought raw honey has pollen in it. Doesn’t it?

      Granted, it’s not a lot and it’s not there because the bees “put” it there. It’s just there because where there’s nectar, there’s often pollen so they often get mixed. Also, I thought that what gives raw unfiltered honey the cloudy look is pollen (and other various contaminants which probably are also protein sources).

      If all this is true, there may be some plausible argument for including a small amount of pollen substitute to add protein to the high-carb candy.

      Thoughts?

      • Chris & Mark,

        Chris is right; raw honey does contain a small amount of pollen. Although it is not enough for raising brood, it is probably enough for any minor needs the adult bees may have. Although the conventional wisdom is that adults need only carbohydrates and not protein, I have always wondered if there wasn’t a small need for protein for such things as healing damaged tissues or producing hormones. My thought is they may get enough from these embedded grains.

        When I was working on my thesis I came across several photographs of pollen grains that had gone through a honey bee digestive tract. Only a certain percentage get digested and the rest go through the bee intact. Pollen grains have weak spots, the germination pores, which are attacked by the honey bee digestive system, but not all grains are compromised and many pass through unscathed.

        Although health foodies attest to the benefits of eating pollen, it seems that humans are not nearly as adept at digesting pollen as bees. Most pollen consumed by humans just barrels through the human digestive tract like a kid on a Disney ride and emerges unscathed at the end.

        Anyway, I digress, but I think the subject of pollen as a protein source is fascinating. In truth, I have always mixed a small amount of pollen substitute in with the sugar candy starting in January or February and my bees have done well. But I like the idea of sprinkling it on the surface before the candy hardens so the bees have a choice. A lot of undigested pollen would seem to be a problem if there were too many “no fly” days in a row.

  • Thanks Mark. That was exactly what I was referring to. But I really didn’t know what they were and didn’t want to order some to find out. Sounds like candy boards, sugar patties, and sugar placed on newspaper in the hive is about the best bet if a person doesn’t have good honey. I wont bother with the “winter patties”. Thanks again for the clarification. That’s why I love this post!

  • Winter patties are usually 3:4% protein and about 80% carbs, with the high carb content it is thought to help the bees maintain the brood nest temperature. This enables the bees to actually raise brood during colder temperatures. I do almond pollination and never (hardly ever) put “pollen patties” on my bees before January 1st and then I do it because if the weather goes south the bees have a “pollen extender” until the weather breaks. I fully agree queens need a break that is how they evolved, if given a break I feel they lay heavier in late winter or early spring and build better and faster than queens that have been pushed year around. Just my thoughts after 38+ years of observations.

  • Thanks good info. Was at a meeting with our state guy (Jerry Hays) in a Dadant facility. The question came up about pollen patties. What Fflorida found was that the bees didn’t consume the pollen patties they just carried it out of the hive.

    • Rich,

      It depends on how badly they need it. I can’t imagine bees needing pollen very often in Florida, even in the northern parts.

  • I have old dark frames in storage that are packed with pollen. Are these still worthy? How old is too old for pollen? I kept these aside to use for splits but they might be four or five years old.

  • A follow-up question: what to do with many frames full of old, dried pollen? Will bees be able to clean them out or is there a way to get the pollen out without mutilating the frame?

    • Diana,

      Just give it to the bees and let them make the decision whether to keep it or scrap it. They know best what is usable and what is not.

  • Great information…thank you! Is it possible to freeze unused pollen patties and winter patties to be used again the following year?

  • What solstice are you refering to to wait until after? The summer or the winter? I’m a total newbee. I found your article looking on how to store food like this. Does it need to be refridgerated?

    • The post says, “My rule of thumb for a hobby beekeeper is to withhold pollen substitute until after the winter solstice.” So I guess the answer is winter.

      Refrigeration keeps it from getting moldy.

  • Hi Rusty,
    I have not fed pollen before to my bees, but here in rural northern California the drought is really impacting availability of both nectar and pollen this late summer. I have several splits with new queens, early August, and am concerned they are not building up their populations fast enough for winter. They each currently occupy about 6 frames. We usually have long Indian summers, til late October, and cold wet weather doesn’t usually hit till November. I am thinking of feeding some building to help with

  • Hi all, I’m a newbee this year, started late getting my nucs end of July. I have 3 hives going and doing pretty well, although 1 of the hives is on their 3rd queen; they killed the first queen the first week we received the nucs. Our master beekeeper brought another queen and within a week they killed her too!! They eventually made their own queen and are doing fine so far. This is awesome, wish I did this years ago, it’s great for your state of mind. I’m ordering 3 more nucs for the spring and will split one of the hives that is going very strong. Love this blog, best I’ve found yet thank you!!! I will bee back… Sirius!!!

  • I live in the Interior of Alaska. That being said… 99.9% of beekeepers kill their hives in the fall. I had two boxes of frames w/honey sitting in our garage ready to spin. We had an usual experience with moths being in our rabbit food (moths came in with the store purchased food). The rabbit food was stored in the garage. We have had rabbits for years and never had this problem. That being said…. the moths got into our hive. We had killed every moth we could find and moved the boxes outside. Are we going to have problems with the hive in the spring when we have new bees? Will the bees kill any moth larva (I am hoping they will all freeze and be dead – if we missed any). What a mess. Any suggestions or ideas?

    • Melanie,

      A good hard freeze should take care of the moths. As long as you don’t re-expose them to more moths, the frames should be fine. In spring, the bees will keep any new moths in check as long as the colonies remain strong.

      • You Rock! Yes, we will have a good hard freeze here in the Interior (Fairbanks). Thanks for your quick response.

        • Thanks rusty for great info.

          As will known that the patties must be saved in 70 +- , but what will happened for patties inside the hive when temp. goes 100? will poison the bees? or any side effect?

          thanks

          • Pollen loses nutritive value when stored for long periods or when it gets too warm, but it won’t hurt your bees.

    • Melanie,

      We had too many problems every year with moth that was brought home from the grocery store. Flour, rice, cereal, even packaged dry food/soups, and dry cat-food etc, all go into the freezer for 2-3 days after we buy it. That took care of the problem so far.

      Freeze them for a few days and you should be ok.

  • Howdy Rusty. I hope it’s not too late to post to this blog. I’ll bee a new beekeeper in a few weeks when I get a nuc colony around here in suburban Philly. This article put me at ease concerning feeding pollen. I was stressing about when and how much and why to do it. I was also wondering if there is a pollen sub/sup out there (or recipe) that excludes any corn or soy? Id like to stay away from those ingredients since it’s hard to trust who’s using those from GMO’d sources or organic sources. Mega Bee says they don’t use soy or egg because its proven detrimental to bee health, but I contacted them and they told me they do use corn in their product. Hmmm. So, I’m looking around for a pollen sub/sup that doesn’t use soy, corn, or egg.

    Much appreciation.

    • Drew,

      One thing you could do is make your own from a recipe like this one for pollen substitute and source your own ingredients so they are organic and gmo-free.

      However, once your bees start foraging, you won’t be able to keep them away from pollen that is from gmo plants or pollen laced with pesticides. Remember, a honey bee can forage up to five miles away. Usually, they stay closer to home, within about 2 miles. But a circle with a radius of 2 miles is 8043 acres, and one with a radius of 5 miles is 50,266 acres, so any control will be out of your hands.

  • Hi Rusty

    I lost my queen and introduced a new queen 5 days ago. I am not seeing much foraging with this hive but my other 2 are very busy. I checked to make sure my queen is alive and found eggs. Closed everything up. I am giving them sugar water 1-1. I have some Mann Lake Ultra Bee Pro. Do you think it would help to give them a little bit of a pollen patty. I’m going out of state for several days so am unable to order dry pollen and be here to give it them when it arrives. What do you think?

    • Hi Linda,

      The pollen patty won’t hurt anything but I doubt they will use it while real pollen is available. If they are not collecting much, they probably aren’t needing much. If your other hives are bringing in pollen, then you know pollen is plentiful. Mine are certainly bringing it in.

  • I had read an article about “protein starvation” during the summer? I figured maybe pollen patties we’re like syrup, if they dont need it they won’t take it. Is this true? I put a beepro patty on my hive 3 weeks ago and it is completely gone as of yesterday.

  • Rusty, do you think that if the bees get into the patties too fast over winter and they have no chance to poop that it would back them up and cause a case of Nosema? This year our winter is extremely harsh. There are several colonies that have already eaten a lot of their patties, and I notice they are staining the front of the hive when they do get out. They made it through the first cold spell, but a few perished during the second cold spell, I think, from getting Nosema from eating the patties too soon. The winter patties they sold this year were different than previous years. Previous years they were a dark brown and solid; this year they were a lighter yellowish (baby poop color) and I think they added more Hive Alive or HBH to the mix. Is it possible to overdose them with Hive Alive and HBH? When I opened the one hive, it had staining all over the top bars right under where the patties were laid, no where else. I was wondering if the patties might have melted onto the bees. I am going to take a few pictures and send to you so you can see what I see. The hives were packed with honey but the hives were huge going into winter, way too huge for comfort, so they went through quite a bit of honey stores to get to the candy board and patties. (another question I have because I am confused about this ‘requeening in the fall stuff”. But that is another post) I am hoping they will make it to Spring, but we are due for another cold spell in early Feb. Can Fumigillian be added to sugar patties and set in the hive for consumption? At this stage, would it even help? From what I can find on the subject, it’s 50/50 if Fumigillian helps or hinders. What say you? HELP!

    • Debbie,

      You are confusing two different conditions. Honey bee dysentery, which is basically diarrhea, can be caused by eating too many solids while confined in the hive. Like a person eating too much fiber, they reach a point where the simply can’t “hold it” any longer.

      Nosema is a disease caused by an pathogenic organism known as Nosema. Nosema apis, which can occur in the winter time, causes diarrhea. But this is diarrhea caused by illness, not diarrhea caused by too many solids in the diet. They are totally different. Think in human terms: diarrhea caused by eating too much molasses isn’t the same as diarrhea caused by Salmonella.

      Beekeepers frequently call any diarrhea they see “Nosema” but it just isn’t so.

      Some beekeepers use Fumigilin to treat the pathogen Nosema apis, and it works for that. If you give it to bees that simply have diarrhea from too many solids in the diet, Fumigilin won’t do a thing. That 50/50 result you see may be largely the result of giving Fumigilin to bees that don’t have the pathogen Nosema apis, they just ate too much.

      See Nosema and dysentery are not the same.

      If you have a 400x microscope, you can test for Nosema yourself.

  • Thank you. I went and studied all your posts and have a better understanding of nosema vs dysentery now. I think it was dysentery and not nosema. My concern was giving the nasty frames to the bees or burning them, but I read in your post how to clean them, etc. I feel better about using the frames now that I read it all. Thanks again!

  • Any thoughts on using pollen patties to build up the population before splitting? Good idea? I’d like to make some splits in April. Pollen and nectar flow where I am (DC metro area) can probably be expected to begin in late March. Heavy snows here can happen through early March, and flurries are possible at least until early April, so I figure pollen patties could make sense into April.

    Thank you

    • Rick,

      It’s a judgment call. Once pollen is available, they will ignore the patties. But if you feed them now, it will probably help.

  • Hi Rusty. We live in central Florida between Sarasota and Lake Ockachobee. We live on the very edge of a cypress swamp and have a pretty good chunk of land here with one of the borders being the Peace River. During the summer we have almost daily sub tropical rains with 2″ in an hour being not uncommon. That daily drenching washes off most of the natural pollen from the cypress, orange trees and Spanish Needle so I always keep pollen feeders out for our bees during this time of year. I reckon that when, if and why anyone feeds is pretty much dependent on local. Environmentally, this area is unique and we have to adapt daily with which way the wind blows. I love your work and think that you’d probobly like it here…except for summers! Keep it up girl…

  • How long can you leave pollen patties in the hives? How do you know when to replace them if the bees have not finished consuming them?

    • Stevve,

      You can leave them there as long as you like. But once your bees stop eating them, there’s no point in leaving them there. You will notice they dry out and turn hard as rocks, or else take on moisture and mold.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I keep bees in the PNW and I use all 8 frame deeps with no queen excluders (I’m re-thinking that for next year). I have noticed that most of my hives like to utilize the second box up from the bottom board for their brood nest with a few frames in the third while they use the first as a storehouse for incoming resources. By August the bottom box is chock full of pollen/bee bread.

    My thinking last year was they would move down into the bottom box in the fall and utilize all that protein to make winter bees. For the most part that didn’t happen however they did move some of the pollen up but not much as we have lots of pollen coming in all year.

    My question is what should I do with all that fabulous bee bread (each hive has four to six solid frames of it)? I would prefer to leave it in the hive and not store it but where is the best place to put it in the hive?

    Thanks,
    Annie

    • Annie,

      Even though bee bread is made by mixing pollen and nectar, it still dries out. I can’t imagine it would be much good after the first year. Bee colonies move up in the winter, not down, so they will most likely move away from the pollen in the lower box. You can put a frame or two on either side of the brood nest, but the colony doesn’t use much pollen in the winter because not much brood rearing is going on. Winter brood is fed mostly from the fat bodies of the winter bees. See “What are winter bees and what do they do?

      Pollen rapidly loses it’s nutritional value, so it’s not something that stores well.

  • Rusty,

    This fall was the first time I did a complete quantitative inventory of brood/stores before winter (N=14). I discovered that by mid-late September most of my hives still had all stages of brood rearing: eggs/open/capped brood (range 9/11-10/13/18) but by the next checks most of my hives had shut off brood rearing (10/3-10/20) and had no pollen stores. Since I do not have any previous data and I am relatively new to beekeeping in cold New England climates, I would like to know if it is normal to have NO pollen going into winter? Besides curiosity I would like to know because I am trying to decide if it would be prudent to provide a pollen patty in late March as seems to be standard practice around here?

    I am feeding Mann lake winter patties to my light hives and most of them are already eating a significant amount of it (1-2 lbs already). I understand they have a small amount of pollen in them for adult maintenance but not enough for brood rearing.

    Also, for context: I am in the early stages of establishing a chicken egg & bee farm—so I am very much interested in trying to grow my apiary and am hoping to do numerous early splits this year. I grow my apiary via feral swarms, cut-outs and splits only so I would love to give my hives a little head start but I don’t want them to have too much brood before the resources are available in western Massachusetts.

    Thank you for your help & your great website!

  • Hi Rusty – we just hit 50*F here for the 1st time this year 3/14/2019. I popped the top and bees are eating sugar blocks and pollen patties. Would the bees bother with the pollen if the queen was dead or she’s not laying? It won’t be warm enough for a real inspection for many weeks and I’m just curious if I can use pollen consumption as a gauge on the queen’s health. TY

    • Jessica,

      I don’t think pollen consumption accurately represents anything. I’ve seen queenless hives consume it and queenright hives ignore it, depending on what else is available. However, your description sounds like the colony is doing fine. I would just leave them alone.

  • This is my first winter with a hive. Ten days ago my hive was doing great. I put some Pro Winter Patties in and now all of the bees have died except for about 10 and the queen. The patties melted all over the bees. How can I save the rest of bees?

  • Do you know for how many years dry pollen substitute could be stored? I just bought 32lb pail of “Ultra Bee Dry Pollen Substitute” for the 2 hives I currently have….

    • Al,

      I don’t know. I suppose it slowly loses some nutritional value over time, but I’ve used the same bucket for five years.

  • Rusty,

    First year bee keeper. Colony seems healthy. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and my question is when should I feed the patties and when should I stop and also when should I give them sugar syrup and when should I stop? Can I give both at the same time? I also want to set up some boxes in winter to catch swarms, what is best a nuc box or a standard deep brood box?

    Thanks

    • Paulo,

      There is no formula here. You should feed your bees sugar and/or protein patties when and if they need them. The best way to know is look inside the hive. If you want to give supplemental feed just in case they might need it, you can do that anytime you like, both at the same time or not. Stop giving it when the colony no longer needs it. You can catch swarms with baited boxes, either nucs or deep brood boxes.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I have actual loose pollen that I would like to feed my bees. I live in coastal Maine. What is the best method to feed my hives pollen in this form?

  • If pollen was not available for the bees in a colony and neither other protein substitutes were available, what would happen then? Would they just die?

  • I have read your info about pollen patties. Feeding them to new packages in a rainy spring in my plan. My question may seem silly, but do the patties go on top of the brood box specifically or can they be inserted anywhere in the hive?

    • Your hive-bound bees are going to look for food above the cluster where it is warmest. Other places in the hive are less likely to draw attention.

  • I have leftover pollen substitute. Would it be better to store it in the freezer rather than at room temperature? Would it retain more nutrients by freezing it? Thank you.

    • Sheila,

      Most things last longer when frozen, so I would say the freezer is good storage for pollen substitute. I know for a fact it’s best for fresh pollen.

  • I have been feeding pollen patties to my colonies, but I recently read an article on the Bee Informed Partnership website from 2018 on the topic of dry pollen sub versus pollen patties.

    In the article the author states that bees can store dry pollen substitute, but they do not store pollen patties. Is that accurate?

    I ask because I do see a lot of pollen being stored by my colonies and have been concerned I may be overfeeding the pollen patties. If the author is accurate then that means any pollen I am seeing on the frames is not from my patties, but rather what I see in the frames is natural pollen that has been collected. I guess they could have picked some up from a nearby beekeeper if they are open feeding, but I don’t know anyone who is. It would also mean that you can’t overfeed pollen patties, too, I guess.

    Thoughts?

    Thanks,
    Kevin

  • Hi,

    This is a good article but in my recent readings, it seems that is a need to address bee health going into winter. Feeding supplements enhanced pollen patties can be a health boost to aid in the health of the colony coming out of winter. The premise is that the health of the colony begins with feeding new larvae with supplements which make them more healthy (fat) if you will, and able to rear the next generation coming out of winter. Hence Fall pattys are for health, like a pill, not like a cheeseburger.

  • Rusty,

    I have bees again (just a nuc) after a 3-year hiatus. I have had some pollen patties in the freezer all this time – should I toss them or are they OK to use?

    Thanks!

    • Liz,

      They should be fine. Pollen degrades over time, but freezing slows the degradation process substantially. The colder, the better.

  • It occurs to me that I didn’t give you enough information. I live in northern Virginia and have been feeding sugar solution. My nuc had been getting robbed out so we made the opening small and covered up every hidey-hole we could find. I’m worried about the bees – can’t find the queen, but see evidence of larvae (I’m lousy at seeing eggs, even with glasses on). Now I’m trying to figure out how best to help them through the winter, hence my previous question!

    Thanks!

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