This post relies heavily on personal opinion, so take it or leave it. I’ve heard much talk of pollen subs lately, so I decided to add my two cents.
My thinking on pollen substitutes has evolved over the years, and I’ve become less and less enamored with the idea. That said, commercial and migratory beekeepers work in different environments than hobbyists. Their colonies must be prepared to meet the demands of a specific crop at a specific time, so often their use of pollen substitute is required.
Real pollen is best
Even so, I don’t think heavy use of pollen substitutes produces the healthiest bees. Study after study has shown that a diet of assorted natural pollen is the very best bee food, capable of stimulating good immune response and long lives. The producers of substitutes have gone to great effort to replicate the amino acid profiles bees need, but for some reason, substitutes are less than perfect.
Hobby beekeepers who live in areas with ample pollen should not need pollen substitute. Of course, there are always exceptions. If you’ve built up strong colonies in spring, for example, then enter an unflyable cold snap, a little substitute may be just the ticket. And that is exactly how I think pollen substitute should be used—as an emergency ration—not as a regular feed.
Decide if a substitute is necessary
Too many beekeepers feed pollen substitutes because they’ve been told to. Read a well-written advertisement for pollen sub and suddenly you believe your bees will die without it—the great power of marketing. Instead, you should look at your own apiary and then decide whether a substitute is necessary.
How do you do that? Well, first you need to understand the biology of your bees, their yearly cycles, and the availability of pollen-producing plants in your area. This is what beekeeping is all about—knowing your bees, their needs, and their environment.
Here on the Pacific Northwest coast, I would never give pollen substitute before the winter solstice. There are two reasons for this. First, we have plenty of fall pollen which the bees collect as long as the temperature is warm enough to fly. Second, pollen is required to rear brood, but brood-rearing is at its lowest point in November and December, so not much pollen is required. The small amount they need was stored during the fall flow, or is stored in the bodies of the winter bees.
Pollen is available before nectar
The next part is trickier. Do I feed them pollen after the winter solstice? The brood nest begins to expand after the solstice, but slowly at first. They probably have enough pollen stored to get them well into January. In late January—and certainly by February—there is lots of pollen available outside but rain is a problem, so a decision has to be made based on the weather.
An interesting thing about pollen substitute is that is doesn’t do much to stimulate brood production unless it is accompanied by nectar or syrup. It seems that the presence of nectar or thin syrup stimulates brood production, and pollen (or substitute) allows brood rearing to proceed.
But sometimes a ready supply of honey in the presence of pollen substitute will stimulate brood production. If this happens too early, your bees may eat through their food reserves and starve in early spring. The lesson here is that you need to keep a careful watch on stores if you stimulate brood rearing ahead of schedule. Remember, the closer you get to spring, the faster the food stores are consumed. Just when they have the least, they need the most.
Pollen substitute contains solids
Another issue with pollen substitute is dysentery. Honey bee dysentery occurs when there are too many solids in the diet. The indigestible portions accumulate in the bee gut. If the bees cannot get out for cleansing flights, they will eventually defecate in the hive and spread disease.
Normally, this is not a problem in wintering hives because the bees don’t eat much pollen. But if you start feeding them pollen substitute when they can’t fly, you greatly increase the chances of dysentery. For this reason, I would avoid feeding pollen substitute until I see them flying, at least occasionally.
Give your bees a choice
Especially troubling to me is a colony that has nothing to eat but sugar mixed with pollen substitute. Hungry bees will eat the substitute in order to get the sugar, but they may have no need for the substitute. This is especially true of older bees that are no longer nurses. They don’t need an infusion of protein in their diets, and research suggests it isn’t good for them. Consequently, if you must feed your bees, some of the food should be free of pollen substitute. Don’t force feed your bees something they don’t need.
Personally, I only feed pollen substitute if I think there’s a need. When I do feed it, my bees build up earlier, but then I have to feed them much more. In truth, the colonies do fine but, by summer, they are no better or worse than colonies that weren’t fed. Based on my own observations and comments from others, I think the bees often discard most of the pollen substitute just like any other hive litter. When beekeepers say their bees “take” it, I often wonder if they didn’t take it and dump it—a fitting end to such a meal.