feeding bees

Should you feed pollen supplement in spring?

Commercial beekeepers who intend to pollinate California almond orchards must have large and robust colonies ready for the February bloom. To help their colonies prepare for the big event, they initiate early brood-rearing with the heavy-handed feeding of pollen supplements.

With a plentiful supply of the pollen-like substance convenient to the bees, the queen begins to lay eggs with a vengeance, and the worker bees feed the young larvae with equal zeal. In no time, fresh young workers emerge from their natal cells and prepare to feed their new sisters.

A commercial carryover

However essential this practice is to commercial keepers, it is often not useful to the hobbyist beekeeper who is not moving his colonies south. In fact, if early pollen-feeding is not carefully planned and monitored, it can lead to colony loss.

Problems arise when hobbyist beekeepers see advertisements for substitutes in catalogs or read about how commercial beekeepers prepare their colonies for spring. But as a stay-at-home hobbyist who won’t be moving your hives to sunny California, you may be jumping the gun.

Outside temperature is key

While it might be balmy in the almond orchards, it’s not warm everywhere. It could be months yet before your colonies need to be ginormous, so getting ready too soon can be a problem.

Of course, flowers open at various times, depending on your local climate, and certain plants produce very early pollen. The problem is the ambient temperature. Can your bees fly or is it too cold? It doesn’t matter how much bee forage is available if the weather is too cold to leave the hive.

Too much too soon?

If you increase your colony populations too early, you have multiplied the number of mouths to feed in the absence of warm weather. Your bees become dependent on you to keep them fed. If you forget, you can lose them all. 

For example, if you’ve been adding feed on a regular schedule all winter long, remember to adjust your schedule once pollen feeding begins. For example, if you were adding sugar cakes once every two weeks, you may now need to add them every week.

Why? Not only has the number of bees increased dramatically but the brood-nest core temperature has risen from the wintertime standby average of about 80 degrees F to the brood-rearing average of about 96 degrees F.

The other thing to remember is that once you give them a pollen supplement, you need to continue providing it until pollen comes in naturally. By boosting the number of bees, you have made the colony dependent on the supplement as well as the food.

Tidbits from the Field
What’s the difference between pollen supplement and pollen substitute?

Strictly speaking, a pollen substitute is a complete replacement of pollen, while a pollen supplement is a formula that also contains natural pollen.

Loosely, however, supplement often refers to a mixture used in addition to any real pollen in the hive. That is, the mixture supplements what’s already available.

Accelerating the natural rhythm

In a normal colony, the queen slowly begins to lay more eggs soon after the winter solstice. The increase begins gradually, such that it may be weeks before you notice a difference. The brood raised during this time is fed by the nurse bees, who use the nutrients stored in their fat bodies to secrete brood food from their hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands.

This process gradually speeds up when the bees detect the availability of pollen—or pollen substitute—coming into the hive. The presence of this new resource causes the bees to “believe” that spring has sprung. In response, the queen accelerates egg-laying and the nurses raise masses of brood, preparing the colony to collect even more pollen and the soon-to-come nectar flow.

Timing bee populations to the nectar flow

Because bee colonies wait until pollen comes through the front door before rapidly expanding, they can be a couple of weeks behind colonies that were artificially stimulated. If you are trying to produce honey, this natural cycle can cost you a large part of the earliest nectar crop.

In effect, the timing of spring pollen feeding is a management decision. You want to build up early enough to be ready for warm, nectar-rich days, but late enough that you don’t have enormous populations dependent on a constant sugar supply in a cold snap.

If you’ve overwintered a healthy colony, you don’t need to use any pollen supplements because the winter bees can secrete enough brood food for a small colony. To make the right choice, you need to understand your own goals.

Less is more

For many years, I never fed pollen supplements at all. Now I do, but only gently. Beginning in January, I simply mix a handful of dry pollen supplement into a bowlful of sugar when I’m making sugar cakes. The sugar turns a light tan color, which gives them a little boost without making an issue out of it.

I’ve noticed when I give them both plain sugar cakes and supplemented ones, they prefer the supplemented ones. But I wonder, do they need the protein or do they simply like the taste of the supplement? I just don’t know.

Honey Bee Suite

Honey bee collecting pollen. Natural  pollen is always best, but sometimes the supply is short.
Natural pollen is always best, but sometimes the supply is short. Image by JULIO DE LA TORRE from Pixabay

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  • If we get an early spring (at least here in upstate New York) encouraging maples etc to flower which stimulates the bees to expand more rapidly and then this is followed by a cold snap as is so often the case or by prolonged rain washing out pollen, it really does seem to help my bees cope to supplement with a good pollen substitute to bridge the gap.

    • Debbie,

      Yes, the website is still a work in progress. My former theme was old and unstable running on newer software.

  • I have some bees arriving next week (I’m in Vancouver BC) and am prepping the hives with frames from last year. Unfortunately, I lost all 9 of my colonies this last winter 2020/21 after having 6 survive winter 2019 🙁

    My question is, due to my big losses I have many frames with open/uncapped cells with nectar/sugar syrup from fall feeding in them. They were stored inside the house in a sealed Rubbermaid since November. Do I need to worry about it being fermented? Shall I toss those and only put capped frames into the hive for the new colony? I have frames full of pollen as well so plan to use those, just unsure about the open sugar/nectar frames. I’ve never been in this situation with 9 colonies worth of drawn comb full of pollen, honey and nectar so appreciate your feedback.

    Thanks for your amazing writing and responses. You truly have a gift in your words.

    • Nicola,

      Have you checked on the frames yet? I discourage storage in sealed Rubbermaid because it frequently causes mold growth on uncapped cells. If it didn’t, you’re lucky. A little fermented honey won’t hurt your new colonies, but I wouldn’t overwhelm them with it. You can parcel it out so they don’t get tipsy all at once.

      They will probably clean out the pollen frames. Pollen degrades quickly in storage, but the bees figure it out and do what’s necessary. The old pollen isn’t harmful, but most likely not beneficial either.

  • Unfortunately, I believe there will be tremendous bee losses this year from what I am seeing in Ohio. I guess that’s what happens when the bees have a phenomenal honey season.

  • Hi, Rusty. Your notes on pollen feeding goes where I am concerned. Here in lower Michigan we are having a bit of a non-typical warm-up. My bees are at my bird feeder collecting seed dust. Should I give them a pollen supplement or just let them scavenge what they can? My concern is, as you state, I provide it and they over-expand and then our Michigan winter resumes before the natural pollen comes in, in about 6 weeks. Any ideas? Thanks!

    • JimBob,

      You can feed them a pollen substitute. But once you start, you can’t stop because they will be dependent on it. Once you see pollen coming in regularly, then you can stop.

      • Thanks. I just ordered some. They are absolutely swarming my birdfeeder today! I hope they can hold out until this weekend when it arrives and our weather stays nice a bit longer!

      • I put in half a patty. They went at it a bit but then the weather turned nice, the maples began to flower early, and the scilla popped up all over my garden. My girls began bringing in pollen by the boatload and are booming all about the hive so I guess they have made it through our Michigan winter! This week I will likely take off the quilt box and begin to condense from 4 supers to 2. The weather is supposed to be high 50s, mid-60s with no lower than mid-40s at night.

  • Rusty,

    One of my favorite YouTube beekeepers/teachers, Kamon Reynolds, advises using caution giving pollen sub before the weather allows bees to fly consistently. Essentially, he says that the additional fiber can be a problem when they cannot get out to defecate. So now I am trying to pay more attention to their storage of pollen (in addition to honey, of course) in fall and supplement them so they have enough for winter.

  • I only have pollen patties kept in the freezer from last year. Can I just lay some of this out near the hive? Or should I place it inside the hive around the sugar cakes or just purchase the dry pollen? I have found your website to offer the best beekeeeping information! Located in southern Ohio. Thanks!

  • I have always fed cracked corn to the birds during winter months. A few years ago I noticed the bees love the cracked corn in spring time. It’s basically a pollen substitute for them. They will get the powder residue off the corn which occurs from the milling process. You will be surprised how much they will go thru in a day.

  • Hey Rusty! I’m in Oregon at the base of the Cascades. 55 F days and the girls are bringing in pollen. However, the nights are still cold 30 F. I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Should I be feeding pollen patties now and/or winter sugar cakes? Thank you so much for this site!

    • Mary,

      If the bees are bringing in lots of pollen, you probably don’t need a supplement. Sugar is trickier. If they still have frames of honey, they will be fine because the daytime temps are warm enough to let them wander around inside the hive and find it. Otherwise, you may want to continue with sugar a bit longer.

  • Hi, Rusty. I read your insight regarding do not confuse collecting pollen with nectar. My bees are booming here in Michigan, bringing in lots of pollen. How can I be certain they are also bringing in nectar? The daffodils, scilla, pear tree, forsythia, and redbuds are in bloom. Are they good nectar sources? I am leery of opening up the hive to check if they have cells filled with nectar because we are still downright cool here in Michigan and pretty drizzly. There are a lot of bees coming and going and only half have pollen, the rest are bringing in I assume nectar or water? I put out some sugar on the bottom entrance just in case. Thanks for any insight!

    • JimBob,

      You are being overly cautious on the temperature issue. If it is warm enough to fly, it’s warm enough for a quick hive check for nectar. Redbud produces nectar and so does scilla. Pear nectar is unattractive to honey bees because it’s low in sugar. Forsythia and daffodils are useless for nectar.

  • Hi, Rusty. Well, I don’t know where else to post this so you can maybe offer insight. I went into my hive today…oh boy…4 supers loaded with bees, huge twisted comb built between the top super and bottom of the quilt box, all 4 supers have bees building comb, tending larvae, tons of larvae. I am at a loss as to what to do. I put on a super with 8 empty frames, put the quilt box back on top…the bottom of it loaded with bees. I have a 5 super hive now, with the quilt box bottom stuffed with bees, and no end in sight as far as the queen stopping laying, bees stopping gathering. I never could get to inspect for the queen…she must be doing great with all the larvae I did see, and tore apart lifting my supers (bees had built between the supers). I waited too long and we have had a cool, but early spring. Any thoughts? I could go for setting up another hive if I had another bottom board and top cover…but would need another queen I guess. Sorry so long a post…

    • It sounds like your colony is doing great, but I can’t get a picture in my mind of what you’re saying. Do you have 5 supers over a brood box or two? Or are you calling your brood boxes “supers”?

      If you have two brood boxes and three supers, that sounds pretty normal for spring, if a bit early. I would take the quilt box out of the hive so they stop hanging on it. Just shake off the bees as best you can and then prop the quilt box near the hive until the remaining bees go back home. With your hive tool, scrape off any bridge come that is making inspection difficult. That’s why you have it. The bees will replace some of it, and when they do, scrape it again.

      It sounds like your hive will soon swarm. If you erect another hive, you can split the current hive, put eggs in larvae in both halves, and the bees will make their own queen.

  • Hi, Rusty… I call my medium boxes supers . They are all medium boxes with 8 frames in each. At the moment they seem to all be “brood boxes” because bees are on all 8 frames in all 4 medium boxes, most that I could see having capped brood, nectar, pollen and some honey. I did manage to put on an empty box of 8 frames to give them some room so I am sitting with 5 medium boxes and the quilt box full of bees at the top. There were so many bees that they had nowhere to go when I smoked them at the top…they all buzzed up and around me, so I didn’t get to inspect much. I have contacted a friend of mine and we are going to do some splitting tomorrow. Last year my hive did not make it through winter, this year they have made up for that…never saw so many at and in my hive! Thanks again!