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.
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