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.

Rusty
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

15 Comments

  • 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!

  • 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.

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