I am in no way an expert on honey bee nutrition. But in the past few years—especially since the advent of colony collapse disorder—many knowledgeable people have been studying bee nutrition under the theory that healthier bees are better able to withstand the onslaught of diseases and environmental stresses that face them. In my opinion this is an excellent line of inquiry. Living things in general do better when they are well fed.
Like most animals, honey bees need a variety of carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, vitamins, and minerals for optimum health. In nature, bees get the majority of their carbohydrates from nectar (honey) and the other components come mostly from pollen. Pollens vary in their nutritional composition, but since honey bees normally consume many different types of pollen, they are able to meet their nutritional requirements.
Trouble can occur in the hive at the end of winter when food stored the past summer is largely depleted. For this reason, beekeepers often feed pollen substitutes in the early spring. Since a full complement of amino acids (the substances that make up protein) is required to produce brood, feeding pollen substitutes in spring can help colonies get off to a good start.
Many companies now produce pollen substitutes that can be made into patties, mixed with syrup, or fed dry. Each product has been designed with a slightly different profile of the essential nutrients, but I am in no position to say which is best. I would probably trust any of the commercial preparations.
In the past, I have always fed pollen patties in the early spring and, in general, they have been poorly received. Usually they were only partly eaten before they dried into hockey pucks and I tossed them out. This year, in place of pollen patties, I decided to experiment with making hard candy enriched with pollen substitute.
The first time I put the pollen-enriched cakes in the hives I also put in some leftover plain candy cakes—I just wanted to use them up. So in each hive I put one plain candy cake and one candy cake fortified with pollen substitute. A week later when I checked the hives, I was amazed to find the pollen-fortified cakes gone and the plain ones still there. Obviously, there was something in there the bees wanted.
I have repeated this three times in the last month. My bees just love the stuff and I’m very curious to see how they do as spring approaches.
Hard candy, of course, is not something to use with a new package of bees. Although I’m not starting any new colonies this year, if I were, I would try one of the liquid amino boosters in sugar syrup along with Honey-B-Healthy. In the past I’ve used only Honey-B-Healthy and syrup, but after watching my bees munch down the pollen substitute, I’m pretty much sold on the idea.
I’m very interested to see how these overwintered colonies compare to those I’ve overwintered in the past. I will also be on the lookout for the results of controlled experiments where these “designer diets” were used. It is all fascinating.