Right now, many northern beekeepers are asking when they should begin to feed pollen substitute, as if it’s a necessary step. But pollen substitute is an option you don’t always need. If you determine your bees need it, then “right now” is the best answer. If they don’t need it, don’t give it to them.
Think of it this way. You feed your bees sugar when there is a nectar dearth, a shortage. For the most part, your bees feed themselves. Sometimes, however, they run into trouble and we beekeepers help them through the lean times with syrup or sugar. This is especially true during late winter, prolonged rainy weather, or perhaps a summer drought. It is also customary to give a boost to colonies that are young and not yet populous enough to do all that needs to be done.
Feed pollen substitute during a pollen dearth
Pollen is no different. We feed pollen during a pollen dearth. Pollen dearth is most likely to occur in late winter before the bees are able to fly. Once they begin to find pollen on their own, they seldom need any kind of pollen supplement.
Basically, once you see pollen coming into the hive on the legs of bees, you don’t need a substitute. However, in some areas, fall pollen may be very limited or may be monofloral, in which case, a pollen substitute can provide a more balanced selection of amino acids. It depends on your area. If your fall pollen pellets are multicolored, you’re most likely good to go. If every pellet is exactly the same shade, some pollen substitute won’t hurt.
In other cases, bees collect spring pollen for a few days but are soon housebound due to rain. These bees, too, can usually benefit from pollen supplements. But each situation is different, each year is different. I keep pollen substitute on hand, but I use it only occasionally, maybe one year out of three.
In short, no one can answer the question, “When should I feed pollen substitute?” The answer isn’t in writing; it’s inside your colony. Look at the colony and decide how much pollen the bees have vs how much they need.
Winter bees usually have it covered
Honey bees are actually well-equipped to go without any supplement at all. So-called winter bees (diutinus bees) store food reserves in their fat bodies. The fat bodies also produce a substance called vitellogenin which allows them to secrete brood food even in the absence of fresh pollen.
For many years I didn’t feed any pollen substitute at all, and I experienced no problems. I think the bigger mistake is feeding it too early in the year. Several years ago I experimented with giving supplements earlier, starting in October, and I got myself into a heap of trouble. By the first of January I had huge colonies that needed to be fed almost daily. I was really tired of honey bees by April, so when all those overcrowded colonies began swarming, I was like, “Good riddance!” I was never so happy to see the butt end of a bee in my life.
In summary, feeding pollen supplement is like any other aspect of beekeeping. The need for a supplement will vary with your location, the season, the year, and the colony. To know whether your bees need it, look into your hives, watch your bees, and learn from experience.
Honey Bee Suite