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Should I feed pollen substitute to my bees?

This post relies heavily on personal opinion, so take it or leave it. I’ve heard much talk of pollen subs lately, so I decided to add my two cents.

My thinking on pollen substitutes has evolved over the years, and I’ve become less and less enamored with the idea. That said, commercial and migratory beekeepers work in different environments than hobbyists. Their colonies must be prepared to meet the demands of a specific crop at a specific time, so often their use of pollen substitute is required.

Even so, I don’t think heavy use of pollen substitutes produces the healthiest bees. Study after study has shown that a diet of assorted natural pollen is the very best bee food, capable of stimulating good immune response and long lives. The producers of substitutes have gone to great effort to replicate the amino acid profiles bees need, but for some reason, substitutes are less than perfect.

Hobby beekeepers who live in areas with ample pollen should not need pollen substitute. Of course, there are always exceptions. If you’ve built up strong colonies in spring, for example, then enter an unflyable cold snap, a little substitute may be just the ticket. And that is exactly how I think pollen substitute should be used—as an emergency ration—not as a regular feed.

Too many beekeepers feed pollen substitutes because they’ve been told to. Read a well-written advertisement for pollen sub and suddenly you believe your bees will die without it—the great power of marketing. Instead, you should look at your own apiary and then decide whether a substitute is necessary.

How do you do that? Well, first you need to understand the biology of your bees, their yearly cycles, and the availability of pollen-producing plants in your area. This is what beekeeping is all about—knowing your bees, their needs, and their environment.

Here on the Pacific Northwest coast, I would never give pollen substitute before the winter solstice. There are two reasons for this. First, we have plenty of fall pollen which the bees collect as long as the temperature is warm enough to fly. Second, pollen is required to rear brood, but brood-rearing is at its lowest point in November and December, so not much pollen is required. The small amount they need was stored during the fall flow.

The next part is trickier. Do I feed them pollen after the winter solstice? The brood nest begins to expand after the solstice, but slowly at first. They probably have enough pollen stored to get them well into January. In late January—and certainly by February—there is lots of pollen available outside but rain is a problem, so a decision has to be made based on the weather.

An interesting thing about pollen substitute is that is doesn’t do much to stimulate brood production unless it is accompanied by nectar or syrup. It seems that the presence of nectar or thin syrup stimulates brood production, and pollen (or substitute) allows brood rearing to proceed.

But sometimes a ready supply of honey in the presence of pollen substitute will stimulate brood production. If this happens too early, your bees may eat through their food reserves and starve in early spring. The lesson here is that you need to keep a careful watch on stores if you stimulate brood rearing ahead of schedule. Remember, the closer you get to spring, the faster the food stores are consumed. Just when they have the least, they need the most.

Another issue with pollen substitute is dysentery. Honey bee dysentery occurs when there are too many solids in the diet. The indigestible portions accumulate in the bee gut. If the bees cannot get out for cleansing flights, they will eventually defecate in the hive and spread disease.

Normally, this is not a problem in wintering hives because the bees don’t eat much pollen. But if you start feeding them pollen substitute when they can’t fly, you greatly increase the chances of dysentery. For this reason, I would avoid feeding pollen substitute until I see them flying, at least occasionally.

Especially troubling to me is a colony that has nothing to eat but sugar mixed with pollen substitute. Hungry bees will eat the substitute in order to get the sugar, but they may have no need for the substitute. This is especially true of older bees that are no longer nurses. They don’t need an infusion of protein in their diets, and research suggests it isn’t good for them. Consequently, if you must feed your bees, some of the food should be free of pollen substitute. Don’t force feed your bees something they don’t need.

Personally, I do not feed pollen substitute. I did one year, mostly so I could learn and write about it. My bees did build up earlier, but then I had to feed them. In truth, those colonies did fine, but ultimately no better or worse than any other year. Based on my own observations and comments from others, I think the bees often discard most of the pollen substitute just like any other hive litter. When beekeepers say their bees “take” it, I often wonder if they didn’t take it and dump it—a fitting end to such a meal.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

cgrey8
Reply

We’ve had quite a cold snap here in the south. But in the past few days, it’s warmed up to above-normal temps and the bees are flying. One out of 20 are bringing back pollen from somewhere. So in my area, they don’t appear to be in a pollen dearth. I keep a dish of sugar cakes (infused with the oils bees like) inside the hive for them to eat in case they want it, but so far, they aren’t taking it nearly as fast as I thought they would. I’m assuming they can ingest solid sugar without water. I’m wondering if they would take it better if I just put a jar of 2:1 inside the hive. I’ve resisted out of fear of the water freezing, busting the jar, and raining freezing water all over them.

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

There is plenty of moisture in the hive for bees to eat solid sugar. The vapor from respiration condenses on the sugar and allows them to eat it. For a number of reasons, I wouldn’t put syrup in a hive in winter.

Blaine Nay
Reply

I agree, Rusty. It is a very rare hobby beekeeper whose bees need pollen substitutes. The purpose of pollen substitutes is to force the bees to do something that’s not natural — commercial premature production of brood and queens for migratory pollination and for the production of packages and queens.

I find it highly ironic that many hobby beekeepers want to be “natural”, yet impose artificial, unnatural, unwholesome pollen substitutes upon their bees.

Rusty
Reply

Blaine,

I’ve noticed this too. Even some of the natural beekeeping “gurus” use pollen patties—something I find incomprehensible.

David H.
Reply

Rusty,

I am starting this coming spring with two packages. I was thinking of purchasing real pollen to go along with the syrup when I first install. Is buying real pollen better than going the substitute pollen route?

Thanks!

David H.

Rusty
Reply

David,

Real pollen is always the best bee food. It’s expensive, though, and your bees will do just fine without it. You are building your colonies at a normal time of year, so natural pollen should be plentiful.

Ken
Reply

Rusty,

Living in the Northwest, I doubt you have a problem with hive beetles. These nasty pests overwinter with the bees in the cluster. Giving a supplement of bee pollen early in the South can help boost the hive so that the colony is maxed out for the nectar flow or allowing for an early split. Giving the supplement later in the build up can actually help in destroying the hive. The SHBs at this point can start mating and in just a few days overtake the hive with SHB larva.

Just a thought……

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

I’ve always heard that small hive beetles were a good reason not to use pollen patties at all. The beetles live in it, under it, around it and once it becomes slimed the bees won’t touch it. Some keepers I know add just little pieces of pollen patty, something the bees can use up in a day or two. When that’s gone, they add more without giving the beetles a feast. I don’t think I would mess with pollen patties in a SHB area.

Joe
Reply

Last year we had a relatively late spring in north Texas. I had one colony starve out because I didn’t pay enough attention, and the other colony in the area must have gotten pretty hungry for a while. It did fine and I successfully split it in June, and was able to take 2 quarts of honey at the time. The honey had a very strong pine flavor, which I attribute to the large number of pine trees pollinating early in the spring. You can see yellow green clouds of pollen coming off the trees when you get a gust of wind. I figured they gathered the pollen out of necessity, but have never heard of pine flavored honey. I don’t recommend the flavor, although one person who tasted it really liked it, saying it tasted like a Northwest IPA (India Pale Ale).

Rusty
Reply

Joe,

If it really tastes like an IPA, you can send it my way. However, even though a little pollen gets in the honey, it shouldn’t be enough to flavor it. I’m wondering if your bees may have collected honeydew from pine tree aphids? That might make it taste like pine.

Dave
Reply

Interesting timing – I received a delivery of Candipolline Gold today. Apparently it contains real pollen as well as other stuff. I reckoned that my bees might need the food as autumn (fall) has been so mild. The bees have been foraging with little return and thus feeding on their winter stores. Feeding syrup wasn’t an option as too late in the season for evaporation. So I considered feeding CG was a goods idea? Happily flying is still apparent so I don’t think defecation in the hive will be an issue. This is my first year as a keeper (in England) and the decision to feed CG was based on advice from others. It’s so difficult to know what to do and ignorance isn’t bliss!

All the best,
Dave

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

I’ve never heard of it, but it’s probably just fine. I’m working on some further pollen posts, so I’ll see if I can learn more about it. Thanks!

Jack
Reply

I have used pollen substitute for three years during the winter with great success and NO LOSS of hives (be aware of moisture getting into the hive – not a pollen substitute issue but hive not being water proofed). Ensure you have the correct proportional amounts for your substitute or you will harm the bees. I also will use sugar water 60/40 during the middle of winter.

Wayne
Reply

I have noticed my bees mostly take the pollen substitute and drop it out the bottom, so I don’t use them any more either.

Ken
Reply

If you think they are short on pollen, purchase the patty material in a granular form. Put it under something that will keep it from getting wet and letting the bees take it back to their hives. Just wouldn’t put out much at a time to keep it from molding.

Michael
Reply

I would like to echo the comment about not using pollen substitute where hive beetles exist. They do indeed love to lay their eggs in the patties, which can quickly become quite wormy. If you absolutely need to use patties where hive beetles exist, use very small patties, put them very close (right above) the cluster, and remove any portion that they have not taken in five days or so. My two cents.

Rusty
Reply

Hey Michael,

Hadn’t heard from you in a while. Glad to know you are still at it!

Phillip
Reply

I began keeping bees in 2010 and more or less did what I was told, which was 1) feed the bees sugar syrup in the fall to make sure they had enough food to get them through the winter, 2) feed them pollen patties in January to get the queen laying and 3) feed syrup as soon as possible in the spring also to increase the population of the colony, to give them a boost. All three may be normal practices for commercial beekeepers, but in my experience so far, it’s a guaranteed recipe for swarming, for greatly increasing the probability of swarming. Although swarms are one of the most wonderful things to behold in beekeeping, they’re not something most hobbyists need to rush into. A colony doesn’t have to be exploding with bees to qualify as a healthy colony.

These days, the only time I give my bees sugar syrup is when they’d die without out. I don’t top up the hives with sugar syrup in the fall, but I do give them dry sugar just as winter sets in only as a precaution, just in case they run out of honey before the spring. Then they’d have to be absolutely starving in the spring for me to give them any sugar syrup. I’ve done that for the past two winters and my bees are doing fine.

I still drop in pollen patties in March (not in January like I used to), only because the bees often can’t collect any pollen until late April or even May where I live (in Newfoundland). Again, I do it as a precaution, just to make sure they don’t die. Sometimes the bees eat the pollen supplement. Sometimes they don’t touch it.

I’ve also left some colonies completely alone (colonies that happen to be full of mean bees). No sugar feeding of any kind, no pollen feeding ever, and those colonies are doing great. (Which, this early in the game, might just be a fluke.) I’m amazed how well they do without any assistance from me. Not that I advocate a total do-nothing approach to beekeeping (“let the bees be bees,” and so on), but I’ve learned that many accepted beekeeping practices are more geared towards commercial beekeepers (whether for honey production or queen production) and simply aren’t necessary for hobbyists who want to keep bees for the pleasure of being around the bees and getting a taste of honey once in a while.

I suppose what I’m saying is I agree with Rusty on this one. So far anyway.

Blaine Nay
Reply

I’ve been keeping bees since about 1962. Back then, I knew of no hobby beekeepers who fed pollen or pollen substitutes to their bees. The only time anyone fed sugar to their bees was a quart or two of syrup to newly-installed packages. The result: Losing a colony to Ol’ Man Winter was rare.

Today, nearly all hobby beekeepers dump sugar and fake pollen into their hives because that’s what someone (usually an “experienced” beekeeper with 2 or 3 years of one-colony experience) told them to do. Plus, after all, why would the catalogs all sell pollen substitute if it weren’t absolutely essential to the survival of the bees?

Yet, many of those those same beekeepers refuse to treat their bees for mites – the second biggest threat the honey bee faces — because treatments aren’t “natural”. (The biggest threat is beekeepers who harvest too much honey, leaving the bees to starve or live off fake food.)

Joe Caracausa
Reply

Send me an address and we will mail you a bottle of the pine honey. I hadn’t thought of aphids, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that is the case. My wife said she tasted it recently and thought that the piney/hoppy flavor was less intense than it had been.

Rusty
Reply

Really??? Awesome! I will e-mail you.

willowcreekhoney
Reply

Nice post from Blaine Nay about feeding and taking too much honey. In my few years of beekeeping, I have noticed that the temptation to take more honey than what you should is very strong. I keep telling myself to take less honey next year, and I still have plenty for all, bees and me. Interestingly enough, the only hives that produced excess honey this past year where hives that I had split, that is the mother hives. This with no feeding of pollen subs. My splits where done in early May when the weather was warm enough. I do treat for mites in the fall.

This year I have lost one hive to the elements, o.k., really they starved. With 50 degree weather for most of the fall then a sudden from to the single digits and below for a few weeks and the presence of yellowjackets and wasps stressing the hive, well, they succumbed. The three frames that they where found head first in where empty of honey. The surrounding frames where full. Starvation? Yes. The cluster appeared too small and weak to be able to move to the adjacent honey frames when the temp dropped. My family is sad, this being our backyard hive that has over wintered twice before, but we will repopulate. I did get 8-1/2 frames of honey for future use when I cleaned out the hive. These girls just weren’t even able to reach the sugar I had placed in the hive for such emergencies.
My diagnosis: weakened hive due to wasps not able to access honey stores succumbing to starvation.
Not a good way to go!

My five other hives appear nice and healthy.

Ken

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

I hate it when they starve, but it happens. Just as you describe, too.

Jack
Reply

I appreciate the comments and important information concerning substitutes.

I do feed powdered pollen substitute and the bees come to it as if someone yelled “free money.”

I discontinued using the pollen patties a couple years ago because of parasites.

If I place a container of my dry bee pollen out in the morning containing two quarts of my dry pollen substitute it is gone by 1 PM. I do have 40 hives and they come a running when I place the pollen substitute in the containers.

It is funny, they fly away white (call them ghost bees) and it looks like a little dust storm with the bees being active in the pollen substitute. I check to see if the powder on their bodies harms them and I cannot find any negative result of the powder and they definitely store it.

It is cheaper and more beneficial for the bees in my research and observation.

Rusty
Reply

Jack,

That is a great description. I have seen honey bees do that—kind of roll and frolic in the pollen sub. I think it’s fine to feed it as a free choice like you are doing. I don’t like to see it mixed in with their sugar so they don’t have a choice. Freedom is everything.

Chantal Chopin
Reply

Because I practice natural beekeeping, I allow my bees to overwinter on their own honey and take some of their surplus in spring if there is any. I live in England in the southeast. The bees have started flying for a few weeks already. Yesterday, I had a look in the hive. My colony is 2 years old and very strong. It has 3 supers over the brood box. I had a look at the first two supers, which are full of honey. I took the top super away, full of beautifully capped honey. I do not know what to think about the super underneath. The honey is capped with dark grey wax in the middle of the comb and honey-coloured wax elsewhere. I thought it might be mould to start with but it is not. I have been concerned with too much condensation in the hive. There is water which has formed little pools between the frames, on the sides where they rest.

Have you or anyone else come across coloured wax caps before?

Thanks for your reply.

Rusty
Reply

Chantal,

Every time I have seen gray cappings over honey, I have just ignored them with no consequence. Anyone else?

Jack
Reply

I feed substitute in winter only and it provides higher survival rate, but beginning of spring I stop, otherwise, they will do as humans and think there are entitled to a welfare program. They normally discontinue using in spring with availability of nature’s pollen.

I never use payyies for pollen substitute – it attracts beetles.

I use powdered substitute which I mix personally and it produces healthy bees.

Jack
Reply

I have seen gray cappings on honey and I have tested concerning fungus or bacterial content without a positive result. I do not find a taste difference nor find bees negative affected. I believe it is the time of year and stores resulting in their wax production. Otherwise, I do not find a negative result or product.

Catie
Reply

Hi!
Complete newbee here, my first bees arrive on Sunday. I’ll be starting my packages of Carniolan (2 of them) in brand new boxes on undrawn foundation since I don’t have anything else. I’m in Northwestern Wisconsin and the weather here is, shall we say, unpredictable. I’m concerned that my bees won’t be able to fly very much due to cold and rain for the first week or so. Being new colonies I had already planned to feed them syrup but I’d like to know what your thoughts are on feeding pollen substitute in this situation? There is tree pollen available and some of the early spring ephemerals are starting to show up but again I’m concerned that they won’t be able to fly out to get it. Before finding this site I had purchased some Bee Pro mix from Mann Lake to make-up my own small pollen patties (Bee Pro mixed with 1:1 syrup to make a dough). I was planning to make just small 1/4 lb patties or less but now I’m not sure if that’s a good idea? Any help or advice would be appreciated. Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Catie,

Welcome to beekeeping! Feeding pollen patties certainly won’t do any harm, but the bees probably won’t be very interested in them. My guess is they will dart out when they get half a chance and will pretty much ignore the pollen substitute. However, if the weather is really terrible, there may be some benefit. Bottom line: if it makes you feel better, do it.

Tara
Reply

This has been our first year beekeeping and so far it has gone great! We are in SE VA and so far it’s been warm with a few nights in mid 50s yesterday a swarm literally appeared at our doorstep! It’s not huge I would say medium size we caught it easily in our extra body I also have a nuc box that I could use suggestions on feeding or anything else to aid in chances of surviving at this late date?!

Rusty
Reply

Tara,

You will have to feed like crazy. If one of your hives has excess stores, you might shift a frame or two over to the swarm. Also, you may consider getting a double-screen board so you can put the swarm above an established hive to keep it warmer.

Marghie Seymour
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I spend the winter and early spring in southwestern New Mexico and for several years now have watched as hundreds – maybe a thousand – honey bees come every day and eat at the chicken feeder. Sometimes there are so many bees the chickens can’t get to their food, which can’t endear them to the local ranchers! The chicken food is yellow(ish) and powdered and a few internet searches tell me that they are just looking for some pollen at a time nothing is flowering. I saw a recipe for pollen substitute made of soy flour, brewers yeast and vitamin C and I wondered if it would be a good or a bad thing for me to feed these bees….. I don’t have hives in New Mexico, so these are someone else’s bees, or maybe wild bees, so I am unsure if I should try to help or just leave it all alone. I DO keep been in NH and they are not out and around at this time of year, but I would be worried if someone decided to feed my bees. What do you think? It would be nice to keep them off the chicken food, but I don’t want to hurt them in any way.

Rusty
Reply

Marghie,

It’s not so much that you would be feeding them as diverting them from other feed and rerouting them to a safer area. I think it would be okay to offer a pollen substitute, especially if it frees the farmer and the chickens.

Tammy
Reply

Can I feed my bees bee pollen from a health food store. Pollen comes from the USA

Rusty
Reply

Tammy,

The main reason for not feeding commercial pollen is that pollen can transmit the disease American foulbrood (AFB). The disease doesn’t affect humans, so the pollen can be sold as a human supplement with no problem. But if you give it to your bees, they run a risk of contracting it. AFB is such a nasty disease, I wouldn’t recommend it.

MOMe
Reply

My friends. I am a beekeeper and I have studied so much in the website about this field, I need a help about making the pollen substitute, I have heard that this is a good way for feeding bees but unfortunately I couldn’t find the exact method of making this, I will be appreciated if you do me this favor and help me about this formula. I’m waiting to hear about you. Thank you very much indeed.

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