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AFB-fortified pollen

­­­Oops. Unfortunately, bee-collected pollen can transmit the spores of American foulbrood just like honey. It works like this:

A colony of bees has become infected with the bacterium that causes AFB. The disease only affects young larvae less than 48 hours old, but adult bees can inadvertently carry the spores throughout the hive.

When a diseased larva dies in its cell, it can release as many as 2.5 billion spores. A nurse bee attends to the mess, cleaning up the dead larva and polishing the cell. But as she works, many of those spores stick to her body and she swallows even more.

In the cramped confines of the hive, she rubs against other bees including a forager who is unloading her pollen into an empty cell. Millions of spores are transferred to the hairs on the forager’s body. Once her pollen is unloaded, she heads back out into the field and begins to collect more.

As the forager sweeps the pollen off her body and into her pollen baskets, spores of AFB are whisked along with it. The spores adhere to the sticky pollen and become embedded in the pellet. These are not wimpy spores—they can survive in bee equipment for forty years or more.

When her pollen baskets are fully loaded, the forager returns to the hive where Beekeeper A has installed a pollen trap. She squeezes though the trap and loses one of her pellets. It drops into the collection drawer below. Damn.

Undaunted, the forager unloads the remaining pellet, gets some food from one of the nurses, rubs against a few others, and is out the door again.

Towards evening, Beekeeper A unloads the pollen trap, dumps the pollen in a plastic bag, and sticks it in the freezer. But freezing is no match for those AFB spores; they are still completely viable when Beekeeper A sells his pellets to the health food store where they are repackaged and dropped in another freezer.

Next month, along comes Beekeeper B. Beekeeper B wants the very best for his bees, so he buys pure, natural, bee-collected pollen to supplement his colony. Ouch. Spendy. But he buys it anyway. He takes it home, crushes the pellets with a mortar and pestle, and feeds them to his bees.

The bees love the stuff, frolic in it, and carry back to their hive along with a few million spores of AFB. By spring the colony is dead, smelling rotten, and the hive needs to be burned. Beekeeper B can’t figure out what he did wrong. . . .

Bee-collected pollen. Photo by Lamiot.
Fortunately, bee-collected pollen can be irradiated to neutralize the AFB spores. Once irradiated, it may be fed directly to bees or mixed into pollen substitutes.

In addition to AFB, pollen may also carry chalkbrood spores. To be on the safe side, never feed pollen to your bees unless you know the source of the pollen is disease free. The best way to do that, of course, is to trap pollen from your own disease-free hives.

Commercial pollen packaged to feed bees is usually irradiated, but pollen from health food stores and similar establishments probably is not, so be a careful consumer, read the label, and ask questions. In most cases, your bees didn’t need the extra pollen anyway, so it is a sad mistake to make.


A shortage of pollen

Bee Brief bee

Many bees, including honey bees, collect multiple kinds of pollen and can adapt when a particular type becomes scarce. However, many native bees are completely dependent on a single plant species and cannot survive without it.

In addition, native bees feed their larvae in a different way. In most bee species, pollen is collected, moistened with nectar, and formed into a ball inside the nest. The female bee lays an egg atop the ball so that when the egg hatches, the larva can eat the sweetened pollen—the equivalent of bee bread—and the royal jelly step is skipped altogether.

A shortage of pollen is a relatively new concern for beekeepers. Once upon a time, pollen was taken for granted. But today, a bountiful and diverse supply of pollen is sometimes lacking. Habitat loss, invasive plants, monoculture farming, and herbicides are just some of the reasons.

A pollen grain is simply a small package containing the male genetic material of a plant, so a frame of bee-collected pollen is like a gigantic sperm bank, except the sperm is lost to the plants forever. Instead, it becomes food for bee larvae . . . kind of an odd menu item, when you think about it.

Help wanted: move pollen

Since plants can’t walk, jump, swim, fly, or bar-hop, they need a way of moving their pollen around. The most significant mover of pollen is the wind. The grasses—the family of plants that includes wheat, rice, maize, millet, sorghum, barley, oats, and rye—are wind pollinated, as well as most conifers and ferns.

But plants with showy flowers are often pollinated by animals. At least they once were, before mankind began tinkering with them. Today, some of the showiest blooms have little or no usable pollen—another reason for the shortage of bee food.

How to nurse a larva

Not all pollen is created equal, not even close. Just as human food varies in nutritional content, so does pollen. Some are higher in protein or amino acids, some have more lipids, some have a greater variety of vitamins or micronutrients. Go to a farmer’s market at the height of the season and admire the produce—all the colors, textures, shapes, and sizes. Just as you can identify a plant based on its fruit, you can also identify a plant based on a single grain of pollen. Each is unique.

As beekeepers, we know that pollen is necessary for brood rearing. But the youngest honey bee larvae do not eat pollen directly. Instead, the nurse bees eat the pollen in the form of bee bread. Such a protein-rich diet stimulates their hypopharyngeal glands to secrete royal jelly, which is then fed to the young larvae. After about three days, the worker and drone larvae are switched to a diet of pollen and diluted honey.

As older adults, honey bee foragers eat energy-rich honey almost exclusively. Because foragers don’t eat bee bread or pollen directly, when they need protein, they beg the nurse bees for it. That’s right, nurse bees feed both larvae and foragers.

Don’t ask me, I just work here

So the foragers that collect pollen don’t eat it, they just pack it home. Sometimes foragers will bring home other stuff—sawdust or coffee grounds, for example—that have a powdery consistency and the right particle size. This has led some researchers to believe that honey bees cannot determine the food value of pollen.

However, other research has shown that although foragers may collect inferior pollen or non-pollen, the nurses—the ones that actually have to eat the stuff—are much more selective. Think of mom coming home from the market with parsnips and rutabagas. The kids sneer: “Really? Where’s the food?” In the hive, the nurses may discard some of the treasures their sisters brought home from the field, including pollen with questionable food value and sometimes that pricey pollen substitute.

The need varies with brood rearing

When you understand how pollen is used in the hive, you can see why a colony doesn’t need a large supply during winter. In late autumn through mid-winter, when there is little brood production, a colony can get by with very little. However, heaps of good quality pollen are needed throughout the major brood-rearing periods, especially in late winter and early spring.

In highly built-up areas, or in places with lots of agriculture and herbicide use, pollen may be especially scarce in early spring and again in late summer or early autumn. Pollen substitute is often used at these times.

It’s a shame we spray roadside weeds with herbicides and then feed our bees soybean meal. In fact, we humans do so much stupid stuff, you have to wonder how we survive. I know, I know. You say that if we don’t spray for invasive weeds, they will overrun the landscape. I say, if we hadn’t sprayed the native weeds in the first place, the invasives wouldn’t have had an opportunity to start. Oh well, too late now.

Natural pollen is the best

If you are not a commercial beekeeper, if you are a hobbyist with just a few hives, you should seriously consider trapping pollen from your hives and feeding it back in times of pollen dearth. Natural pollen is superior to substitutes and trapping is fairly easy to do.

Some beekeepers don’t like to trap pollen because they fear that extra pollen foraging will cut into their honey production. Maybe yes, maybe no. But you have to ask yourself: Do you want healthy bees or do you want that extra jar of honey? Considering how difficult it is to keep bees healthy, and considering the price of replacement, a trap may be the answer.


Honey bee with pollen. Pixabay photo.
Honey bee with pollen. Pixabay photo.

Pollen patties: when and why?

So-called pollen patties usually contain no pollen, but are designed to simulate real pollen. They can be purchased ready-to-use, can be made at home from a purchased mix, or can be made at home from scratch using a variety of recipes.

The thing to understand about pollen or pollen substitute is that it is used to feed larvae. Eggs don’t eat, pupae don’t eat, and adults eat honey, but the larvae are dependent on a supply of nutritious, high-protein food that is provided by pollen. The feeding system is indirect: nurse bees actually consume the pollen, usually in the form of bee bread. This rich diet allows them to secret the royal jelly that is fed to the youngest larvae. As the larvae mature, they are switched over to a diet of bee bread and honey.

The availability of pollen or pollen substitute to the colony increases the production of brood. Because of an enriched diet, the nurses are able to secret lots of royal jelly. So they prepare cells for eggs and the queen deposits them.  Suddenly, brood production is in full swing.

But do you really want enhanced brood production in late fall or early winter? Under normal circumstances, the brood nest is at its smallest this time of year. The queen may completely stop laying eggs and brood may be non-existent.

The lack of brood at this time of year is a good thing.  Consider the following:

  • The queen gets a much-needed respite from egg laying and a period of rejuvenation.
  • The center of the cluster can be kept at a much lower temperature when no brood is present. According to Caron and Connor, in Honey Bee Biology (2013), when a colony is broodless the center of the cluster is kept at about 70°F (21°C), as opposed to about 94°F (34°C) when brood is present. This lower temperature conserves food stores.
  • With little brood, a smaller adult population is maintained, which also conserves food stores.
  • Perhaps most important, the break in the brood-rearing cycle provides a break in the Varroa cycle. The mites cannot reproduce when no honey bee brood is present.

Furthermore, you don’t want your colony population to peak before the nectar flow. If you build up your colony too soon, you will have a cajillion bees with nothing to eat. Not good.

As you can see, maintaining a sizable brood nest all winter long may not be the best thing for your bees, so it follows that stimulating brood production too early may not be wise. My rule of thumb for a hobby beekeeper is to withhold pollen substitute until after the winter solstice. The colony is attuned to changes in photoperiod, so after the solstice, as the hours of daylight gradually lengthen in the northern hemisphere, brood production naturally increases. To coincide with that increase, you can provide pollen.

Are there exceptions? Absolutely. Anyone who is going to move their bees into almonds or some other southern crop needs to build populations sooner than someone with stationary hives.  Also, commercial beekeepers taking their bees into monoculture crops have to deal with the limited nutrition that comes with single-species foraging. So that is a second reason for feeding an enriched pollen diet. In fact, I think this is how all this early pollen feeding got started: the commercial keepers do it so everyone does it. But the commercial keepers have good reasons that the hobbyist normally doesn’t have.

We tend to think that if our colonies need sugar, they also need pollen. But aside from the fact that only larvae require it, pollen availability differs from nectar availability. Pollen is available earlier in the spring and later in the fall. We’ve all seen bees collecting pollen with snow on the ground, or in between winter storms. My bees are still bringing in pollen now, in mid-November, due to a warm spell.

Part of this is because many plants produce pollen even though they don’t produce nectar. Early trees like alder provide heaps of pollen without a trace of nectar. Grasses, evergreens, and many others are similarly pollen-heavy. I find it rare that a colony is actually short of pollen, either fresh or stored as bee bread.

Even so, there will be times when supplementing your bees with pollen is advantageous. Local weather and climate will have an impact on pollen supplies, as will the selection of local plants, the types of bees, the size of the colony, and many other factors. So by all means, if your colony needs pollen, give it to them. But for a normal colony in a normal year, I strongly recommend that you at least wait until after the solstice.

Personally, I keep a ten-pound pail of Bee Pro in my shed. Some years I don’t use it, but when my bees need a boost, the dry powder is easy to use. Although the pre-mixed Bee Pro patties are quicker, the dry powder is easier to store and cheaper as well. Mann Lake FD200 Bee-Pro Pollen Substitute Pail, 10-Pound.

If you prefer pre-made patties, I like these: Mann Lake FD357 Bee Pro Patties with Pro Health, 10-Pound.


What vitamins should I give to my bees?

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.