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When to feed pollen substitute to honey bees

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.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

You don't need to feed pollen supplement once your honey bees begin to collect fresh pollen. The honey bees here have pollen baskets full of bright yellow pollen.
You don’t need to feed pollen supplement once your honey bees begin to collect fresh pollen. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Ron German
Reply

Rusty

Although the weather has been quite cool here in Nebraska, My bees are bringing in pollen to all three hives. I do not know where the pollen is coming from, but they have found it somewhere in the neighborhood of our acreage. They have been using sugar candy to get by as needed during the late winter months. It is great to see them become so active in early spring. Thank you for all your hard work.

Ron German
Roca, NE

Andy Kingman
Reply

Thanks for your commitment & info Rusty & in a way that make me smile normally (not that I do not smile normally!). I use these comments to pass onto our students, hope they will log on eventually.

Kind regards

Andy

Robert Frye
Reply

Ron,

I’m just north of you. Same basic climate. My bees are bringing in maple tree pollen when it’s warm enough for them to fly.

Robert Frye
Reply

Ron,

I’m in Lincoln, NE

Alice
Reply

Timely article, Rusty. I was wondering if I needed to feed protein patties since my bees starting bringing in maple and crocus pollen 2-3 weeks ago.

Our annual SW Ohio bee school was today and one speaker encouraged the collection and storage (in freezer) of pollen for use in times of need. We ran out of time and I did not get to ask how to know how much pollen we can collect and still leave them enough to raise their brood. Is there some formula or something you look for to know when to start/stop collecting? I would presume feeding it back to them would be the same as you outlined above — if they need it, feed it and if not, don’t. A rabbit trail….could collecting “too much” pollen act as swarm control by making brood production slow down?

Alice
Reply

Thanks Rusty. There’s a lot more to consider than I had expected from the simple encouragement to collect pollen from our hives. I am working hard to save these colonies, and obviously this needs a lot more research, so I’ll be holding off on this…at least this year.

Yes, I certainly do not want to weaken my colonies. That would be my fingers typing before reason and wisdom processed the thought…ugh.

You commented to someone about outdoor protein/pollen feeders away from the hives to help avert SHB. I like that idea as SHB infestation is one of the problems I am trying to correct.

Thanks again!

ET Ash
Reply

Here feeding pollen is almost never necessary. Rusty’s story suggests why feeding pollen may be essential for pollinating almonds but by and large is a waste of money and time for most. I would suggest counter productive to most folks purpose in rearing bees. I did feed pollen here in the summer of 2011 when our last drought became most severe. My clue was there was no pollen in the hive and none coming in and the bees ability to rear brood went to zero. PS…I have been told by folks that do take bees to the almonds that pollen patties are highly attractive to feral hogs who will turn over hives for the pollen patties.

Rusty
Reply

Gene,

News to me. I never thought of feral hogs as a honey bee “predator,” but it makes sense.

SandyRichey
Reply

” I was never so happy to see the butt end of a bee in my life.” That is funny!

Rusty
Reply

It’s true!

Nancy Ogg
Reply

Rusty,

Guess we are having a series of “weather dearths” (I made that up).

First the water maples bloomed and the weather turned off cold so they couldn’t work it. Then we got a warmup, and they shoveled in pollen for a few days, and then (repeat). That, I think, was willow and elm.

In the past 3 weeks we have had 5 snowstorms that covered the ground and dropped temps. I am emailing you a picture of cedar pollen, which is really copious for some reason, this year. But it snowed all day yesterday, and it’s down in the 40’s again, so I don’t suppose it will be much use to them.

Frankly at this point I am surprised they are still alive, altho I have kept feeding them. In a minute here I will go brush the caked slush off their entrances.

March, huh?

Nan
Corinth, Kentucky

Rusty
Reply

Nancy,

I wonder how much nutrition is in cedar pollen. Mine are into it, too. I’ve always noticed they like it.

John
Reply

I wonder if the answer to whether/when to feed pollen sub in the spring is dependent — at least to some extent — on your beekeeping objectives and/or regional weather differences. For example, in the year that you had all of those bees, if your objective had been to maximize that season’s honey production and/or produce splits, you might have been overjoyed to have all of those extra bees (and for very little extra time investment, and only a few extra dollars invested in the pollen sub).

Here in New England, there is still snow on the ground and it’s about 35F out today, but the bees should be out in full force in 3-4 weeks. In this weather, it’s not really practical to do a full hive inspection to see how much pollen may be left, so I just lift up the inner cover slightly and put the pollen sub patties on top of the bars of the top hive body. If the bees need it, they will use it, and if not, I’m only out of pocket a few dollars.

I recall Michael Palmer, a commercial beekeeper in northern VT, saying in one of his YouTube videos that the bees only need the pollen sub in the springtime in about one out of four years, but it’s impossible to know if this is one of those special years, so he just gives it to them every year. But then again, his objectives are different from at typical hobby beekeeper, since he is trying to produce as much honey and as many bees as possible to sell.

As you say, timing is key. Around these parts, it seems pretty safe to start giving the hives pollen sub around mid-March, and being certain from then on to make sure they continue to have it until natural pollen is available. If we start too early and/or start but then stop, we run the risk of the queen getting out ahead of herself with the brood, especially if the weather turns very cold again before spring arrives fully.

Tom
Reply

Here in Dakota Cty, MN my one hive seems to be doing good. The bees are loving the high 40s today and out relieving themselves. They have depleted the 5lbs of sugar to one third that I put in the hive in December. I have viewed through upper board window heavy bee activity inside the hive. I have not taken a risk to open the hive so bees are not interrupted if brood rearing.

David Stoilov
Reply

Thank you for this article, I just started and any information is useful!

Heather M Neill
Reply

Rusty, do you feed pollen patties to new packages? All thoughts appreciated…
Heather

Rusty
Reply

Heather,

No. Since there is lots of pollen in spring, my bees have never shown any interest in the patties.

Stacie Stone
Reply

Rusty-

Regarding dearth and when to supplement with pollen and when to stop, I am still confused. I have 3 hives. The first one is the original hive I started out with 3 years ago and is very established. In fact, I split that hive this past spring. Part of the split hive swarmed which I caught, and now I have 3 hives. The problem that I am seeing is that none of the hives have enough honey or pollen stores to go into winter with. I live in South Carolina- we DO see freezing temps, wind, frost, and sometimes snow (it did snow last winter!). On my last hive check 3 weeks ago, I saw maybe 1-1 1/2 frames of honey in each hive, and a small amount of pollen compared to what I have seen in the past. I saw more brood in all hives than anything.

The swarm hive is the smallest. It was a small swarm, and they only consume 4-5 frames. I was encouraged to feed the girls Bee-pro during summer dearth which I started doing 2 weeks ago in an attempt to help them to expand their stores as well as to feed them. I am starting to see goldenrod blooming in the fields around me now. I am wondering if I should stop giving them pollen sub now. I had planned on doing a hive check this weekend to see if there has been any progress.

What should I do if they have NOT built up enough food to overwinter with before winter sets in? I have never had this problem in the 3 years that I have been raising and keeping bees.

Rusty
Reply

Stacie,

My bees didn’t put up much honey this year either. It happens sometimes. You just need to keep them fed all winter long, and they can do fine on sugar alone. I usually don’t give them pollen until late January or early February because you don’t want them to raise too much brood before the spring flow starts. Your spring will be a lot earlier than mine, however.

You can begin feeding any time. Feed syrup until the weather turns cold and then give them a candy board.

Amy
Reply

What do you use for pollen substitute? And where can I get it?

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