Pollen quality and when do I feed Pollen Patties to my bees?
This can be a complex topic. It changes based on location, beekeeping methods, genetics, business model, personal beliefs and even year to year. It is my hopes that this will serve as a guide to help you determine whether it is right for you to invest in pollen substitute for your bees.
How do I know when it is time to feed my bees protein?
The basic answer is when they lack good quality pollen. It is easy to tell if they simply lack in quantity but hard to tell if they lack quality. The quality of pollen can be defined as, does it contain levels of macro and micronutrients in proper proportions to supply bees what they need to grow. For instance, you can have a high amount of protein but the amount of protein available to a bee will be limited by the lowest essential amino acid.
The clues will come to you during your hive inspection.
While inspecting, you want to look for several things:
A. Is there a ring of pollen around the brood?
If the ring is depleted, you may want to feed pollen patties. This is the main sign I use, however not all colonies fit this simple mold.
B. Is there pollen elsewhere in the hive?
Sometimes bees are not the best at following the rainbow pollen ring pattern and pack the pollen densely on other frames.
C. My Pollen is being entombed!
If this is somewhat common you may want to feed pollen substitute. Entombed pollen is thought to be the colonies response to something possibly harmful. Perhaps there are chemicals or an infectious disease agent in the pollen. If you see some do not be alarmed. If there are many entombed cells, I would begin further investigation into what may be causing it.
D. Help - Larvae and/or Pupae are being eaten!
This could be several things. It is possible it a hygienic response to some pest or pathogen. However, it also could be starvation. Workers will cannibalize their young if they have nutritional deficiency. To tell the difference just continue with your inspection. Check for mites and other signs of disease. It is possible to see both since poor nutrition can allow the emergence of disease. When in doubt it may be better to feed.
E. Are the young larvae swimming in royal jelly?
Young larvae (~ 3.5 -6 days old) should be swimming in a pool of royal jelly. If they look dry or seem to lack royal jelly there may be a deficiency. To gauge that you are going to have to use your experience of how similar aged larvae has looked over time.
F. How do the larvae and pupae look?
This is somewhat objective but does the larvae and pupae look white pearly and fluffy? Its a general luster. Remember disease can also cause larvae and pupae to appear unhealthy. To tell the difference you will need to learn to identify the different diseases. We will cover that in a later post.
G. Are there multiple different colors of pollen?
If there are multiple colors, you can be sure your bees are getting proper nutrition. Just like with the human diet. The best way to eat healthy is to eat the rainbow. The more diverse the pollen, the better the diet. If all the pollen looks the same this does not mean it isn’t diverse. Many different pollens often look the same. Take it as a clue.
H. What effects Pollen quality?
Different species of plants produce different quality pollens. Flowering plants that have coevolved with pollinators will typically have more nutritious pollen than wind pollenated species. Increasing Carbon Dioxide levels also negatively affect protein levels in pollen due to changes in carbon/nitrogen ratios. Some also claim heat and agricultural chemicals can be a factor although I have yet to see good research backing that claim.
Feeding pollen substitutes is a relatively new part of beekeeping in the world. As the world and beekeeping changes supplemental feeding has become an increasingly important. It is up to the beekeeper to decide if you need to intervene on behalf of your bees.
If you do not know if it is the right time to feed your bees, follow these guidelines:
For early buildup feed pollen substitute in the late winter/early spring before the main pollen flow comes into full effect.
Feed during times of warm dearth. Essentially not during the winter when bees and plants are dormant (depending on region). For my area this is sometimes the middle of summer depending on rainfall.
It is generally a good practice to feed in late summer and the fall when your bees are building “winter” bees.
Feeding pollen can either be a sound investment or a waste. I have seen bees extract all the sugars from a pollen patty and discard the protein. This could be a good sign to supplement with some sugar syrup.
Good Luck & Happy Beekeeping!
EXTRA CREDIT: Below is one of my hives displaying a typical rainbow pattern. Between the brood and honey should be a ring of pollen. However, the world is not perfect and even if it is absent, it does not necessarily mean the hive is starving for protein. I tend to feed if it is absent, simply because I like to spend the least amount of time as possible in the hive.