Why Feed Pollen Substitutes?

This article is written by Blake Shook of Texas Bee Supply and published in Texas Bee Supply Monthly – September 2021

Texas Bee Supply

It’s a fair question. Is pollen substitute actually necessary? Why should you feed pollen substitute at all? Don’t bees gather pollen themselves? Honey/syrup are the carbs in a bee’s diet, and pollen/pollen substitute is their protein. They must have sufficient quantities of each to raise brood and survive as a hive. We can also use food to manipulate hives to grow faster and stay healthier during certain times of the year. This is especially true with pollen subs. I recommend primarily using purchased, pre-made pollen patties. I don’t recommend making homemade patties.

Ok, now to finally answer the question, “Why feed pollen substitute?” If you have a strong, year-round, multi-source pollen flow, you don’t need pollen substitute. Chances are (unless you live in the tropics) this is not the case for you. There are major summer droughts, freezes, winter, etc. that prevent the quantity and quality of natural pollen needed.

So, we feed pollen sub to accomplish three primary goals:

  1. Feeding 2-3 months before the first freeze to help our bees rear healthy bees going into the winter by ensuring they have all the nutrients needed as they rear brood. In essence, during the late summer and early fall workers rear a different kind of bee… a “winter bee” that is raised to live much longer than summer bees. These winter bees need a very complete diet to have fat stores and immune systems needed to survive the winter. A poor pollen flow, or a single source pollen that isn’t nutritionally sufficient (think eating nothing but pizza), won’t enable them to raise healthy winter bees. Feeding pollen sub and syrup if needed, ensures they have the needed protein and nutrition to successfully raise winter bees.
  2. To extend brood rearing. By feeding pollen substitute approximately a month after the first freeze, and 2 weeks before your first pollen blooming plants in the spring can help the bees rear brood later and longer than normal. This helps increase the hive’s population, which, no matter the season, is a good thing!
  3. To prevent nutritional deficits during pollen dearths. I alluded to this in #1, but if we have a dry summer or a late spring freeze, and little to no pollen producing plants, our hives can begin to starve nutritionally if sufficient pollen and pollen variety is not present. When this happens, the bees begin to cannibalize the brood, which dramatically reduces the health and population of the hive. Feeding pollen substitute and syrup during these dearths can save your hives.

Where to Place Pollen Patties

Pollen patty placement is, thankfully, pretty simple! You’ll notice the purchased patty has wax paper on both sides. That wax paper serves the important role of keeping the patty moist as the bees eat it. They will chew it up and throw it out the front door of the hive. The patty should be placed in between your two brood boxes, or in between the two boxes that are most full of bees. You want it in the heart of the hive. Smoke the bees off the top bars, lay the patty down at the very center, and set the box on top of it. It’s thin enough to fit in between the two boxes. A strong hive should eat a 1 lb patty in 1 week to 10 days. In regions where Small Hive Beetles are a problem, cut the 1 lb patty into smaller portions, hence reducing the amount of patty available for SHB to use as a breeding ground. You’ll need to replenish more often, but it’s well worth it to avoid a hive beetle take over.

Ultra Bee Patties from Mann Lake

Ok, now let’s take a step back. Just how critical is all this feeding? To be honest some years it doesn’t make much of a difference. And some years, it makes all the difference between a 10% loss rate and an 80% loss rate. The harsher the weather, and more severe the pollen shortages, the more critical the feeding. If you live in an area that has a consistent pollen flow all spring, summer, and fall, you may not need to do much feeding. However, for most areas, it can be a huge help. I always recommend beekeepers try things for themselves and see what works. Try feeding pollen sub to half of your hives, and not the other half, and see which do better over the summer and winter.

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