Anybody who raises livestock knows that success depends on making
sure that the animals are properly fed at all times. Sometimes
feeding is as simple as turning the animals out to pasture, but at
other times, particularly in winter, or times of drought, feed must be supplied.
Depending on the quality of that feed, nutritional supplements may be
necessary as well. Even when livestock might be able to survive on
their own, good managers provide supplements, since there is no
profit in animals that are just getting by.
Contrary to what many beekeepers think, the same reasoning applies
to bees. Some years and some places, bees may be able to take care
of themselves, but when kept in large yards, especially in areas
where monoculture has become the norm, and when the hives are
intensively managed, there is a real possibility that bees may run
short of good pollen or honey stores at several times of the year.
Weaker hives may be unable to compete, and are particularly at risk.
Chances are, most hives will survive, but they may fail to
thrive. If there is a shortage of either pollen or honey, hives will
reduce or stop brood rearing, and even tear out half-grown brood.
Any larvae that are raised at such times will be malnourished and,
when they become adults, will not be as good nurses and foragers as
they might have been. The lingering effects of even temporary starvation can
last for generations, and will have continuing negative impacts on
splitting, honey crops, and on wintering success.
Most beekeepers can detect when their hives are short of honey,
but far fewer can determine with certainty when their bees are short
of protein. As the amount of uncultivated, wild area in agricultural
regions has diminished in recent years, and intensive farming has
reduced the variety of natural forage, more and more progressive
beekeepers are routinely feeding protein supplement in spring and
fall. They know that, even if pollen appears to be abundant in a
hive, that the pollen may all come from one floral source -- possibly
one that is inferior -- and prove to be an incomplete diet for the
Careful attention to nutrition has become even more important in
recent years because adults and brood now are often parasitized by
mites. Supplementary protein, fed as patties, helps balance the diet
and ensures adequate nutrition, both for the adult bees and for the
brood being fed.
Carbohydrate shortages are easily made up with honey or with sugar
syrup and most beekeepers know how to feed syrup or honey
successfully, but far fewer understand protein supplementation.
Protein is usually fed as a patty on the top bars of the brood
chamber that contains the open brood. Careful positioning of the
patty is very important. Unless the patty is within a few inches
of open brood, the patty will often not be consumed, and the
beekeeper may blame the patty. Often, if there are only small
patches of brood on a frame or two, only the portion of the patty
directly over that brood will be consumed, and the corners further
away will be left untouched by the bees until the brood area expands.
Protein supplement patties are usually made of relatively cheap
high protein food ingredients like brewers yeast and soy flour (both
must be suitable for bees – see a bee supply specialist), plus
trapped pollen and sugar. Although pollen is a valuable ingredient,
it is expensive and is not always available. Moreover, unless the
pollen is sterilized by radiation, patties with pollen will spread
chalkbrood and possibly foulbrood, and as a result many beekeepers
prefer to use patties that contain no pollen.
Pollen and sugar both make patties attractive to the bees.
Patties with a high proportion of trapped pollen will be consumed
about three times more quickly than those without any pollen content,
however, if sugar is used to make up about 50% of the dry
ingredients in patties, those patties will be eaten at an acceptable
rate, and even consumed at times of the year when natural pollen is
being brought in by foragers.
Pollen is particularly useful if patties with low sugar content
are being fed, since bees really don't care much for yeast or soy
patties unless the patties contain lots of sugar. However, if
you use enough sugar, the bees will eat anything you put with it, and
you don't really need pollen. We generally use at least 50%
sugar (calculated on the dry part of mix) and find that bees will eat
patties -- even with zero pollen content -- at any time of year,
regardless of whether there is natural pollen available in the fields
Although bees will benefit from protein feeding at any time of
year when they are confined, other than winter, spring is the
traditional time to feed patties. Stimulating brood rearing is
often the stated goal, but causing early brood rearing by using
substitutes and supplements can be tricky.
Once the bees are
induced to raise unnatural amounts of brood by feeding, they must be
supplied with the diet continuously and never allowed to run out
until natural pollen comes in reliably. If they run out - even
for a day - the brood they have started may be thrown out or develop
poorly. Brood rearing takes a lot out of the old wintered bees
and if the first spring brood cycle does not successfully raise new nurse bees, their fat bodies may be used up and
they may not be able to raise much more
brood later, even with fresh pollen coming in.
(Cont'd above right)
When feeding high-pollen patties,
timing is very important.
If only one very attractive patty is being
fed, and fed too many days before natural pollen comes in, there is a
real risk of over-stimulating too much brood rearing too early.
additional patties are not put on the hives before the previous
patties are completely consumed, and if natural or stored pollen does
not become available, as previously mentioned, the bees may actually
tear out some of the brood that has been initiated as a result of the
Feeding too early, with too attractive and short-lived a
patty, and failing to keep the bees supplied, can result in hive
decline or collapse. The collapse is not immediate; it comes several
weeks later and can mystify the beekeeper. The explanation given for
this effect is that supplements are not a perfect replacement for
pollen; when raising too much brood with artificial diets with no new
pollen, nurse bees deplete their body reserves dangerously.
Nonetheless, many people feed only one patty to each hive in the
spring, and many of those who plan to use only one patty also choose
to feed patties high in pollen content. In my experience, if only
one patty is fed, it should be low in pollen, so that it will not
stimulate the bees prematurely, and so that it will last. If
high-pollen patties are fed, then they should be fed continuously
until natural pollen is coming in non-stop That means getting out weekly
and replacing any patties that have been consumed.
How much patty each hive consumes is a good indicator of how
the hive is doing compared to the rest.
Queenless or weak hives will eat much less of
patties, and a beekeeper can therefore easily decide which hives in a yard to
work on, and which to leave alone. just by looking at the patties after a week or two.
In my view, inducing unnaturally large amounts of early spring
brood rearing is not the best use of protein patties. I prefer to
use early patties to nourish the adult bees in hopes that these bees
will be in better shape when real fresh pollen comes in and they are
needed to rear brood, then continue feeding so even weaker hives have
protein available on those days when the weather keeps them
confined. Last year we fed three to five patties per hive, ending in
June. They were all consumed, and some of the patties had zero
pollen content. (Note: In later years, we now feed ten or more patties
per hive, continuing into July).
Pollen in patties is an attractant, and enhances nutrition, but
pollen available for feeding varies in quality. Not only can
collected pollen vary due to the plants available when it is
collected, but drying and storing will diminish nutritional value.
Pollen also declines in value over time to the point where, after
three years of storage, even if frozen, it may become worthless. The
best pollen for feeding is frozen without drying as soon as it is
collected, stored only one winter, and irradiated immediately before
being used in patties.
If zero pollen is used, the bees consume the patties at roughly
one third the rate (in my experience) of a high-pollen patty. That
means low or no-pollen patties will last three times longer -- three
weeks instead of one -- and that can be a good thing if a beekeeper
is only planning on using one patty, and particularly if he/she is
adding that one patty more than a week before fresh pollen is certain
to be coming into the hives.
3-5% pollen is our preference. Using 3-5% pollen (calculated on
the non sugar and non-water portion of the mix) will roughly double
the rate of consumption, in my experience, over patties with no
pollen, and that is a good compromise. Remember also, that we keep
putting on patties even after the natural pollen flows start because
we know that there may be cool or rainy weeks when the bees --
particularly small colonies -- can get out only occasionally, no
matter how much pollen is on the trees and flowers.
|Our goal is not simply to stimulate brood rearing.
We feed to ensure that the protein needs of the adult bees are met
until (and after) real pollen comes in and that the bees are always in top
Our slow (no pollen) patties encourage slower, but steady, consumption and do
not raise the bees’ expectations to unreasonable levels.
For those who wish to force the bees,
higher pollen patties are available and work well.
Just don't forget to keep them on the hives continuously
until the weather settles and there is lots of pollen
coming in daily.
Making patties is a big, messy job. We used to make our own
patties but found that unless we were right there constantly, the
labour costs got out of hand and mistakes cropped up. A few years
back, we got together with our neighbours and hired the job out and
that worked well, but we still had get the materials and supervise.
Mistakes were made.
Finally we found Global in Airdrie. They do a good job, with no
fuss and for a much better price than I could ever manage with my
staff. They make pollen patties and protein patties to the
buyer’s own specs and deliver an accurately made, fresh product, on schedule.
I recommend them highly.