Should You Feed Pollen Supplements to Your Bees in The Spring
There is much debate among the beekeeping community as to whether or to what extent beekeepers should interfere with nature. Like me, Matthew Davies, some affirm that if there is a chance to make our hives stronger, we should take it which typically means choosing not to intervene with nature. If a bee dies due to a lack of food, it will only make the brood stronger in the long run. That being said, we need to look at things from all angles. Below, you will find a little background on commercial beekeepers and other valuable details to help you decide what is best for your bees.
Commercial beekeepers who want to pollinate California almond orchards need to have large, healthy colonies ready for bloom in February. They start early brood-rearing with the heavy-handed feeding of pollen supplements to help their colonies prepare for the big event.
The queen starts to lay eggs with a vengeance, and the worker bees feed the young larvae with equal zeal, thanks to an abundant supply of the pollen-like substance convenient to the bees. Fresh young workers emerge from their natal cells in a matter of minutes, ready to feed their new sisters.
Regardless of how important this practice is for commercial beekeepers, it is rarely helpful for hobbyist beekeepers who are not moving their colonies south. Early pollen-feeding, if not carefully planned and monitored, will result in colony loss.
When hobbyist beekeepers see replacements advertised in catalogs or read about how commercial beekeepers prepare their colonies for spring, problems arise. However, if you’re a stay-at-home hobbyist who won’t be relocating your hives to sunny California, you might be ahead of the curve.
While it may be warm in the almond orchards, it is not that way in other parts of the country. It may be months before your colonies are required to be massive, so getting ready too soon can be challenging.
Flowers open at different times depending on your local climate, and some plants produce pollen very early. The issue is the weather outside. Is it too cold for your bees to fly? If the weather is too cold to leave the hive, it doesn’t matter how much bee forage is available.
Too Much Too Soon
If you increase your colony population too soon in the absence of warm weather, you have multiplied the number of mouths to feed. Your bees will become reliant on you to provide them. You risk losing them all if you forget.
If you are subsidizing pollen for your bees during the winter, you must remember to scale it back the closer you get to spring. If you were previously adding sugar cakes every two weeks, you might only need to add them weekly.
What is the reason for this? Not only has the number of bees increased significantly, but the brood-nest core temperature has risen from an average of about 80 degrees F in the winter to about 96 degrees F in the brood-rearing season.
Another thing to keep in mind is that once you’ve given them a pollen supplement, you’ll need to keep giving it to them until pollen naturally appears. You’ve made the colony reliant on both the supplement and the food by increasing the number of bees.
Accelerating the Rhythm
Soon after the winter solstice, the queen in an average colony starts to lay more eggs. The rise is gradual, and you may not notice a difference for several weeks. Nurse bees feed the brood raised during this period by secreting brood food from their hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands using nutrients stored in their fat bodies.
When the bees detect pollen’s presence—or a pollen substitute—coming into the hive, the process accelerates. The bees “believe” that spring has arrived because of the existence of this new resource. As a result, the queen speeds up her egg-laying, and the nurses produce massive amounts of brood food, preparing the colony to gather even more pollen and the upcoming nectar flow.
Bee colonies may be a couple of weeks behind artificially stimulated colonies because they wait until pollen gets through the front door before quickly expanding. This natural cycle will cost you a large portion of the early nectar crop if you’re trying to make honey.
The timing of spring pollen feeding is, in effect, a management decision. You want to build up early enough to be ready for warm, nectar-rich days but late enough to avoid having massive populations reliant on a steady sugar supply during a cold spell.
Because winter bees can secrete enough brood food for a small colony, you won’t need to use pollen supplements if you’ve overwintered a healthy colony. To make the best decision, you must first comprehend your objectives.
Less Is More
For the longest time, I never considered providing my bees with a pollen supplement. Now I do, but only in a gentle way. When I make sugar cakes starting in January, I mix a handful of dry pollen supplements into a bowlful of sugar. The sugar turns a light tan color, giving them a boost without being too much of a bother.
When I offer them both plain sugar cakes and supplemented sugar cakes, I’ve noticed that they prefer the supplemented ones. I’m curious and uncertain as to whether they need the added protein or simply prefer the flavor of the supplement.
I, Matthew Davies, hope that I have provided you with enough information to make an educated decision for your bees. While I’m not particularly eager to intervene with nature, I don’t feel that providing my bees a little pollen in the early spring is interfering. My bees live in a different climate than others and I want to make the best of the season and therefore offer them a helping hand. Beyond that, I think it is unethical to make bees rely on humans to consume food. They are wild animals and should be allowed to live a life they are used to. I wish you the best of luck with your hives and hope you make the right decision for them.