Pollen Patties: When and How to Use Them in the Beehive
First of all, there is nothing wrong with feeding bees when they need it. One of the things that I often hear from new beekeepers or those interested in honey is that feeding bees is bad. Like with anything, it’s not so black and white. When a colony needs to be fed to survive the winter or to receive a treatment, it’s better to intervene as a beekeeper with the tools at our disposal. One such tool is the pollen patty.
A pollen patty gets its name from the fact that it is meant to imitate real flower pollen. The colony uses gathered pollen as a vital source of protein, vitamins, and minerals for growing larvae. A pollen patty can be purchased ready-made, or made at home using various recipes and ingredients. Without the protein-dense pollen, the developmental cycle of the honey bee is disrupted; the nurse bees and larvae depend on the pollen to aid in their development. Nurse bees consume the pollen, or bee bread, and use it to product royal jelly. The royal jelly excreted by the hypopharyngeal glands of the nurse bee is fed to the larvae in the early days of its development. After a few days, larvae not chosen to be raised to become a queen bee are switched to a diet of bee bread.
Why would a beekeeper use a pollen patty?
In order for the queen to lay eggs and for the colony to successfully raise enough brood, there must be ample supplies of pollen, or pollen substitute. With enough pollen, the nurse bees can produce ample amounts of royal jelly which they use to fill the brood cells. When there is enough royal jelly, and brood, the colony can meet the workforce requirements of feeding and caring for tens of thousands of honey bees. Sounds like a good thing, right?
Absolutely! So Why doesn’t everyone use pollen patties if they aid in stimulating brood production? Well, timing is everything.
Consider what is happening in the hive in the late fall and early winter. At this time, the population of the colony is dwindling and the drones are being expelled from the hive as the colony prepares for winter. The queen might have stopped laying eggs completely and there might be very little to no brood present in the hive. That’s really ideal for this time of year though. This interruption in the egg-laying helps with the varroa mite population and leaves the colony in an ideal position for making it through the winter. With brood present, the colony must keep the brood chamber a comfortable 94 degrees fahrenheit; without brood, that temperature can drop into the mid to low 70's. That’s a big difference, and the energy savings is enormous. Sometimes, it's better to have little to no brood!
It’s also worth considering when flowers bloom in your area; when does the nectar flow really begin for your bees? This will be the most telling indicator of when you should use a pollen patty. Adding a pollen patty too soon can stimulate brood production and leave you a colony chock full of bees with no readily available food source. That’s certainly a situation you don’t want to find yourself in as a beekeeper!
The timing of when to use a pollen patty is the most important!
For beekeepers in the South, there are typically earlier nectar flows and using a pollen patty just after the new year is appropriate. In areas farther north or with later starting nectar flows, it’s probably best to withhold the pollen substitute until the hive’s population naturally starts to increase.
It’s also perfectly fine to not use pollen patties or provide supplemental pollen sources at all; some hives don’t need it. It really is a case by case, hive by hive decision you will have to make as a beekeeper. Pollen is generally available earlier in the Spring and later in the Fall than nectar, and it's fairly rare that a colony is actually short on pollen supplies. Observant beekeepers will notice bees collecting pollen throughout the year, long after nectar flows have stopped. Despite the general availability of pollen, supplemental feeding can be necessary from time to time and depends on your goals and philosophies as a beekeeper. A hobby beekeeper might have different reasons for feeding than a commercial beekeeper, and stationary hives might have different needs than migratory hives that travel with the blooms.
It’s all relative, so keep an eye on your bees! Let the bees tell you what they need, and respond as best you can. That’s the fun in keeping bees!