When and why to supplement your hives

Most people know that bees collect pollen, but few really understand its role in the hive. Unlike nectar, pollen is not used to make honey, but it plays a vital role in the life of the colony.

Adult bees eat honey, but bee larvae are fed – directly or indirectly – on pollen. Early in the bee life-cycle, nurse bees consume pollen and produce royal jelly for the young larvae. As the larvae grow, they move to a diet of stored pollen and honey.

During autumn and winter, natural pollen supplies are low, and brood production slows or stops as a result. Some beekeepers choose to supplement with pollen patties in late winter and early spring to boost brood production and ensure there are plenty of bees available for production or hive-splitting. It’s also used as a supplement when natural pollen supplies are low, lacking nutrition.

Although many beekeepers never feel the need to feed their bees with pollen supplements, it’s good to know when, why, and how in case it ever comes up.

Pollen and brood production

Worker bees collect nectar, pollen, or both when they forage. While nectar is only available during spring and summer, pollen tends to have a longer season. Depending on your area, you may see bees collecting pollen towards the end of winter and late in autumn.

Bees use fresh pollen to feed larvae, and store the excess in honey cells, where it is packed down into layers and fermented to become ‘bee bread’. This supply of stored pollen is used to feed larvae and nurse bees when fresh pollen supplies are low.

Without a good supply of pollen, the colony will be unable to produce brood at all. The nurse bees eat the high protein food and secrete royal jelly to prepare cells for eggs, and to feed young larvae. As the larvae age, they switch from royal jelly to bee bread and honey.

Artificial pollen, real results

Supplemental pollen comes in the form of flat, ready to feed ‘pollen patties’ or as a powder which can be mixed with sugar syrup and formed into DIY patties. The pollen supplement is made of a range of ingredients – each brand will have it’s own special recipe. For example Power Feed has been formulated using local ingredients for use in New Zealand conditions.

To use a pollen patty, simply lie it across the top bars of your lowest brood box. This way, it is easily accessible to the nurse bees who are responsible for brood rearing.

More pollen, more brood, more bees

Many commercial beekeepers choose to feed their colonies with pollen supplements in late winter or early spring. This serves to kickstart brood production for the season, ensuring high numbers of bees. This is particularly useful for commercial operations that split hives, sell bees, and maximise honey production.

If you’re keen to promote brood production, pollen supplements should be added to the hive well before natural pollen takes off – most bees prefer natural pollen when available. Work out when pollen production starts in your area, and start supplementing around 8-10 weeks before that date. This will give your bees enough time to raise several rounds of larvae to maturity, boosting the colony population so you have plenty of bees to take advantage of the first nectar flow of spring.

When pollen supplies are compromised

Pollen isn’t always given to boost brood production. Sometimes, supplements are used in response to a bad blooming season or compromised pollen foraging.

If your area experiences particularly wet or stormy weather during pollen production, levels may be lower than usual, which could lead to low brood production. Pollen foraging will also be reduced during long periods of bad weather when your bees can’t leave the hive. Typically, there is only a few days of bee bread in storage.

In both these cases, artificial pollen supplements can help support the hive and maintain the brood until natural foraging can resume. This means your honey production doesn’t suffer as a result.

Maximising bee nutrition

Another reason for supplementing with pollen is less obvious. In some cases, supplies of stored pollen may be adequate in terms of volume, but lacking in nutritional value. This can be caused by bees collecting fungal spores or other materials instead of true pollen.

Although you can’t test the nutritional value of your pollen stores, you can watch for signs that your bees are lacking adequate protein. These can include low larvae survival, nurses cannibalizing eggs or larvae, and ‘dry brood’. Dry brood occurs when the nurse bees aren’t consuming enough protein to produce good supplies of royal jelly. If you examine the brood cells, they will look ‘dry’ with eggs and larvae sitting in a tiny puddle of jelly instead of being completely covered.

If you suspect that your hive is lacking nutrition, it may be worth supplementing with a pollen patty to give them a boost.

Your bees, your choice

While pollen supplements can be a boon for a struggling hive, or a good way to boost bee numbers, they’re not strictly necessary. They’re common in commercial hives, but used less frequently by hobbyists.

If you’re considering using supplements, it’s good to understand the colony life cycle and how it changes over the year. Boosting brood production in winter sounds like a positive, but there are good reasons for slow production in the cold.

Winter gives the queen a well-deserved break from egg laying, so she’s rested and ready for spring. Brood also requires higher temperatures and use of food stores, both of which can be difficult for bees to maintain during winter. Finally, a natural break in brood production can interrupt the Varroa mite life cycle. Mites are unable to reproduce without brood cells, which means they often decrease in severity during the winter. This is also a great time to apply non brood-cell penetrating varroa remedies.

For these reasons, it can be beneficial to leave your bees to it during the cold months, and only supplement with pollen if there’s a good reason to do so. Of course, you know your area, your hives, and your bees best of all, so you’re the best person to make that decision.