Pollen Patties: To Feed or Not to Feed

Thursday 24 June 2021

In order to optimize the health and survival of honey bees, beekeepers have historically provided nutritional supplementation.  Replacement of harvested honey through feeding of sugar syrup is common practice, as is protein supplementation with the use of pollen patties.  Through recent research undertaken by ATTTA and other groups, we are gaining further understanding of the merits of pollen patty use.  In this week’s blog, we undertake a mini review of some of this current research.

Pollen Patties: To Feed or Not to Feed

All livestock, including honey bees, require feeding!  As beekeepers we have, by tradition, supplemented the bee’s diet using pollen patties.  Most beekeepers use commercially available pollen patties, but some people choose to make their own. Either way these contain a few simple ingredients: sugar, a protein source, oil and sometimes a binding agent.  The protein source can be in the form of flour (rice, soybean), brewer’s yeast, milk and / or egg products, or protein from corn, potatoes or peas.  Some pollen patties contain natural pollen.  To clarify the semantics sometimes used when discussing pollen patties, the products containing natural pollen are referred to as supplements and those without natural pollen are called substitutes.  Ours and other research discussed in this blog refer to substitutes which contain no natural pollen.

Early work conducted in 2018 – 19 by ATTTA, examined growth and overwintering success of honey bee colonies fed pollen patties (McCallum et al, 2020)No significant difference was found between the groups of colonies which received the pollen substitution and those that did not receive the pollen substitution.  The conclusion was that these results showed no economic or biological benefit of feeding pollen patties for colony growth or overwintering success.  Additional work undertaken by ATTTA during 2019 examined the effect of pollen patties on honey bee colonies used for wild blueberry pollination.  Nutritional supplementation has long been thought to support the health of colonies used for pollination.  In this research colonies were assigned to three groups and given no pollen substitute, 1 pound of pollen substitute or 2 pounds of pollen substitute.  Our results suggested that there was no significant difference in colony strength or colony growth for honey bees sent to pollination that had been provided with pollen patties and those that had not.  See figure 1 for a graphic representation of these results.

Figure 1: Mean honey bee colony growth during blueberry pollination in Colchester County, Nova Scotia, 2019 among groups fed 0, 1, or 2lbs of pollen substitute. Error bars represent standard error. No significant difference was seen across the trial groups.

A similar trial was repeated in 2020 with additional colonies receiving pollen substitute and subsequently assessed for both growth and strength.  These assessments were undertaken during and after pollination.  In support of our previous work, there was no significant differences in the growth or strength of the colonies which received the pollen substitute and those which did not receive any nutritive supplementation.  Additional details of our results can be seen in figure 2 and figure 3.

Figure 2 Boxplot demonstrating the effect of pollen patties on colony strength in Nova Scotia during pollination season in 2020.  Figure "Time Point One". shows the results of adding pollen patties at the beginning of pollination, measured three weeks later.  Figure "Time Point Two". shows the results of the addition of pollen patties at the beginning of the pollination, three weeks of pollination and measured three weeks post pollination.  The box contains the 25 – 75th percentile range, the line represents the 50th percentile (median), whiskers show the range (min. to max. values).  There was no significant difference across the groups.

Figure 3 Mean Colony Growth (bar: SEM).  The graph represents the mean difference in seam counts from the first time point at the beginning of pollination in 2020 to the final time point, approximately three weeks post pollination, as a measure of hive growth.  The three treatments are shown, representing the control (0 pollen patty), treatment 1 (1lbs pollen patty) and treatment 2 (2 lbs pollen patty). There was no significant difference across the groups.

There has been some very interesting recent research from other groups who examined the way that honey bees use pollen substitutes (Noordyke et al 2021).  A team led by Jamie Ellis out of the University of Florida looked at how pollen patties were used by the bees and distributed through the hive.  Their results included some conclusions worthy of discussion.  They suggest that a portion of the pollen patty was ingested by the adult bees.  No portion of the pollen patty was fed to the larva or stored as bee bread.  Another portion of the pollen patty was removed as debris from the hive.

Our research suggests that there is no economic benefit of protein substitution (i.e. providing pollen patties) applied to honey bee colonies in order to support hive strength and growth during wild blueberry pollination or to improve overwintering success.  The work of Noordyke, Ellis and others shows that bees do ingest pollen substitute but this does indicate the level of  nutritional beneficial to the bees (i.e. ingestions does not equal digestion, absorption and utilization).  Also pollen substitute does not support the larva and is not stored for future periods of dearth.

The fact, as suggested by Ellis' group, that adult bees are ingesting pollen patties immediately may be worth further discussion.  Adult bees, compared to developing larva, have a lower nutritional need for protein.  Perhaps a benefit of pollen substitute to adult bees would be through the ingestion of the sugar portion of the pollen patty.  If this is the case, then pollen substitute may be a method, although arguably less effective than feeding sugar syrup, of supplementing sugar in the adult bee's diet.

There is still much that we do not understand about the overall efficacy and economic justification of feeding pollen substitute to honey bees.  The research discussed above presents some worthwhile discussion points and beekeepers, through their experience, must apply the management practices which work for them.

McCallum R, Olmstead S; Shaw J; Harrison J (2020) Evaluating late summer pollen substitutes on the growth and overwintering success of honey bee colonies and analyzing natural fall pollen nutrition in Nova Scotia, Canada. Journal of the Acadian Entomological Society . Nov2020, Vol. 16, p7-14. 8p.

Noordyke ER, van Santen E, Ellis JD. Tracing the Fate of Pollen Substitute Patties in Western Honey Bee (Hymenoptera: Apidae) Colonies.(2021) J Econ Entomol. May 27:toab083. doi: 10.1093/jee/toab083. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 34041543.

Ormstead S, McCallum R and Shaw J (2019) Evaluating the effect of feeding pollen substitute to honey bee colonies destined for wild blueberry pollination in Colchester County, Nova Scotia.  ATTTA fact sheet: https://www.perennia.ca/portfolio-items/honey-bees/ Fact sheets and publications.

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