Supplemental Spring Protein Feeding

Thursday 17 March 2022

With days lengthening and temperatures gradually rising, spring is on its way! As beekeepers begin opening colonies in the coming weeks, we will be presented with the decision of whether to provide bees with supplemental feed. To help in this decision, this week’s blog considers the findings of a newly published article from researchers in Alberta examining the benefits of supplemental protein feeding.

Supplemental Spring Protein Feeding

There are many options available for honey bee protein supplements, containing varying amounts of proteins, amino acids, lipids and carbohydrates. Honey bees require all of these nutritional components and get them through foraging on an array of floral resources. When natural forage is sparse or growth demand on a colony is high, these nutrients can be provided through supplemental feeding.

In April and May of 2018-2020, researchers in southern Alberta fed honey bee colonies a variety of commercially available protein supplements*. Regardless of nutritional variation between these supplements, when compared to providing no supplement, all fed colonies demonstrated significant growth.  After only two weeks of feeding, fed colonies had larger adult bee populations and greater brood area. These findings suggest that feeding bees protein supplements in the early spring has the potential to increase colony populations prior to pollination services.

Figure 1. This figure represents the size of honey bee colonies treated with protein supplements in 2019, where the control is no supplement.  Figure A indicates the brood area measured between treatments and controls.  Figure B indicates the cluster score (i.e. size) for the treatment and control groups (Hoover, Ovinge, and Kearns 2022).

Researchers also found varying levels of colony growth based on the environmental surroundings of the tested colonies. Colonies fed differing protein supplements, for example Global 15% versus Healthy Bees, varied less in their brood and adult bee populations when they were also situated in an environment of abundant floral resources. This is in contrast to hives surrounded by poor natural forage, where the difference in colony growth between feeds was more dramatic. Similarly, as the season progressed and natural forage became more abundant everywhere, the difference in colony growth between feed treatments was, again, less pronounced. This suggests that feeding honey bee colonies early in the season and those which are located in landscapes containing poor natural forage will reflect the greatest difference in colony size after supplemental protein feeding.  

The findings in this publication are supportive of results from ATTTA research in 2019. In June of 2019, ATTTA fed honey bee colonies which had just been placed on wild blueberry fields for pollination either 1lb., 2lbs., or 0lbs. of protein substitute. Hive populations were measured before feeding and three weeks after, revealing no significant difference in hive growth between the three feeding options (Olmstead, McCallum, and Shaw 2019). Considering the results of the current research in Alberta, it could be concluded that at the time of the ATTTA feeding trials, there was enough natural forage available that protein substitutes did not make a significant difference on the growth of honey bee colonies. This is further supported by the contents of pollen traps placed in the yards with the tested colonies, revealing a wide array of floral resources.

It could be concluded from the research above that when feeding protein supplement or substitute, the greatest gain is early in the season. Consider the natural forage sources available to your bees. In the early spring or during pollination, if forage is poor, providing supplemental feed to your bees may encourage and enhanced colony growth. 

*Hoover, Shelley E, Lynae P Ovinge, and Jeffery D Kearns. 2022. “Consumption of Supplemental Spring Protein Feeds by Western Honey Bee (Hymenoptera: Apidae) Colonies: Effects on Colony Growth and Pollination Potential.” Edited by David Tarpy. Journal of Economic Entomology, February, toac006.

Olmstead, Sawyer, Robyn McCallum, and Jillian Shaw. 2019. “Evaluating the Effect of Feeding Pollen Substitute to Honey Bee Colonies Destined for Wild Blueberry Pollination in Colchester County, Nova Scotia.” Atlatntic Tech Transfer Team for Apiculture.

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