Spring Pollen Substitute for Honey Bees

Thursday 30 March 2023

Following best practices around feeding honey bees in the spring can create a dilemma for many beekeepers.  The main consideration for commercial beekeepers is the economic benefits of providing supplemental feed.  Generally speaking, bees that have been well fed in the autumn should be ok to survive through winter and into spring.  This does not mean that in certain conditions, emergency spring feeding may be required.  Also, preparing bees for pollination will have specific considerations.  In this blog we will look at the benefits of feeding bees pollen patties in preparation for and during pollination of wild blueberries.

Spring Pollen Substitute for Honey Bees

Pollen patties are a supplemental source of protein fed to bees, often in the spring, to ensure the colony has adequate nutrition, specifically for brood production.  Pollen patties come in a range of forms but usually contain a protein source, sugar and lipids.  In addition to these nutritive ingredients, there will usually be a binding agent added as well.  The protein may be real pollen or from sources such as brewer's yeast, rice flour, cereal grain flour.  Individual manufacturers may also include other additional nutrients to their pollen patties.  

Early spring feeding of pollen patties in preparation for pollination is a practice both supported by research and proven of economic benefit.  A Canadian research team led by Shelley Hoover out of the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, concluded that spring feeding of pollen patties increased honey bee populations1.  This work demonstrates the benefits of supplemental feeding of protein in advance of pollination.  It must be noted that the supplementation occurred in April and the bees were being prepared for providing pollination for hybrid canola. So this differs in both the time of pollination and the plant species being pollinated when compared to Atlantic Canada and wild blueberry pollination. Nonetheless, it demonstrates the benefits of this practice and is applicable to our region.  Considering the timing of blueberry pollination, beekeepers would have to supplement in March rather than in April.

Field trials on the benefits of pollen patty application have been undertaken by ATTTA specific to wild blueberry pollination.  A study done in 2019 set out to determine the effect, if any, of providing pollen substitute to honey bee colonies during blueberry pollination on the growth of colonies2.  A number of hives were supplemented with pollen patties while placed on wild blueberry fields for pollination.  The resulting data show that feeding pollen substitute to colonies during blueberry pollination did not influence colony size.  Colony health was assessed at three weeks post pollination.  There was no appreciable impact on reducing the prevalence and severity of EFB.  Subsequent work completed by ATTTA replicated these results, also showing no statistically significant differences between honey bee colonies supplemented with pollen patties during blueberry pollination and those not provided pollen supplementation.  Details of these results can be seen in the figure.

Figure 1. Boxplot demonstrating the effect of pollen patties on colony strength (Frames of Bees) in Nova Scotia during pollination season in 2020.  Figure A. shows the results of adding pollen patties on hive strength at the beginning of pollination, measured three weeks later.  Figure B. shows the results of the addition of pollen patties on hive strength at the beginning of the pollination, again after three weeks of pollination and measured three weeks post pollination.  There was no statistical difference between the hive fed 0 pollen patty, 1 lbs. of pollen patty, 2 lbs. pollen patty measured at either time point.  The box contains the 25 – 75th percentile range, the line represents the 50th percentile (median), whiskers show the range (min. to max. values).

These studies, undertaken to prove the benefits of pollen supplementation in preparation for pollination, suggests that early spring pollen patty application is of economic benefit for beekeepers.  There is a measurable increase in hive strength, and this will result in a stronger pollination unit.  There is less evidence to support the practice of pollen patties applied during pollination.  The assumption could be that later in the spring, natural sources of pollen are available and that honey bees consume these preferentially.   In preparation for wild blueberry pollination early application of pollen patties is recommended and would seem to be of greater economic benefit than feeding protein supplement during pollination. 

1. Hoover, S.E., Ovinge, L.P. and Kearns, J.D., 2022. Consumption of supplemental spring protein feeds by western honey bee (Hymenoptera: Apidae) colonies: effects on colony growth and pollination potential. Journal of Economic Entomology, 115(2), pp.417-429.

2. Olmstead, S. R. McCallum, and J.Shaw, 2019. Evaluating the effect of feeding pollen substitute to honey bee colonies destined for wild blueberry pollination in Colchester County, Nova Scotia. Atlantic Tech Transfer Team for Apiculture (ATTTA), www.perennia.ca/portfolio-items/honey-bees/

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