Unless you've been keeping honeybees for a prolonged period of time it can seem that at every turn there's yet another difficult choice to make. Here's my take on one of those choices, whether to feed your honeybees pollen substitute and if so, how to feed it to them.
Following a long drawn out Winter, our honeybees sometimes struggle in the first few weeks of Spring. Variable weather is certainly something we get all too often here in the UK, you will see the bees explode from the hive en masse foraging for pollen and nectar one day, only to be huddled back up in a cluster the next.
I suspect most beekeepers will have considered feeding some fondant to their bees at some point over the Winter months. Maybe your bees seem to just munch through all the food stores you give them as quickly as possible (another reason for considering near native or native bees as they tend to be more frugal) or perhaps you just got caught out with the amount or food or the length of Winter the bees have had.
Either way, adding fondant is a simple process of mostly lifting the lid and adding a block of soft sugar fondant to the bees and replacing the roof.
But what about Pollen Substitute? Why feed it? When should you feed it? What does it do and should you bother?
Why Pollen Substitute at all?
Stepping back to basics for a brief moment, most beekeepers know that honeybees collect nectar as a carbohydrate and pollen as a protein and it is this protein early in the season that helps the colony launch itself out of Winter and into that very important growth phase through Spring.
In order to produce eggs the queen is going to need protein and for the workers to produce brood food for the ever expanding number of larvae they also need protein, but that doesn't mean you should rush out and buy a sack of pollen substitute or start mixing your own concoction. It just might not be necessary.
I've often explained to beginner beekeepers who contact me or attend my courses, with all things that you do in beekeeping there should be a reason. Don't just launch into doing something because you read about someone (like me) doing it, or some old timer in the bee club was talking about what he was doing. Think through your beekeeping plans and have a plan of action to follow, have a purpose for everything you do in beekeeping.
So, back to the Pollen Substitute. During early Winter you will see you bees out foraging, perhaps on ivy, grabbing as much pollen as possible. Storing this pollen gives the bees much needed protein for the long Winter period but also for the late Winter and early Spring period as they gradually start to build up again. If you're lucky you will have early Spring flowering plants and trees that will provide a source of pollen for them. I am very fortunate that here in Norfolk, UK we have at most of our apiaries a range of plants such as snowdrops, crocus, helebores and many others that provide a much needed injection of pollen. Everything really starts to kick in around early to mid March when the Willow starts to flower and this is the main source of pollen that our bees have to forage.
When to Feed Pollen Substitute.
Where I have chosen colonies that I want to be roaring away as early as possible I will give a light syrup stimulatory feed in early March and then, having encouraged the queen to increase her egg laying the bees are going to want more pollen and so I follow this light feed with the Pollen Subsitute. Timing will vary depending where you are and how your season is unfolding but don't be tempted to feed syrup too early, it will simply act as a heat sink and draw away warmth from the brood nest.
Here then is the dillema and also the question for you. Do you have enough plants providing pollen for your bees requirements during that early build up phase or do you need to provide additional assistance? What are your reasons for wanting to build up your colonies so quickly early in the Spring? Maybe you have an orchard of top fruits, apples, pears, cherries close by? Perhaps there are fields upon fields of Oil Seed Rape or Canola next to your apiary that you want to take advantage of? Or maybe you want to have large colonies to split and make increases to your stock early in the season? These are the types of questions that need to be answered before you hit that "Place Order" button on your keyboard.
Without a doubt, our honeybees will always favour natural pollen over a substitute but if there's a shortage or the conditions change and prevent the bees from getting out maybe using a pollen sub. is right for you and your bees.
Premade or Powder?
If you only have a couple of hives then buying a few packs of premade pollen substitute is the easy and best way to go. No mess, no fuss, simple to use and little can go wrong. Please make sure you buy a well known product that is guaranteed to have what it says on the ingredients label in it.
Some of the well known brands are Ultra Bee, which is available in powder or premade, Candipolline Gold, Ultra Bee from Mann Lake, but my favourite is the Mann Lake Bee Pro Powder. This is available in various sizes and is easy to mix up. You can buy it online here in the UK from Amazon or at the online equipment supplier Bee Equipment, again it is available in a variety of sizes to suit all beekeeper needs. Of course, there are many more types and brands available out there.
I never "open feed" my bees, that is to say, I never leave any food out in the open for bees from all colonies to descend on and feed next to each other. I realise the risk of disease transfer may be small but there is still a risk. I also object to feeding honeybees that don't belong to me and where I live there are so many other beekeepers I'm sure their bees would soon sniff out the feed and be tucking in at my expense!
My Method of Mixing that gives Me the best results.
As long as you have access to a little sugar syrup anyone can make up pollen substitute with the minimum of fuss.
I use a light sugar syrup made up with equal volumes of water and granualted sugar, it doesn't have to be accurate to the nearest gram, you're just making up a sugar sulution to act as a carrier for the pollen substitute. To each litre of sugar syrup I add somewhere between 500g and 600g of pollen substitue powder. Again, it doesn't have to be measured to the gram. Anywhere between the two will yield a soft paste that remains soft enough for the bees to easily utilise and doesn't dry out so fast that it turns into a solid block overnight.
The trick here is to mix it thoroughly and then keep it well wrapped up so that air cannot get to it and dry it out quickly.
I use self seal food bags, last year I used cling wrap which was just as effective, I've also saved up those plastic take away containers with lids and used those to good effect too. The key here is to keep the air out of the soft dough you have created to give the bees enough time to chomp their way through it.
Feeding Time at the Apiary
Once bagged up I can pop them all in a box and take them to the apiary. Because they are in bags the weight of the pollen substitute flattens the bags out which is ideal because I place these thin slabs under the crownboard directly on top of the brood frames. This is the advantage of bags or cling wrap over the take away containers.
I like to smoke the bees down from the crown board and give the top bars a quick clean. Using a sharp knife I cut through the side of the bag and lay that slit across the top bars of the brood frames.
This allows many more bees access to the pollen substitute than if you only cut a small hole in the middle. The bag keeps the remaining dough soft and the bees can take what they want when they want it.
In the picture above, you can see that my sharp knife has cut through both sides of the bag. This isn't a problem as the contents of the bag will still remain soft. Finally the crown board goes back on and the roof completes the job.
So that's my take on feeding pollen substitute, some of my colonies will take it, others will prefer to go out and forage when they can and ignore it entirely. But at least I've given them the option.
Check out my videos on how to mix and feed pollen substitute on my Patreon page here