As Keepers of the bees, we have the inherit instinct to take care of our ‘girls.’ Winter time is possibly the time that many of us worry about them the most. And this totally makes sense; we haven’t popped a hive cover in weeks or even months, we don’t know how fast they’re consuming their winter stores and we worry whether they will have enough. It can be more than a little nerve-racking. The best and possibly only thing we can do is to feed them supplementally. Most of the time this is done in one of two ways: candy boards or pollen patties or both. I completely agree with insuring our bees’ survival rate with a candy board but giving them a pollen supplement as winter feed has fatal potential.
Please don’t worry, this doesn’t mean that we’re bad beekeepers if we have done this. But by the end of today’s post you’re going to understand not only why pollen or pollen supplements should NOT be given as a winter feed but also what you can do to ensure their winter survival and when it is okay to go ahead and give them that ‘protein bar of pollen.’
Why we shouldn’t feed pollen/substitutes as Winter Feed When I learned what I’m about to share with you, a light came on in my head and the universe made sense. To start off I’m going to refer to pollen patties; whether it’s real pollen or a substitute, as the bees’ Protein. Most of us understand that pollen is the ‘meat’ in a honey bee’s diet and that honey is their carbohydrate.
It all begins near the end of one of my favorite seasons; Autumn. The last few wildflowers are blooming, usually goldenrod and some aster. There’s still some pollen coming in which means the queen is still laying, though not as much as in spring and summer. The nights are definitely getting colder but the bees still work easily through the day once the sun is shining and it warms up. Soon, the first frost will be here and pretty much put an end to the pollen flow.
When the pollen stops coming in, the worker bees return to the hive empty legged, the queen knows it’s time to either stop laying altogether or to only pump out very few eggs at a time. This is a good thing. But why? Well, pollen is the primary food for brood and for newly emerging adult honey bees.
According to The Hive and the Honey Bee, chapter 9 on Honey bee Nutrition, it states that, “When larvae are 3-4 days old some pollen and honey are mixed with the brood food…Feeding ceases by the time the cell is capped around 5 to 6 days after the egg hatches.” So here we see that developing larvae are fed pollen before their cells are capped. Keep this in mind.
Now you may be asking, “Hold up! What does it matter whether or not I feed protein patties to my bees in the winter if they have their own pollen already stored up?” And what a great question that is. But having pollen stored up is something the bees are keeping for mid-late winter when the queen begins to increase her egg laying rate. The reason we as beekeepers should NOT feed pollen patties in the fall, going into winter is because the queen will continue to lay eggs as long as she perceives that pollen is still coming in. It is vital that the queen stops laying or slows down dramatically, as I will explain shortly.
When a newly emerged adult bee comes into the world, her primary diet is pollen. According to the same reference as earlier, “…young bees must consume a large quantity of pollen in the first two weeks of their adult life…mass consumption begins when the bees are 42 to 52 hours old, and reaches a maximum when they are 5 days old.” This is when many of their glands and organs reach full development.
When these newbies have reached an age at which they no longer are needed as nurse bees to feed younger, developing larvae, “…the requirement for pollen decreases and the chief dietary constituent becomes carbohydrates which are obtained primarily from nectar and honey.” This makes honey the perfect overwintering food for older, adult bees.
So what we have so far is a lot of pollen consumption while beehives are growing in population. When a colony is going into its winter dormancy, it is important to have a large population of bees but a very small area of brood. It is not natural for honey bees to receive pollen from any plant source during the winter time.
Here is where it will all start to come together and make sense. My next source of information is one of my favorite books, it can be found on my Gear page. It’s titled, At the Hive Entrance, by H. Storch. Storch was a brilliant man in that his observations of the hive entrance could be interpreted to know the condition of the colony inside without disturbance.
What I’m about to share with you is what I promised at the beginning of this post. I’m going to show you why it is imperative to NOT feed protein supplements to a hive going into winter. As a result of this, we must naturally be able to see what ideal hive conditions are like when the colony is ready for a successful winter. Now that I have established a general understanding of the role of pollen in the hive, I’m going to start bringing things together to show you the bigger picture.
So let’s say that I gave my beehives a protein supplement in the late fall with the intention of it being extra food for them during the winter time. The worker bees tear the patty into little itty bitty pieces and start packing it away around the brood nest. The queen sees this work and says, “Hmm, if there’s pollen still coming in then that means I need to keep up the pace! It’s not yet time to slow down pumping these eggs out.” Silly queen!
The eggs that the queen continues to lay will not emerge as new adult bees for another 3 weeks. And in the late fall, going into winter, the daytime highs and the nighttime lows can both drop considerably. In fact, honey bees begin their Winter Cluster when the outside temps drop to the mid-lower 50’s.
So now, three weeks later we have the first of our late brood beginning to emerge and gorge on pollen for the first five days of their lives. When a new adult bee emerges and when they have been eating pollen, they must take a cleansing flight and go to the bathroom, pronto, to empty their gut.
Here’s where the problem lies. It’s now well into December and here’s a hive with potentially hundreds of new worker bees to feed, it’s 45 F/7.2 C outside, and they all need to go number 2 really bad. This is an extreme disturbance to the calm dormancy of a honey bee winter cluster. Not only must the bees break cluster to allow the children to go to the bathroom, but as a result here’s what happens:
- The bees break their warm cluster which results in heat loss.
- The abnormal disturbance causes an increase in movement and therefore the burning of calories. The bees now must consume more of their winter stores to maintain body heat and cluster warmth.
- For this one I’m going to let H. Storch speak for himself, “Everyone knows that a few days after their birth the young bees must rid themselves of the waste-matter still in their bowels. But this brood still open in November, whose normal place is at the heart of the colony, will produce bees that will not have the opportunity to go out on their cleansing flight. On trying to leave the cluster they continually upset the population in their winter rest. A few manage to fly away and die in the snow, or else fall, [drowzy], onto the bottom of the hive.”
This type of situation results in a very stressed out colony of bees, and unnecessarily so. The outcome of such a hive is going to reveal itself on the first spring inspection: large quantities of bees dead on the bottom board with a small cluster dead, faces in the comb. They starved, and stressed to death.
Ideally what you and I want as beekeepers is to supplement our beehives with sugar syrup while they’re storing up fall honey stores for the winter time. This is also a great time to prevent Nosema from setting in. Learn more from my article, Tired of losing Beehives? Put the ‘keep’ back into Beekeeping. Nosema.
Pay attention and watch as the bees begin to bring in less and less pollen. You will know at this time that a good queen will stop laying eggs or at least slow down her laying dramatically. This is a good thing! This hive is perfect for going into the winter. Undisturbed, they have very good chances of seeing you next spring because winter bees live much longer than summer bees.
When should we use protein supplements? Since protein patties are something that help to increase brood production then we want our bees to have it towards the end of winter. But what if it’s too cold outside to open up the hives? Well I have the magic answer for you. It is a brilliant idea but not my own. I am going to explain the concept first and then I’m going to refer you to the person I learned it from for step-by-step instructions.
Let’s go back in time to last fall. When it’s still a good daytime temperature to work in-hive, and the nighttime temperature is so cold that the bees are beginning to cluster (50 F/10 C), we employ our Candy Boards. However, these are not just any candy boards.
Candy Boards are designed to sit on top of the top box. Theoretically, by the time the bees have worked their way up through the winter from their brood nest to their honey stores, it’s almost spring. It’s about this time that they come up against their candy board and are able to use it, if they need to.
The source I’m about to refer you to has created pollen substitute patties using Ultra Bee. I use this stuff too and it’s awesome for brood rearing! You can find it here. She then places her pollen patties on top of the sugar of the candy boards. In other words, the bees have to eat their way through the candy board to get to the protein patties. And by the time they do so, it should be right on time for when they need it most without you having to disturb them in any way. It’s like a time-release feeding supplement.
So here it is, the source I’ve been alluding to is from one of my favorite beekeeping blogs, Honey Bee Suite, by Rusty Burlew. This woman is very practical in her thinking and her methods of beekeeping and I have valued her posts on many occasions. I highly recommend her to you as well. Read her post on candy boards from start to finish, you will not regret it. Follow her recipes to the letter.
I would like to encourage you to consider what you’ve learned today and plan how you can make it happen. Wouldn’t it feel great to know that you have set your bees up for a successful wintering? I don’t like guesswork when it comes to my bees. For me, it does ease my mind quite a bit to know that my beehives have an insurance policy of sorts. Plus, no beekeeper likes the chore of counting the dead when spring begins. I want you to enjoy spring when it comes and I want your bees to be set up for success.
Thank you so much for joining me today. Please comment below with any thoughts you have about what we’ve covered in this post. Have you found something that is particularly successful for wintering your beehives? If so, let me know below. We could all learn from each other. Don’t forget to tell us where you keep bees because beekeeping is very different from climate to climate. Thanks again, until next time remember,
~Weeds are Wildflowers, let them Bee.~
Jonathan Hargus/Beekeeper Extraordinaire