Some Unnatural Beekeeping

I had to add some protein patties (artificial pollen) to my hives yesterday because my bees have been stuck inside their hives for a week, unable to forage for pollen just at a time when the year’s first pollen was beginning to come in. We’ve got at least another week of this lousy weather ahead of us. This is when I say enough is enough. Here’s what I’m talking about:

This is when the idea of natural beekeeping just doesn’t cut it. The natural processes of evolution would have never brought honey bees to the island of Newfoundland. Honey bees are not native to Newfoundland. The island of Newfoundland is not the natural environment for honey bees. So, you know, that’s the main reason I don’t buy into natural beekeeping. The word “natural” makes us feel good, but could it be wishful thinking more than anything? I know some natural beekeepers who are adamant about not using pollen supplement or sugar feed for their bees, but that just doesn’t make sense to me, especially when my bees might be struggling because of the unnatural climate I force them to live in. That’s a rational line of thinking, isn’t it?

So what’s the deal with this pollen patty business, anyway?

A bunch of people saw one of my recent videos and asked me why I added pollen patties to my hives so early in the year.

I don’t need to add pollen patties. I stopped doing it for about 4-5 years and my bees were fine. So I don’t view it as something I absolutely have to do. I’ve never had my colonies die on me because they didn’t have pollen patties. However, I have noticed that some colonies don’t build up the brood nest well in the spring unless they’re given extra protein in the form of pollen supplement. They don’t die on me (not yet), but they don’t develop into strong colonies either, and if a colony isn’t strong going into winter, it could die.

I know there’s an optimal time to give my bees protein in the form of patties, and any time before March is considered early by some. If I was a more sensible beekeeper, I’d give them protein about a month before the first big hit of natural pollen came in, in my particular area. But I do all kinds of crazy things. I paint my hives black. I’ve used opened screened bottom boards in the winter. I don’t wrap my hives. And so on. I do many things that are not typical. I think I even gave some of my bees patties as early as January this year.

So adding pollen or protein patties in the late winter or early spring…

What happens, in theory, is that the bees take down the protein and are then able to make royal jelly (all baby bees need royal jelly to get started). The queen gets excited and starts lying eggs — long before there’s any natural nectar or pollen coming in. Then about a month later, I’ve got potentially a full “cycle” of new brood ready to hatch out.

More mouths to feed means more food is required to keep them going. So once I start feeding a colony this way, I have to keep it going, or be prepared to keep it going. Sugar or syrup for the bees if they eat through their honey. Pollen to keep the royal jelly flowing.

If the sugar or honey stops, they starve. If the pollen stops, the queen stops laying. (Two weeks of freezing rain, drizzle and fog can have the same effect.) The starving thing sounds worse, and it is, but stopping the pollen is pretty bad too. Any sudden break in the brood cycle and they’re hooped.

Just imagine driving down the highway in a Porsche going three times faster than the speed limit. That’s what it it’s like when the queen gets into laying mode. She’s just a non-stop egg-laying machine. Then imagine swerving off the highway into a giant cornfield. (An extended period of inclement Newfoundland that keeps the bees stuck in the hive for a week or more — same thing. Or giving them protein patties and then suddenly stopping — also the same thing.) You won’t necessarily crash and burn by driving into a cornfield, but it’s going to slow you down big time, and you’re going to ruin your car.

Even if half an hour later you get back on the highway, that car isn’t going to run like it used to, even with a full tank of gas.

And that’s what it’s like when I give a colony (and the queen) protein supplment patties and then sudden stop giving it. It kills whatever momentum the colony had while building up the brood nest, sometimes to the point where it takes them most of the summer to build up to full strength again.

The moral of the story? As soon as those protein patties go on, I have to keep on top of it and make sure they never run out. Not until a natural pollen source is coming in.

The same kind of thing happens with first year beekeepers starting up their nucs. They have to feed sugar syrup constantly, never letting the feeders run dry. If a feeder runs dry — that’s when you’ve driven your Porsche into a corn field. You might take a trip for the weekend, and when you get back, the syrup feeders are dry. That’s all it takes to ruin your Porsche — and to knock the wind out of your bees. You can fill ‘er up with gas again, but the damage is already done. You might eventually get things moving up to speed again, but it’s going to take a long time. You would have been much better off not driving your Porsche into a cornfield. Get it?

So that’s the trick with feeding protein patties before any natural pollen is available. You can really screw things up if you don’t keep on top of it. And by you, I mean me.

But here’s the thing. I manage my bees in a way that I don’t often have to deal with large colonies. I don’t buy into the bigger is better idea of beekeeping. Many of my colonies are barely rising about the top bars at this time of year. I can give them pollen, but they don’t always gorge themselves on it. Usually they just slowly peck away at the patties. So the risk of the population exploding isn’t huge. Sometimes, if they have enough pollen stores in the comb already, they don’t touch the patties. Sometimes they even tear off pieces of the patties and toss it all out the front door.

I suppose this is something that comes with learning how the read the bees. It’s not magic or any kind of “bee-whispering.” It’s just that I know my bees. And I’m ready to deal with anything they throw my way because, honestly, I have dealt with more beekeeping catastrophes in the past 5 years than most people deal with in 10. I don’t have a great deal of money and resources to throw at my bees to fix most of my problems, so I have to get creative at times, or just sit there and live with it (which I’ve had to do more often than not). I know how bad it can get, and I know what I can deal with. If I give my bees pollen too early in the year and they go nuts with it, it’s not the end of the world for me.

But that’s me. I don’t encourage a lot of the things I do. I’m a glutton for punishment. I embrace my mistakes, because I learn so much from them. You can keep bees for years and years, and if you’ve got the resources to fix your problems and make your beekeeping ride a little easier, good for you. But when you have no choice but to sit and watch a colony die because you don’t have the resources to fix the problem, you’re going to learn a lot about honey bee behaviour. You’re going to see first hand how bees cope with adversity. And when you see how dirty and ugly that is, perhaps you get to know honey bees in a way you wouldn’t have known before if everything was smooth and easy.

So having seen the worst from my bees, when I open a hive at any time of the year, I almost have a post traumatic stress reaction when I see something is wrong, and I either act on it right away, or know how much time I have before things go south.

So that’s the main reason I can play fast and loose with my bees by giving them pollen patties earlier than they need them. I can deal with whatever happens so they come out okay in the spring. But I can also tell that the pollen I’ve given them probably isn’t going to jack up the population in the hurry. And I’ve got tons of patties in the freezer, so there’s little risk of me driving my Porch into a corn field — of suddenly halting their source of protein.

But as a general rule, I don’t think the bees need pollen patties. (I say this as a backyard beekeeper in my particular climate, not as a commercial beekeeper.) But as another rule, if mother nature doesn’t provide for my bees, then I will give them pollen supplement or even sugar. “Sugar-free and pollen-supplement-free” natural beekeeping can take a hike once I see my bees could be suffering because they’re stuck on this cold island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean.

A special surprise for the handful of you who bothered to read this far: An Audio Postscript to this video. It was recorded on my cell phone in the rain after I shot the video. I just didn’t want to tack 10 minutes of me rambling into my cell phone onto the end of the video.