When, Why and How I Give My Bees Pollen Patties

Someone asked me when, why and how I feed my bees pollen patties. Here’s a photo from one of my first posts about the topic, Adding Pollen Patties. The colony pictured below, by the way, is starving. Usually the way it works is the more winter bees above the top bars, the less honey there is in the hive (usually, not always).

Adding a pollen patty to a very hungry colony. (February, 2011.)

Adding a pollen patty to a very hungry colony. (February, 2011.)

I’ve written about pollen patties a bunch of times, so I’m likely to repeat myself here. Do a search of “patties” in my little search engine box up at the top for more detailed information with videos and photos and so on.

Anyway, pollen patties.

Two things to keep in mind: The more solids the bees eat, the more they need to poop, and they may not have enough warm weather in the winter to go outside and poop. And if they end up pooping inside the hive, they’re basically dead. So that’s one danger of giving them pollen too early in the winter. (If you want to get technical, or biological, the bees consume the pollen which in turn allows them to produce the famous royal jelly which is then used to feed the baby bees. So although the adult bees don’t eat the pollen in the purest sense of the word “eat,” much of it does make its way through their digestive system and at the end of the day, they need to poop.)

Number two, no pun intended: pollen is the final ingredient to get the queen laying (after honey). So if the bees start making use of extra pollen (or pollen substitute) in January, the hives could start exploding with bees a month later. A month after that there could be even more bees. More bees = more mouths to feed. Which means they’ll eat through their honey or sugar FAST. Which means there’s a greater chance of the bees starving if they’re not continually fed. So once I give them pollen patties, I have to keep on top of the sugar feeding.

Feeding with pollen, which usually means sugar too, also increases the chances of a swarm in May.

I speak from experience on all of this. The starving bees, the swarms — I’ve learned it all the hard way.

I’m at the point now where I don’t always give my bees pollen patties. If it’s a healthy colony, it’ll have several frames of natural pollen already and won’t need any extra help. For me, it’s a judgement call. If the colony looks small and weak, I give the bees sugar and pollen. Otherwise, they seem to do fine on their own.

I don’t feed pollen (and then sugar) as a matter of course. I used to and it resulted in unnaturally gigantic colonies that easily got out of control. Which is wonderful if you’re into honey production, rearing queens, etc. But for me as a hobbyist, a massive colony exploding in the spring is just another headache that I don’t need, and I get plenty of honey without it. Here’s a video of one of my unnaturally gigantic colonies exploding with bees:

So to sum it all up: Extra pollen (or pollen substitute) stimulates brood rearing which can result in starved bees or an overly-fed, over-populated colony that is more likely to swarm in the spring. I only feed my bees if the colony is small and weak and might otherwise die without the boost of pollen and/or sugar. More pollen = more solids = bees gotta poop and can’t always poop outside in the winter. If I feed pollen (and this is strictly in relation to my local climate), the earliest I’ll do it is late-February or some time in March, a month or two before the bees have a chance to bring in their own natural pollen. Then I keep a close eye on them to make sure they don’t starve before spring (which in the reality we call Newfoundland starts in the month of May). The bees starve when all of a sudden thousands of baby bees explode from their brood cells into the hive and need to eat pronto — they can eat through all the colony’s honey and sugar in less than a week. It can happen over a weekend. It happens fast.

I forgot to mention that I only open my hives in the winter on mild, windless days. And I move quickly to reduce the chances of chilling and killing the bees in the cold air. And I do it while there’s still plenty of sunlight left in the day so the bees have a chance to re-establish the thermodynamics of the hive before nightfall. (I’m talking about ideal conditions. Many times I’ve had to tear into the hives on cold, wet, windy days, because it was either that or let the bees die.)

The great thing about pollen patties and anything in patty form is that I can slip them in under the inner cover without tearing the whole top off the hive and letting out all the heat. I also don’t do anything funky like slip the patties between the deeps or the frames (I’m not sure where that idea came from, but I’ve heard of people doing it). The patties can sit on the top bars in the top box in the centre where the cluster is most likely to reach the top first. Here’s a photo of a fairly well centred cluster breaking above the top bars:

Bees beginning to cluster above the top bars. (Dec. 31, 2011).

Bees beginning to cluster above the top bars. I would carefully lay the pollen patty right on top of those bees. (Dec. 31, 2011).

And I almost forgot: A rim or a spacer is used to make room for the pollen patties.

I think that about covers it. Did I miss anything?

Everything I’ve said is based on my experience beekeeping in and around St. John’s, Newfoundland, since 2010, things I’ve done myself and seen with my own eyes. I could be wrong about some of it. Or maybe I’m a beekeeping genius and I’ve got it all worked out. But this is what I’ve learned so far and it works for me for the time being. Good luck.

JANUARY 18, 2018: I mentioned that I only open the hives in the winter on warm days to reduce the chances of freezing the bees. But more experience has shown me that that’s not always the greatest move, because the bees are more likely to be active on warmer days, possibly flying around and potentially more defensive, bopping the humble beekeeping in the face, coming in for a sting wherever they can. Cold bees don’t really do that. They’re too busy clustering and trying not to freeze to death. That’s why it is sometimes easier to add pollen or sugar to the hives on a cold day — not a nostril-freezing day, but just enough below 0°C (32°F) so that the bees aren’t active. Warm and active bees can be hard to handle on warm winter days. Not always, but it’s something to keep in mind.