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Feeding bees: what role does protein play?

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Protein plays a very important role in bees’ diets. In theory, bees can find all of the protein required for their development in the pollen they collect. A reduction in available protein resources results in decreased egg laying. This leads to reduced larva output, reduced royal jelly production, and greater population loss. To make up for a deficiency that could prove fatal for the bees, beekeepers are increasingly turning to protein supplements. Discover our video explanations and recipes.


What do bees eat?

Adult bees eat nectar and pollen. Nectar provides carbohydrates, bees’ energy source, which enables them to fly, produce honey, clean the hive… As for pollen, it provides lipids, vitamins and minerals that are required for the bees to function properly as part of the colony, as well as protein.

What is protein for?

The protein found in pollen is responsible for the development of the hypopharyngeal glands. These glands are used to produce royal jelly, which is essential for the development and growth of the colony. Royal jelly nourishes the larvae on their first three days of life, and the queen, her entire life. Protein is thus responsible for the brood’s development and the queen’s activity.

In beekeeping, protein intake is essential for several different reasons. It serves to produce strong colonies for honey production, boosts colonies kept to pollinize crops, restores apiaries that have suffered losses, provides sufficient dietary resources for wintering, queen breeding, package bees, and more.

Deficiencies = danger!

When the colony lacks sufficient pollen resources, this leads to decreased egg laying. This results in fewer larvae, decreased royal jelly production, increased larva mortality, and population loss. In theory, bees can find the protein necessary for their development in the pollen they gather, stored in the hive in the form of bee bread. However, some kinds of pollen are deficient in vitamins or amino acids, and certain areas do not have enough pollen, in terms of quantity or variety, to provide for all of the bees’ nutritional requirements. To make up for these deficiencies, beekeepers turn to protein supplements (pollen substitutes).

When can beekeepers take action?

There are two key moments: when the colony starts back up in the spring, and during the fall feeding before wintering. And throughout the year: keep an eye out for bad weather.

Beekeepers feed their colonies in the fall, after the harvest. At that time, bees need to form fat and protein stores to survive winter. Bees actually use a lot of energy flapping their wings during the winter, which serves to regulate the colony’s temperature. If the colony is no longer able to maintain the temperature, the bees will die of cold. The mortality rate in France is around 15% each winter (with spikes of 30% some years).

Then, before the season starts, pollen substitutes can serve to restore the colony’s protein, lipid and mineral reserves and stimulate egg laying to help it develop more quickly.

In the high season, beekeepers must remain vigilant, because their hives may be in danger. Climate change exposes bees to more frequent, and more intense, periods of drought. In some areas, not a lot of flowers are available at certain periods. To prevent their colonies’ populations from dropping, beekeepers provide pollen substitutes.

Homemade supplements

To prevent nutritional imbalance and poor colony development, the beekeeper can provide protein in the form of “home-made” protein pastes or cakes.

Realization of the video and images : Benjamin Brito