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Protein Feeding – An Overview

Freddy Proni is the North American manager for Veto pharma, an EAS master beekeeper, and also serves several organizations in the apicultural and farming sectors as a volunteer. He is a former full-time beekeeper, with an extensive background in business, honey production, commercial honey brokering/packaging, and queen rearing.

Protein Feeding – An Overview

For those of us in the vast landscapes of the Northern Hemisphere, winter can be an entertaining yet impatient event. As beekeepers, it is time for us to take pause to reminisce and reflect on last year’s apicultural adventures, for each season brings forth new knowledge, experiences, and surges our passion to share stories, observations, and wonderment. It is also a time to plan, slam the hammer and inventory our equipment. As we prepare in anticipation of a new bee year, so do our honey bees. While the bees cluster in quiet solitude, sometimes curiosity spikes getting the best of our inner whim as we patiently wait for the first observed orientation flights. The advent of build-up and the thought of swarming, coupled with the intoxicating scents and first full inspection are a close reality.

Tightly bound in sorority the bees are taking notice of the longer days marked by the passing of the December’s winter solstice. The colony realizes that winter is nearing completion and anticipation builds within. As temperatures rise, orientation and seeking will soon commence with a quick excitable dance of communication to sister foragers after the first indulgence of fresh pollen is discovered.

Yes, this is an ideal narration, but it is just that, a story of introduction. The demands and expectations on our fury friends will require beekeepers to alter the colony’s best laid plans promoting an increase in their workforce for our advantage. Even though the bees currently cling in silent cluster, they may be facing questionable survival. Dwindling food stores, small stagnant clusters, and possibly the lack of protein, are all factors we must be attentive to. A quick lift of the hive gives us a judgment on how full the pantry is and a dry propolis bound pop of the cover reveals the nesting place of our winter survivors. Ensuring the bees have reachable and plentiful resources are the first duties we as beekeepers undertake. Having this sound mind grants us a few more sands of time for complacency yet preparation.

As spring approaches, we are reminded that pollen feeding is an important aspect of honey bee husbandry. Colonies have an innate need to populate themselves in preparation for the upcoming year thus the need for increased protein is essential. Pollen satisfies the protein requirement of Apis meliffera’s diet. This male macrogametophyte golden dust is laden with amino acids, sterols, vitamins, minerals, and a host of other life enhancing components. Protein not only aids in the sustainability of a colony but is also a tool that may be used by beekeepers to stimulate and increase brood rearing. There is an old saying that one pound of pollen is required for one pound of bees; extrapolate this and the requirements for the bee year are astounding. If bees are not complemented with protein substitute or pollen supplement often brooding performance is delayed and ultimately build-up is a function of the spring flow.

In an ideal world, bees would store surplus and populate to meet our needs without intervention ahead of nature’s offerings. This is where pollen supplements or protein substitutes come in the equation. Pollen supplements contains pollen and complimentary ingredients while protein substitutes are void of pollen. Both can be made by the beekeeper, purchased as a premixed powder, or obtained already in “wet” form either in bulk or preformed into patties (aka cakes). There are also different formulations. For example, “winter” based mixtures contain less protein (2-4%) and are designed to sustain the nutritional needs of the colony but not stimulate brood rearing.

The market currently offers a variety or premixed protein feeds designed specifically for honey bees reflective of different grades of ingredients, nutritional profiles, price ranges and milling processes. Beekeepers can also mix their own protein feeds from scratch by purchasing quality ingredients offered by beekeeping suppliers. Typical raw ingredients include brewer’s yeast and soy bean flour, although other sources of protein exist such as food grade powered dried egg and casein. Additional additives may include mineral supplements, citric acid, oils and fats, and essential oils such as lemongrass which acts as an attractant or spearmint for its stabilizing qualities. HiveAlive is ideal too! A very simple dry pollen substitute can be made using one part brewer’s yeast and four parts soybean flour. Respectively a simple dry pollen supplement may be formulated by combining one part pollen, two parts granulated sugar, and four parts brewer’s yeast. Both dry formulas can be transformed into wet patties by adding approximately two parts sugar syrup. Allow the wet mixture to set for half a day and follow with a second blending or kneading. Freezing will offer longer term storage for both powders and patties. More complex recipes exist that include the previously mentioned additives may be found through your association, in texts or online plus many commercial beekeepers have their own recipes and may make them available upon request. Patties may be stored between wax paper sheets or in tightly closed buckets to retain their moisture. Finally, always measure ingredients by weight, not volume, and either use personally collected pollen or purchased irradiated pollen for supplements.

To maximize honey bee foraging populations, protein feeding should begin about three to four weeks before the expected first burst of pollen for the season. For many in the northern hemisphere, this is marked by the bloom of maples. For others, different florals indicate the initial build-up period. Depending on the beekeeper’s goal, this time may be slightly adjusted and feeding should be continued until the colony is no longer accepting their given protein. Stimulating early brood requires more frequent inspections as the colony may require additional carbohydrates and begin early swarm preparations.

Patty placement is important as the cake should be placed right above or in-between the cluster within only inches or centimeters away from the brood chamber. Depending on the time of the season and existing resources, consumption may be quick or a slow interest. Protein should be fed until the colony relies on nature itself otherwise a lack of protein will cause brood decline and may encourage colony stress. As a side note, pollen cakes are consumed and not stored in cells by the bees for later use.

For those who wish to offer protein via a different approach there is dry open feeding. This is an alternative to patties but is dependent on warm days where flight and exploration is achievable. Place a small amount of your premixed pollen substitute or supplement in a weather protected bee accessible cavity such as an opened overturned bucket or a purchased dry pollen feeder. The bees will eventually discover the pollen, collect the product, and bring it back to the hive. Dry feeding may save an inquiry from a local farm as bees are known to forage off the dusts of agricultural feeds when no or limited pollen is present. Once nature sends forth the initial season’s blooms the bees will abandon the pollen feeds and collect fresh pollen.

Substitutes and supplements are not limited to spring build-ups. Boosts of protein also offer health for long durations of dearth and spans of mono floral blooms. Regardless of how protein is added, healthy robust colonies built up before the spring flow, are destined to share the wealth of nature’s liquid gold.