The sky is clear, and brilliantly blue the day after a big Nor’easter. Here in central Maine, where the Runamuk Acres Farm and Apiary is located, the roads are still covered with packed snow, and road crews work to clean them up after the snowstorm. But I make my rounds to our 2 out-lying apiaries, to check on the hives, ensuring that all of the entrances are clear so that the bees can take their cleansing flights when the weather suits them.
Parking the truck out of the way at the Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, I load my equipment onto the sled, which I’d borrowed from the Burns brothers. The horses eye me with curiosity as I strap on my snowshoes, and I call to them. The conversation with the horses is rather one-sided, but it’s of no consequence, giddy as I am at the prospect of seeing the hives–I set out across the snow-covered pasture in the direction of the beehives nestled under the towering pines at the far side of the field.
Each winter, as we work to grow our apiary to the goal of 100 hives, I closely monitor the condition of our hives throughout the course of the long winter. After each big snow, I make this trek out across pastures to ensure the entrances are clear for my girls. I take advantage of the rare warm days to pop open the hives briefly, adding my sugar cakes if a colony is low on stores, and sometime in March, I reward my girls with a pollen patty.
I won’t breathe a sigh of relief, however, until the dandelion bloom is underway. February through May is the most difficult time of year for honeybees in our part of the world. Even if a colony has sufficient stores going into the winter, there’s always the possibility that they may eat themselves into a corner and not be able to reach the other honey stores due to the freezing temperatures, and their own instinctual reluctance to break their winter cluster.
Typically colonies that die of starvation are those that are the most populous, but the nature of each individual winter can have an impact on the condition of the hive, too. Warmer winter temperatures can cause more activity in the hive, resulting in quicker consumption of the colony’s stores. Extreme cold, such as 2014’s “Polar Vortex” can cause a fatal chill among the bees. Trusting in nature, I know that the strongest colonies will survive the long Maine winter, and as they begin to build up in population, growing into summer, I will again make my splits and Nucs to grow the Runamuk apiary just a little more.
And so, in anticipation of the spring season, I feed my bees pollen-patties.
What are pollen patties?
These are are a mixture of ingredients, including pollen, sugar, vitamins, lemon juice or citric acid, dried egg, oil, yeast, and honey, designed to stimulate brood production. There are many different recipes out there, and so far there has not proven to be one that stands out above all others, and experiences among beekeepers will vary.
Pollen patties are stiff and thick and are designed to lay across the top of the frames inside the hive, directly above the brood nest, so that they are immediately accessible to the bees, even in frigid temperatures.
Why feed bees pollen patties?
Not every beekeeper needs to do this. The larger commercial beekeeping outfits feed supplemental pollen in order to build up the populations in their hives prior to going to the almond groves. Beekeepers who raise Nucs and Queens to sell to other beekeepers, may feed their colonies pollen patties to build up the population before they begin making nucleus colonies or breeding Queens. The average hobbyist should not need to worry about their bees having sufficient pollen available for the spring build-up, since pollen is often available even when nectar is not. Pollen from trees is some of the first food sources available to bees early in the spring, and bees can even be seen bringing pollen in well into October.
Bees need both pollen and honey in order to reproduce. While adult bees eat honey, the bee larvae are dependent on a supply of nutritious, high-protein pollen. Nurse-bees consume the pollen in bee-bread form, which then allows the nurses to secrete the Royal jelly that larvae need during their first three days of life. Then, as the larvae mature, they are switched over to a diet of bee-bread and honey.
By offering the bees an enriched diet through supplemental feedings of pollen–the nurse bees are able to secrete lots of Royal jelly, so they prepare cells for eggs, and the Queen in turn deposits the eggs, and suddenly brood production is in full swing. Having a larger population as we move into the spring is desirable not only if you intend to make the apiary increases that I do, but also to increase the rate of honey production,
When should you feed pollen patties?
If you’re going to supplement with pollen patties to encourage brood production in your hives, when you begin feeding them is of crucial importance–it’s hugely dependent on your location, region, and climate. Since the bees will usually refuse the pollen supplements once the good stuff is available outside, you’ll want as many bees as possible to take advantage of that first major pollen flow, which will continue to spur brood production gearing up for the start of the up-coming nectar flow.
Knowing when that main honey flow will begin allows you to count back 8-9 weeks before it will begin, so that you will have 4 good flushes of brood before the first honey flow begins. So get a calendar, and if you don’t know when the honey flows occur in your area, go ask the beekeepers at your local beekeepers’ association.
Here in my part of Maine our nectar flows begin with the dandelion bloom, which typically starts around Mother’s Day in May. Counting back 9 weeks from Mother’s Day will find me beginning feeding my bees supplemental pollen in the second week of March. I won’t pin it down to a specific day because opening the hives to place the patties on will be dependent on the weather and temperatures. I’ll wait for a warmer, sunny day with little to no wind, and then I will make my rounds, popping open each hive just long enough to place a patty across the frames.
Waiting for spring
Inhaling deeply of the cool, crisp air, I trudge across the snow-covered pasture, spreading my feet wide so that I don’t trip over my snowshoes, and pulling the sled along behind me. Birds call in the trees across the way, and the sun warms my face and shoulders, and I can’t help but smile to myself, gratitude filling me that I should be so lucky as to be able to follow my passions, creating this life that I love living.
For now, there is still snow on the ground, and even as I write this it is snowing outside once again, but it won’t be long before the grass will be green again, the trees will be sporting their freshly unfurled leaves, flowers will be in bloom, and the bees will be buzzing about the fields once more.
Supplemental feedings of pollen and pollen substitutes may not be right for every beekeeper, but at Runamuk, as we continue to expand our apiary little by little, ensuring that our hives have plenty of strong bees available for making spring splits and Nucs–and even just for successful honey production–it is a key component of our management practices.