Apiculture Factsheet #410
Nutrition and its Effect on Bee Management
The success of beekeeping depends on strong, vigorous colonies.
Colonies can only develop large populations when the queen maintains
a high egg-laying rate and when there are sufficient
stores of pollen and honey. When nectar and pollen sources are not
available, supplemental feeding can maintain colony development.
The amount of bee brood raised by a colony is dependent on the
number of nursing bees present. When supplemental feeding is
provided, a delay can be expected until the population increases. A broodless colony, such as a package,
will require about 12 weeks to reach a population of 30,000 bees.
When some brood rearing already took place at the time of feeding,
such a population could be reached in 6 weeks.
While supplemental feeding stimulates brood rearing,
it cannot induce colonies to respond faster than their biology
permits. The beekeeper must therefore offer supplemental feeding
well before maximum populations are required.
Other factors that influence populations development include
egg-laying rate of the queen, worker longevity, management, absence
of disease, and environmental factors.
Type of Nutrition
There are three componentsofo honeybee nutrition:
- protein (including fats), minerals, and vitamins
In nature, the honeybee colony meets its carbohydrate
requirements from nectar or honeydew. A shortage of carbohydrates
may result in a reduction in brood rearing and in some cases, it may
lead to starvation. Starvation is probably the single most important
cause of colony death.
Protein is obtained from pollen. Prolonged shortages of pollen
will result in the reduction or cessation of brood rearing. Colonies
are generally not affected during short periods of
Water is essential to the honeybee colony. Beekeepers often fail
to recognize the importance of the availability of clean, fresh
water nearby. This is especially important in B.C.'s interior and
areas with long, cold winters.
Honeybees collect nectar as their principal carbohydrate source.
Nectar is a sugar solution of between 5 to 75% solids. The major sugars in nectar are
sucrose, dextrose (glucose) and levulose (fructose). Honeybees
collect nectar in their honey stomach where it is inverted
through the invertase enzyme from sucrose into dextrose and levulose.
After the foraging bee returned to the hive, the processed nectar is regurgitated and
most of the water removed through evaporation. The final product is
honey that consists of about 17% water, 38% levulose, 31%
dextrose, 1 % sucrose, and 13% other sugars.
In times of dearth, nectar substitutes can be fed to the colony.
The most common substitutes are white table sugar (sucrose), or high
fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which is a converted starch product. HFCS
is currently only available in large bulk quantities, and not
suitable for most beekeepers. White sugar is the most common form of feed supplement. There is no difference between cane and beet sugar, but brown sugars should be avoided because of digestion problems.
the course of the year, the beekeeper should be prepared to feed bees
in fall and spring, and in case of emergency. Fall feeding is the
most important time to feed bees, for several reasons:
Produce strong colonies for wintering
Late splits and small colonies prepared for winter will be stimulated
by the feeding, resulting in good age distribution of the bee
Prevent winter starvation
Honeybee colonies do not die of the cold, but starvation. Insufficient feed in the fall may cause the winter cluster to lose
access to stored food reserves. Even with plenty of feed, the
risk of starvation can never be completely eliminated. Some colonies
may not conserve reserves well, especially when winter has been
marked by frequent warm spells.
Some beekeepers remove all honey in the fall and replace it with sugar syrup. Unless there is a threefold difference in the price of sugar and honey, the
practice is not recommended. Please be aware that bees expend
energy to process sugar syrup before storing. This task may require
the energy equivalent of as much as 25% of the sugar being fed.
Sufficient fall feeding will eliminate or reduce the need for spring
feeding. Abundant stores of honey and pollen is the stimulus for brood
rearing, not a dribble of spring syrup. However,
colonies weak in the spring respond favourably to sugar syrup feeding.
Pollen is not only the principal
protein source to bees, but it also provides vitamins, minerals and
fats essential for the development of brood and young adult bees.
The protein content of pollen can vary from 7 to 30% (by weight)
with an average of about 22%.
Longer periods of insufficient protein will affect the entire
colony, resulting in reduced egg laying and brood development. Young
nursing bees may not fully develop their hypopharyngeal glands,
causing insufficient production of brood food. This in turn may lead
to spotty brood patterns that are often misdiagnosed as the result
of a failing queen. To offset any pollen shortages, pollen
supplements or substitutes can be given. Pollen supplements will not
necessarily cause the bees to reduce pollen collection in the field.
The rate at which bees consume the pollen supplement is
influenced by its location in the hive relative to the brood
cluster. It is important that the pollen supplement is readily
accessible to nurse bees. The greatest consumption takes place
directly above and to the sides of the brood area. Pollen
substitutes (such as Brewer's Yeast, soya flour, etc.) are more
readily accepted when natural pollen is added.
The most effective pollen substitutes and supplements are those
that most closely resemble chemical composition and physical
consistency of stored pollen. Brewer’s Yeast is very similar to the
protein content of the average pollen and superior in vitamins. Yet,
pollen substitutes are never as attractive and nutritious as the
For Formulations of Pollen Supplements and Substitutes, please refer to Factsheet #411-Pollen Substitutes and Supplements.