Bee

Bee Nutrition: Give It a Boost

Grace Kunkel, M.S.

Research Scientist, Honeybee Project

What do honey bees eat?

Honey bees eat pollen. Because it’s their main source of nutrition, you could even call it their super food.

When pollen is available bees do a pretty good job of feeding themselves. However, when cold weather hits bees can’t forage for food. Beekeepers often supplement the nutrition bees receive from pollen to ensure bees can survive winter and early spring.
Bright colorful pollen in a hive.
Bees store pollen in the hive. In an ideal set-up (see photo), bright colorful pollen will be packed into cells directly next to white, shiny, honey bee larvae. The nurse bees will eat the pollen to generate high quality “brood food,” an excretion which nourishes the larvae. Shiny larvae are a sign that immature bees are getting good nutrition.

Unfortunately, not all colonies look this way. If hives don’t have stored pollen reserves they may be in trouble, especially in spring.

A lack of stored pollen can impact the hive in two ways – bee population growth can decrease and disease incidence can rise. Quality nutrition is key to maintaining optimal health and fighting off challenges like pesticide exposure.

If pollen is scarce, a beekeeper can stimulate bees to reproduce and support their health by feeding another protein source.

Bee nutrition options 

There are many bee supplements available, but it’s important to consider the protein quality. It’s also essential that the bees will eat the supplement.

Supplements typically are fed to bees as cookie-dough-like patties, and bees may not always view them as food. Look for supplements with an attractant to help increase consumption. 

Supporting bee nutrition with supplements can help bees get an early start foraging for pollen in the spring, which can optimize the growth of a large population. A large bee population can help keep the colony warm through the winter and help them start getting ready to leave the hive when the flowers bloom.

Beekeepers should also provide an additional energy source in the fall, when the weather starts to cool.

Whether you are in backyard beekeeping or if you keep bees commercially, the same rules apply. However, supplements are a critical element for commercial beekeeping, as bees need to pollinate almonds in February before flowers are blooming.