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By: Phil Craft

Pollen feeder made from pipe. Larry Shreffler photo.

A beekeeper in Nevada writes:
I took this picture today 12/22/2014. Am I making a mistake giving my bees dry pollen (I’m actually feeding a protein supplement) this time of year? I have two of these hanging in the trees by my hives and they are, as you can see, going crazy over the pollen.

I have to refill these every night. I started giving them pollen because I was concerned about them making it through the winter.

It has been really mild here about five to 10° above normal (well up in the 60s) and the bees have been flying every day. I also have sugar syrup two to one mix on all eight of my hives.

Will they buildup too fast? Things don’t start blooming here in Southern Nevada till about the mid- March.

Phil replies:
Feeding your colonies a protein supplement, as a replacement for or a supplement to natural pollen, can be a good idea, but you’re also right to be cautious.

Honey bees require both honey and pollen to fulfill their nutritional needs. Basically, honey provides the carbohydrate portion of their diet, and pollen the protein, but of course, it’s more complicated than that. As I discussed in an answer in my January 2015 column, honey contains minerals and other compounds necessary to honey bee health as well as carbohydrates. Similarly, pollen is more than just protein, containing important dietary ingredients such as lipids, sterols, vitamins, and minerals. Pollen is an essential part of the diet of adult bees, both during their early development after emergence, and later when their role in the hive is to produce food for larvae – brood food for workers and drones, and royal jelly for queens. Some pollen is also fed, in its original form, directly to larvae. Honey bees store pollen just as they do honey, and shortages in Winter and early Spring can be detrimental to the health of the colony.

Here in Kentucky, honey bees have ample pollen sources most of the year (as my friends who suffer from hay fever will attest), but periods of dry weather can hinder flowering, causing shortages of both nectar and pollen. One remedy is to collect pollen in the Spring, or other times of good natural forage, in hive mounted pollen traps. It stores well in the freezer until it is needed for feeding back to colonies, either in patties, or by open outside feeding as you have done. Frames of stored pollen may also be moved between colonies, but this should only be done with strong, healthy colonies as the source, to prevent the possible transmission of disease. Most beekeepers, myself included, who do not collect pollen, supplement natural sources with protein patties. These can either be purchased ready made from beekeeping suppliers or made up from a powder, also available from suppliers. I find it easier to store the powdered version, and make my own patties as needed. Instructions on making patties should be included with the powdered supplements, but it’s really as simple as combining it with thick syrup (either high fructose corn syrup or two parts table sugar to one part water) until the mixture is about the stiffness of cookie dough. Place an amount approximately the size of a hamburger patty (this is why we call them patties) inside a folded sheet of wax paper, and they are ready to use. Extras can be stored in the refrigerator or freezer. Just make sure to label them. My then-teenage son once tried to fry a very unusual hamburger! To feed them to the bees, place a patty, wax paper and all (it’s simpler, and the bees will remove the paper from the hive), on the top bars of the brood box, directly over the bees. Normally, patties are put in the top brood box, but if all the bees are in the bottom, the patty should go between the boxes.

Early in the Spring – say February – I often insert a small patty, or half of one, while it’s still too cold to conduct extensive inspections of my hives. I consider these just in case patties, since I’m unsure about the pollen stores inside the hive at that time. I check a few days later, and if the patty has been consumed, I offer them more, and so on, until normal Spring flowering begins and I see the bees bringing in quantities of pollen. I also routinely feed protein supplements to new nucs and to newly installed package bees. Beekeepers rearing queens use them as part of their supplemental feeding of cell builder and finishing colonies. Pollen patties placed in hives in early Fall also aid in brood rearing whenever the Fall bloom is late or inadequate, or colonies lack stored pollen. Feeding with pollen or pollen substitutes can be beneficial in all these situations but, as your intuition suggests, even a good thing can be overdone.

Excessive early feeding can cause colony populations to build up too rapidly and result in early swarming. Some beekeepers intentionally encourage early brood production by stimulant feeding with pollen and a thin syrup (one part sugar to one part water) early in the Spring. Their goal is to increase honey production by having a strong population of mature workers ready to forage when nectar flows begin. However, other beekeepers discourage this practice, especially for novice beekeepers. The downside of very early feeding can be a large, healthy colony of bees – clustered in a tree and on its way to a new home. I recommend feeding early, with thick syrup and pollen patties, when a hive is extremely low in food resources and possibly at risk of starvation. Thick syrup (two parts sugar to one part water) is less likely to encourage brood growth than the thinner version. I only stimulant feed weak colonies with just a few frames of bees and lots of room to grow. Such colonies are much less likely to swarm.

Another reason to be cautious about supplemental feeding is the small hive beetle (SHB). Protein patties in the hive in early Spring (or Winter, in warmer areas) can stimulate egg laying in the beetles and result in the emergence of SHB larvae earlier than would otherwise be expected. It’s a good idea to monitor the hives for the presence of SHB larvae and, if any are observed, remove the patties.

You seem to be doing a lot of things right. Using thick syrup instead of thin is definitely smart. Feeding protein powder in external pipe feeders instead of as patties in the hive is also a good idea. Honey bees are more likely to store the protein supplement when collected as dry powder than when it is offered as patties. In fact, they will often remove excess protein patties from a hive if given more than they can consume. Also, the dry supplement is less likely than patties to cause a problem with SHB. (As a bonus, pipe feeders are easy for the beekeeper to refill compared to making patties and opening hives to insert them.) Still, I’m concerned about your feeding powder and syrup continuously throughout the Winter. Though it’s normal in areas as warm as southern Nevada for some brood rearing to occur during Winter, with constant feeding your hive populations could peak long before the Spring nectar flow begins. You could end up losing a lot of the bees you’ve fed all Winter to swarming, and end up with weakened colonies just as honey production is starting. The only way to be sure what is happening inside the hives is to open them up and do a thorough inspection. I suggest this only because temperatures in your area are regularly in the 60s. (In colder climates like Kentucky, it’s OK to open a hive on a warm day, but beekeepers should not be pulling frames until temperatures are consistently warm.) If the hives are really low on food stores, then of course you should continue feeding. In your part of the country, 25 pounds of nectar or syrup and several frames with some cells of pollen should be enough to last until Spring. If they have at least that much, stop feeding and start again about a month before the start of the nectar flow.

Thanks for the picture of your pipe feeder. I had read and heard about them, but never seen one. I like the simplicity: a piece of PVC drainage pipe, an end cap, and a downspout adapter. I would like to try a 90 or 45 degree pipe fitting at the open end, instead of the downspout adapter, angled down to prevent rain from entering the feeder. I like paint job too, though I would probably use University of Kentucky Blue.

A beekeeper in Indiana writes:
I really enjoy your column in Bee Culture and the excellent advice. I have been having unexplained queen loss the past few years. It happens mostly when I transfer nucs into a 10-frame hive body. A few weeks later, and no queen. I breed my own and mark. I recently bought a microscope, and other needed equipment, actually all on ebay, and started doing my own nosema screenings. I purchased a Spencer 1036 microscope, cost $120. Other equipment totaled less than $20. I learned how to do the testing by watching a video on you-tube, by Dr. Jamie Ellis, from the University Florida’s web site.

My testing revealed my bees’ spore counts were over two million. I treat according to Fumagillin’s recommendation, but am starting to believe it is no longer effective. Do you know of any new method or treatment?

Nosema tracking on hive. Jon Maybriar photo.

Phil replies:
The antibiotic fumagillin is the only registered medication for the treatment of nosema in honey bees. It has been a reliable tool and the only one we needed until recently, but the recognition in the last few years of a new strain of Nosema has created many questions about impact, diagnosis, and treatment. The effectiveness of fumagillin is just one. Unfortunately, it’s a complicated issue with no clear answers.

Nosema apis (N. apis) was first identified as a honey bee pathogen by a German scientist in 1909, however, its symptoms have been observed in bees since the mid-19th century. Nosema is a common disease of insects, fish crustaceans, and even people. It comprises numerous species, each specific to a certain insect or animal. Officially, it is classified as a microsporidian – a type of fungus – essentially a spore forming, single cell micro-parasitic organism. Spore forming means that when the pathogen dies, it releases numerous single cell spores, each of which can develop into copies of the original organism. Think of spores as seeds. Spores can be very resistant to heat and cold, but fortunately, nosema spores are not as hardy as those of that other destructive spore forming honey bee disease, American foulbrood. N. apis infects cells in a honey bee’s mid gut, and spreads principally through an oral/fecal route as a result of the hive cleaning and food transfer activities of young bees. The invaded cells are responsible for nutritional uptake, and are essentially hijacked by the nosema organisms causing the host to become malnourished and weak even as it takes in ample food.

Honey bees infected with N. apis typically exhibit symptoms of dysentery, with older bees exhibiting higher levels of infection than younger ones. N. apis was traditionally considered to be a greater problem in northern climates where consistently cold temperatures prevented bees from making defecation flights during the winter. Infected bees were forced to expel feces within the hive, causing a more rapid spread of the disease. Levels of N. apis reached a peak in the early spring when most bees were older and all had been confined in the hive for extended periods. In the spring, bees capable of exiting the hive, but weakened by disease and unable to fly, would often defecate on the outside of the hive, resulting in the staining usually associated with the disease. Numerous bees, too sick to fly, crawling in front of the hive was also indicative of N. apis. Honey bees infected by nosema had reduced life spans – by as much as about 80% – resulting in fewer foragers, weaker colonies in Spring, and reduced honey production. Workers, drones, and queens could all be infected, but workers exhibited much higher levels due to their cleaning and foraging duties. That is Nosema as it has been understood and described for almost a hundred years: a minor disease, one which weakened colonies in the Winter and Spring, but from which most would recover by Summer as brood production increased faster than infection rate, and one which could be effectively treated with fumagillin.

Everything changed in 2007 when we learned that Nosema ceranae (N. ceranae) was present in the U.S. honey bee population. It is a separate species of Nosema, formerly found only in Asia in non-European honey bees, including Apis ceranae (hence the name Nosema ceranae). Subsequent testing of honey bee samples preserved at USDA bee labs showed that N. ceranae has actually been here since the mid-1990s, and seems to have essentially displaced N. apis. Today, if your bees are infected with nosema, it is almost certainly N. ceranae, and much of what we thought we knew about Nosema no longer holds true. N. ceranae is thought to be a more virulent disease, and with its discovery came a suspicion that it might be the cause or contributing cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD). That is still controversial. Researchers studying CCD and increased colony loss in recent years have described nosema, along with Varroa mites, viruses, pesticides, and poor nutrition, as being possible culprits, likely working in some combination.

In addition to being a more aggressive parasite, N. ceranae differs from N. apis in symptoms, pattern, and perhaps transmission. Though both affect the digestive tracts of honey bees, N. ceranae does not always produce the heavy defecation within hives and the staining on the fronts which are the characteristic signs of N. apis. Heavily infected hives can even appear healthy, displaying no overt indications. On the other hand, in some colonies infected with N. ceranae, the dysentery symptoms are even more pronounced. Whereas N. apis operates on a definite cycle, peaking in the spring and abating in the Summer, N. ceranae is considered a year round disease. Some recent studies have indicated that one reason for its persistence is that it is transmitted in more ways than N. apis. In addition to spreading through direct contact with contaminated fecal matter, it may also be transmitted through food to larvae. It is found in drones and queens as well as in workers, and even affects more organs in the bees’ bodies. Though concentrated in the gut, N. ceranae cells are also found in other body tissues, including the ovaries of queens. N. ceranae has rapidly become a worldwide problem. It now exists on every continent where beekeeping is practiced. In Spain, it has been directly implicated in extremely high colony losses. So far, in North America, it is being viewed with increasing concern, but has not reached the crises level it has achieved in Spain. There are some indications that it thrives better in hotter climates. It has also been suggested that there is more than one genetic variation of the disease, some more virulent than others. In addition, variation in the genetics of honey bee sub-species may cause some to be more susceptible than others.

Diagnosis of N. ceranae in infected colonies can be difficult, not only because they may not display any obvious signs, but also because symptoms they might display can also indicate different problems. Dysentery, weakened colonies, and crawling bees may point to Nosema, but can also have other causes such as Varroa mites, viruses, poor nutrition, or poisoning. Laboratory testing, including microscopic examination of the contents of digestive tracts of a sample of bees, provides the only definitive diagnosis. The level of infection is determined by estimating the number of spores present. Counts are described in millions per bee, with fewer than one million indicating a low level, one to 10 million moderate, and over ten million high. Some individual bees have been found to contain over 100 million spores, but that is considered extreme. I congratulate you on taking the initiative to get a microscope and learn how to perform the test. Most beekeepers don’t own one, or are not comfortable using one. I have often thought this could be a good project for a beekeeping association, with the group buying the equipment, and several members learning how to do the testing and either training others or performing tests for them. Those without such resources can send samples to state bee labs, or to the USDA bee lab in Beltsville, Maryland, for testing. Your spore count of around two million per bee indicates a moderate level of infection, and could be related to your supersedure problem. Evidence suggests that infected queens, those not succumbing to N. ceranae, may still suffer impaired function.

When we first became aware of N. ceranae, it was felt that the antibiotic fumagillin, then used for the control of N. apis, could successfully be used to control both varieties. Many experts even recommended prophylactic treatments, in other words, routinely using fumagillin to prevent Nosema without regular testing to determine whether or not it was present. This has now changed. Recent research at the University of Illinois indicates that fumagillin may not be effective in controlling N. ceranae, and may even further damage the health of the colony. At this time, researchers in Canada still find it to effective there, and recommend treating with it. Here in the U.S., many commercial beekeepers use it regularly and believe that it helps. Others, like you, have tried it without positive result.

My recommendations to beekeepers is to test – either by doing it themselves, or by sending a sample to a bee lab. Do not treat prophylacticly. When collecting bees for samples, it’s best to take them from the entrance where older, more severely infected bees are most likely to be found. Include some crawling bees if you see any. If the test reveals high nosema spore counts, consult about treatment with the experts at the lab doing the testing. I’m not trying to dodge the question of treatment, but I hesitate to give general advice on fumagillin. Seven or eight years is only a blink of an eye in terms of research on a new disease. Studies are being carried out constantly, and many pose as many questions as they answer. If fumagillin doesn’t seem to be working for you, then it’s not working for you. In the absence of any other registered treatment, there are a few things you can do. Keep a close watch on the health of your hives. Help them nutritionally by feeding sugar syrup and protein supplements when their stores are low. Monitor and treat for mites if necessary; any colony is more susceptible to Nosema when it is already weakened by another parasite. Pay special attention to the presence and productivity of your queens. There is some evidence that frequent re-queening can be helpful in reducing or containing Nosema levels. Also, keep reading these pages and others. A lot of good minds are at work on the problem, so try to stay informed of developments.