Top Bar Protein

By: Wyatt Mangum

Top Bar hives need a hanger for a protein patty. And Small Hive Beetles just love them, too!

Figure 1 Death on the left meets life on the right. On the left, excessive mowing has destroyed the wildflower diversity, leaving a green desert of grass. On the right, aster, the tiny snow-white flowers, and goldenrod provide nectar and pollen to honey bees, and other insect communities living on nectar: solitary bees, bumble bees, butterflies and moths, even wasps and flies.

Feeding a pollen substitute helps stimulate brood production during different seasonal conditions. 

In my location, Piedmont, VA (mid-Atlantic), the Fall nectar and pollen flow is marginal (from golden rod and aster). Summer rains help to enhance the pollen coming in by early Fall. Conversely, a dry Summer can easily cause a pollen shortage.  Rampant seasonal mowing also destroys these resources (see Figure 1). In late Summer and early Fall, the need for pollen is critical. During this time colonies produce their long-lived over-wintering bees needed to sustain the colony until the following Spring. 

An alarming scenario would be dry Summer conditions, leading to a severe pollen shortage by the Fall. That would damage the production of long-lived bees, increasing colony mortality in the Winter. 

Part of vigilant bee management is planning for pollen shortages. Then in the beginning of their occurrence, the beekeeper can respond rapidly, delivering pollen substitute to the hives, across all apiaries, with an efficient method to maintain colony health.

Frame-hive beekeepers do that. From bee supply companies, they purchase a pollen substitute, prepared as a patty roughly ½-inch thick, sandwiched between two thin papers. A one-pound patty fits snugly between the top and bottom bars of frames in the vertically stacked hive bodies.

Top-bar hive beekeepers need a feeding method too, using the same commercially prepared patties (see Figure 2). However, the top-bar hive requires a hanger to hold the patty, all of which is more complicated compared to just laying the patty on the top bars of a frame hive. In 2015, I began designing patty feeding methods with various wire hangers during dearth conditions. 

Figure 2 Ready to insert pollen patties into three top-bar hives. I have removed the hive covers and dealt out the patties (pointed out by the yellow arrows). The patties will hang between the combs from homemade wire hangers. I usually feed pollen patties to about 25 top-bar hives at a time. These “pollen patties” are actually a pollen substitute and do not contain natural pollen. Nevertheless, the slang is to call them pollen patties. These top-bar colonies were finishing a pollination contract, pollinating squash.

For the resulting patty feeding design, I paid close attention to the difficulties presented by small hive beetles in the heat of Summer when their invasion pressure is high. I wanted these conditions to be similar to those in the Southeast, as close to the worst case as possible, producing a severe test of my patty feeding design.

In case beekeepers want to change my design, keep these two points in mind: 

  1. The bees should have continuous access to the maximum surface area of the patty. Therefore, do not put the patty on the floor of the top-bar hive with either a screen or wooden floor. Adult small hive beetles can get up under the patty and produce larvae, which tunnel inside the patty, where the bees cannot evict them (see Figure 3).
  2. Be careful about feeding a colony too much patty at one time.  I think about the last part of the patty to be eaten by the bees. How long will that take given the local conditions? If feeding too much patty, the last part could remain for too long in the hive. Consequently, small hive beetle larvae would have more time to foul it. Then the bees will reject the remaining patty, leaving the rest for the beetle reproduction (see Figure 4). From my observations, I came to see pollen substitute as a cryptic source of new beetles if not properly applied.