Why are Honeybees at My Bird Feeder?

Reader Contribution by Julia Miller and Five Feline Farm
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Have you noticed honeybees visiting your bird feeders on those first warm days at the end of winter?

For several days I saw honeybees foraging at the bird feeder with cracked corn. A close up view shows they are collecting dust or pollen on their hind legs. What would honeybees be foraging for in a bird feeder?

Believe it or not, it is the cracked corn. More specifically the dust on the cracked corn. These dust particles resemble pollen grains and also contain some trace amounts of corn pollen.

Honeybees appear to be somewhat opportunistic and willing to do almost anything for the survival of the colony. When the weather begins to warm and the colony starts to ramp up brood production, the bees need pollen to make bee bread to feed the larvae. When it is still too early for plants or trees to produce pollen, the bees look for any protein source so they end up at bird feeders.

Honeybees do not live on honey alone. A honeybee’s diet is made up of both carbohydrates and protein. Honey and nectar provide the carbohydrates. Pollen is the source of protein. Both contain traces of amino acids and other nutrients, but protein is a critical component of bee bread. Bee bread is the primary diet of larvae and honeybees from Day 3 of life onward. The exception is the queen bee who is fed royal jelly throughout her development.

This early-season hunger for pollen also begs the question about what beekeepers are feeding their honeybees. It is common for candy boards or simply granulated sugar to be added during the winter. In fact, although I left a good amount of honey in my hive I did add granulated sugar twice during the winter. Sugar is easy to add to the hive: place an approximately 2-inch spacer under the inner cover, lay a sheet of newspaper on top of the frames and pour on the sugar. Between the honey stores and the sugar on top of the hive, I’m certain the bees have adequate amounts of carbohydrates.

Now I’m concerned for their protein stores until the pollen is more readily available. To this end, I have added some commercially available protein patties. These sticky patties contain a pollen substitute mixed with a thick sugary paste made from molasses. It also has added vitamins and other micronutrients that are helpful for the bees to build up their strength.

Pollen substitutes are also available in a granule form and can be put in shallow dishes for the bees to collect. Although some of these purchased feeds may contain other not so helpful ingredients, (like corn syrup) any are surely a better quality protein for the bees than corn dust.

Julia Milleris co-owner farmer and beekeeper at Five Feline Farm. She is the author of Simply Delicious, a memoir of cooking and The Long Road to Market, a guide for market farmers. Connect with Julia on Facebook, Twitter, andInstagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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