What do you think about nutritious untraditional food for bees? Think about how touch and go their survival can be in the depths of winter in harsh climates. If they run out of food, they die.
January is a very dodgy time of year for the survival of bees, when truckers transport millions of hives from all over the USA to California. Destination: over a million acres of commercial almond orchards. This is still the dead of winter, so there is insufficient food for the bees until almond blossoms start to open in early spring.
Some almond farmers are more conscious of the need for bee nutrition now and are starting to plant pollinator habitat on their vast lands. Nevertheless, California monoculture has little to offer bees in the line of natural foraging grounds.
The honeybees need to care for their brood and raise them well before the pollen comes available, and this forces beekeepers to keep them alive by using pollen patty substitutes to feed them.
In this unrelated 7:16-minute video, Frederick Dunn discusses some of the nutrients bees need in their diet:
Professor Geraldine Wright is a biologist at the University of Oxford. She has studied the honeybees that pollinate the almond trees for many years and believes that any pollen substitute must be customized to the actual nutritional needs of that honeybee colony, otherwise the colony will fail.
Wright has spent the past ten years engineering a new bee food that is based on her knowledge of the intricacies of a honeybee’s diet. She says nobody has done careful research on bee nutrition and the qualities of pollen.
Honeybees are fundamental pollinators in our food chain systems and are considered to be a domesticated species. As such, she believes they need their own feed.
There has been little interest or incentive on the part of livestock feed companies to invest in creating the perfect bee food. As a result, pollen substitutes have been “substandard” so far, usually consisting of sugar, fat and flour that has the consistency of cookie dough, according to Wright.
Domesticated honeybee colonies are lost to a variety of factors, one being inferior nutritional feed, and another is concerning ever smaller foraging grounds. When honeybees fly free to forage in the fields, they collect nectar that they turn into honey and pollen which they transform into bee bread, which is a mix of honey and plant pollen. They store this in the hive for later use, especially winter.
Beekeepers seek pollen substitute for their bees. If a beekeeper buys pollen collected by overseas honeybees, it can bring disease with it to their hives.
Spring brings an abundance of flowers, nectar, pollen and nutrients. When autumn arrives, there are less flowers, so less pollen and nectar for bees to forage on, and a more limited nutritional intake. Nutritional needs vary depending on the geographical location and time of year.
Wright is intrigued with the worker bees in her research lab, where she rears thousands of worker bees between May and September. Four large incubators contain 100 Perspex boxes, and in every box, there are 40 worker bees of the same age. Each is given different fat-protein combinations as feed. She evaluates what they choose and how long they survive, to know optimum combinations of nutrients for refining her recipe for the pollen substitute.
A startling fact is that although worker bees prefer carbs because it gives them flight fuel, nurse bees need more protein and fat for making royal jelly to feed the larvae. Wright is equally intrigued by how much the honeybees go off balance when their diet is altered. Another of her projects is studying how different foods affect brood production.
Wright’s team is also developing a honey substitute in addition to creating a food supplement for bees. Bees often need to receive additional sugary food after beekeepers deplete their honey stores in the summer to sell in the UK and Europe, since honey is a lucrative crop. Bee nutrition is complex, and the bees have packed a lot of nutrient-density into their honey for themselves, so beekeepers deprive them of this nutritional resource when the honey is harvested.
Wright’s goal is to produce a less expensive but nutritional food for the bees, so it is economically viable. American Honey Producers Association vice-president Chris Hiatt is optimistic about Wright’s innovative bee food. He says it is vitally important to keep bees healthy and to reduce colony loss due to disease.
The new bee food, once funded, will be marketed to global beekeepers. Wright envisions possible markets in Australia and with the cranberry and blueberry farmers of North America.