Honey bees are well-renowned for their ability to make a lot of honey. Some of it is destined for their own use during the cold months of Winter. But, they do such a good job that they often have some to share. For new beekeepers who start a hive with visions of endless jars of golden honey, reality can be a bummer. This leads them to question if they are doing something wrong – why are my bees not making honey?
Bees Not Storing Honey in Supers
Let’s talk about how bees normally store honey in their hive. One of the most common hives in use today is the standard Langstroth hive.
Once this space is in use and some food stored for the bees, a beekeeper adds another super for the surplus honey.
These top boxes are usually referred to as “honey supers”. They can be any size but the shallow supers (with a height of 5 11/16″) are most commonly used.
So, if you go out to bring in the crop and find no honey in the supers – why not? Are your bees on strike? Is something wrong with your bees?
What Bees Need to Make Honey
Honey bees are hard working cold blooded insects. They live together in large colonies and work together to sustain the hive. Female worker bees are responsible for foraging outside the hive for food.
Bees are not lazy. Otherwise, you would not find so many quotes about bees being hard workers in our literature. They continue to work as long as possible – they don’t just say “okay that’s enough and stop.”
However, there are a few things that bees need to make honey and fill your supers.
- nectar flow available to collect
- a place to store honey
If the local area has abundant nectar and the hive has empty storage space, these two needs are likely being met. Now, we must look at other reasons for why the bees are not making honey.
Factors that Affect Honey Production
In spite of many similarities, each honey bee colony is different because of the genetics involved. Due to variations in bee breeds, one hive may forage on cooler days or be more prone to swarming, etc.
Yet any colony is subject to the factors that affect the amount of honey made during a season. For most of us, honey production is not a year round event. Honey bees do not produce honey during Winter. The cold months are spent inside the hive trying to survive until Spring.
Therefore, if your bees are not making honey – consider these factors to help understand why your honey supers are empty.
It is The First Year
So many aspects of beekeeping are related to the region in which you live. Most areas have a limited number of warm days when bees can collect needed resources.
First year colonies, especially those new hives started when a beekeeper buys a bee package need the whole season to get ready for Winter. Don’t expect a honey crop until year two.
Lack of Nectar or Pollen
When a large amount of nectar is available, this is called the time of the “honey flow“. But, this is not always the case.
Perhaps there has not been a lot of nectar for the workers to collect in recent weeks. Blooming flowers are not a guarantee of nectar. Some flowers do not produce nectar as they do not need insects for pollination.
Also, weather conditions such as late frost or a severe drought can cause flowers to have little nectar – this is called a dearth.
Bad Foraging Weather
Even the best colony of bees will have trouble making honey if the foraging weather does not cooperate. High winds, too much rain or unseasonably cold temperatures all affect the amount of nectar bees are able to bring in.
Lack of Enough Bees
So many things are happening inside a hive, honey production, pollen storage, comb construction, etc. In addition, nurse bees are busy rearing larvae to become the next work force.
What does this have to do with making honey? A colony needs a large work force to make a lot of honey. If your colony has a small bee population – there are not as many workers to go out and collect nectar.
Unhealthy Hives Make Less Honey
Any colony that is unhealthy due to varroa mite issues will not be as productive as a healthy hive. Sick bees are not as strong and do not live as long. Varroa control (if needed) is vital to having productive hives.
Tips to Encourage Bees to Fill Supers
There are many things that are out of our control as beekeepers. But, there are some things we can do to help our colonies be more productive.
- keep colonies healthy (control varroa etc.) – avoid having too many hives to manage
- feed new colonies sugar syrup (if needed) until their boxes are full
- do not put too many hives in one bee yard
- extract honey and save drawn comb supers for next season
- I use queen excluders – but some beekeepers do not like them
Rest assured that bees want to be productive. If the honey supers on your hive are not being filled, this lack of honey is because some part of the equation is missing. Healthy strong colonies are the first step. Given the proper timing and forage and you should be on your way to harvesting fresh honey from your hive.
Weather conditions are often to blame for a lack of honey production. Even if nectar is available, bees can not forage in cold or rainy weather.
The workers are not able to collect enough plant nectar to fill the super. Or if the colony population is small, they may have a lot of room in the brood next boxes to store honey.
This depends on weather conditions, colony population and food availability. On average, it takes about two weeks for an average colony to fill a honey super.
In general, first year hives may not be able to produce excess honey for the beekeeper. However, if the colony builds up quickly and abundant nectar is available – it is possible to harvest a little honey.