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The Honey Flow (Its Nectar Time)

Spring fills beekeepers with anticipation for the first honey flow of the season.  Getting their colonies healthy and strong before this occurs is one of the most important tasks for over-wintered hives. Fingers are crossed that the weather will cooperate and flying conditions are perfect.  It’s time to make some honey.

What is a Honey Flow?

High bee activity at hive entrance during the nectar flow.

This beekeeping term refers to an period of time when an abundance of nectar is available for bees to gather.  The honey flow represents that time (usually several weeks to several months) when bees are able to make honey for themselves and the beekeeper.

During a honey or “nectar flow”, plants in the area are producing so much nectar that the bees can work all day and never gather it all. It is an abundance of available nectar ready for the taking.

Spring Nectar Flow

Most locations have a Spring nectar flow.  In some places, this may be a smaller amount of blooming plants or a shorter duration of bloom.  These “mini-flows” do not always produce a crop for the beekeeper but they are still important.

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Colonies coming out of Winter are low on food stores and population.  When the earliest nectar flow occurs, this allows the bees to ramp up brood production.  They need a lot of new workers before the major honey flow arrives.

Group of red maple trees in bloom providing early nectar source.

When the first nectar flow occurs depends on where you live.  The southern parts of the United States may experience this in late January/February or before.  As you progress northward, the bloom time is delayed. 

In the southeast, the Red Maple bloom is considered one of the earliest sources of food for bees.  The nectar and pollen helps colonies get ready to make honey. But sometimes, cool weather or wind prevents flight during the bloom period.

Seasonal Honey Flows

If you are wondering when the honey flow occurs, this is a good question and I hate to have to say – it depends.  The timing of the honey flow depends on where you live and the variety of plants in your region.

Some locations have several large honey flows throughout the warm season.  Others, like me, have one major flow in mid-Spring.  The Tulip Poplar is the major nectar providing tree in my area and it is buzzing for several weeks in April/May.

Tulip Poplar tree in bloom during major nectar flow of Spring.

After this period, my colonies do well to gather enough for their daily needs. Summer often brings hot dry weather and no major nectar sources.

However, in many areas – Fall blooming plants offers a second chance for honey production. Aster and Goldenrod bloom in Fall and are major nectar sources for hives in many parts of the country. Likewise, if you live near crops – your bees may be able to take advantage of those sources too.

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Check with local beekeeping associations in your area or ask your agricultural extension agent for more info. If you live in an area with only one major flow, you need to know this. 

Do not take all the honey off your hive thinking your bees have plenty of time to make more for themselves before Winter.  You may end up starving your colonies.

Recognizing the Start of the Flow

It is very exciting for the new beekeeper experiencing this for the first time.  How do you know when the honey flow has begun?  First, your research should give you an estimate of when to expect it.

Once it has begun, your colonies will let you know.  The entrance of the hive shows high traffic levels.  As worker bees leave the hive, they do not hesitate but take off right away.  No bees are noticed hanging around the hive entrance during the peak foraging hours.  It’s time to make  honey.

During hive inspections, you may see more traces of white wax placed on the top bars and other locations.  This may be a sign that it’s time to add another box. As the bees get to work, the beekeeper has a job too.

Beekeeper adds more boxes to hive during nectar flow period.

Beekeepers Managing Hives During Production

The time of the nectar flow can also be a time of swarming.  It is very sad to see half of your workforce go flying off over the tree tops-but it does happen.  Be sure to do what you can to minimize swarming during the weeks before your local honey flow time.

Give the colonies space when needed or just before. This means adding extra honey boxes. Be cautious to avoid giving the colony more space than they can patrol.  However, adding a box when needed is important to help your bees make the best possible harvest.

Signs of the End

As the time of excess nectar starts to slow down, you will find the bees slowing down collection.  New boxes added will not be filled as quickly. At this time their effort turns more to capping the ripe honey stored inside.  This should be done before the beekeeper collects his/her share.

If you are familiar with your local nectar sources (and you need to be), perhaps you will see blossoms dropping. Also, there will be less bee activity in front of the hives.

Strong colonies show signs of crowding or bearding if the weather is hot. My hives often exhibit washboarding behavior after the major honey flow is over.

Drought and Dearths

Sadly, some years will not produce a good honey flow.  Locally, we often see this in regards to Sourwood Honey.  But, it applies to any type of honey. Nectar production is tied to weather factors. Drought or lack of rainfall in the months prior to the bloom can result in less nectar.

A time of little or no nectar is called a dearth.  This is a hard time for the colony.  If it occurs right after a flow period, your bees may eat up their Winter reserves – or your honey crop.  This is a time when the beekeeper must monitor colony conditions to prevent starvation.

To learn more about the nectar or honey flows across the United States – visit NASA Honey Bee Forage Map.

FAQs about a Honey Flow

How long does the honey flow last?

This depends on your location and the nectar source in question. In most situations, you can expect 2-4 weeks of high volumes of plant nectar. If you have a wide variety of sources contributing, it can last longer.

What is a nectar flow?

This is the same thing as honey flow – both terms mean the same thing. A time when abundant nectar is available for foraging bees.

Which season is best for honey production?

The best season to make honey can vary a bit depending on the plants in your region. However, most beekeeper make a honey crop in late Spring into Summer.

Does rain affect a nectar flow?

Yes, too little rain can result in nectar being slightly thicker – it may not flow as well from the nectaries. Also, a drought prior to bloom time can result in little to not nectar.

Likewise, rainy weather during the flow prevents bees from foraging and may wash nectar out of the blooms.