The Honey Flow: Nectar Abundance

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The honey flow, a pivotal event in the year for beekeepers everywhere. Not only is it a hopeful time for beekeepers, it is also critical for the colonies that must produce food for Winter. Here, I share with you some of the intricacies of the honey flow, and how seasonal variations in nectar flows affect the beehives we care for.

High bee activity at hive entrance during the nectar or honey flow season.

You may hear the terms honey flow and nectar flow used interchangeably. All of the beekeepers’ efforts are focused on getting the colonies ready – so the bees can make honey for us.

What is a Honey Flow?

The “honey flow” is a period of time when there is an abundance of nectar available for bees to gather. Due to regional differences, this period of time can be a few days to a week or several weeks. We are not talking about a few nectar-rich blooming plants but thousands – millions?

During a “honey 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 – and the strongest colonies make the best use of it.

Seasonal Variations

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.

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

Early Flow – Spring Honey

Most locations have a Spring nectar flow. These “mini-flows” do not always produce a crop of honey for the beekeeper-but they are still important.

Honey bee colonies coming out of Winter are low on food stores and population. They need a lot of new worker bees before the major honey flow arrives.

These early nectar flows allow the hive to ramp up bee brood production. One important part of beekeeping in Spring is getting the hives healthy and strong for the real work ahead.

The southern parts of the United States may experience their first nectar flow in late January/February. As you progress northward, the bloom time is delayed for a few weeks. 

In the southeast, the Red Maple bloom is considered one of the earliest sources of that provide food for bees to eat

This important nectar and pollen helps colonies get ready to make honey. But, cool weather, windy conditions or rain (bees don’t fly well in rain) can prevent flight during the bloom period.

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

Summer Honey Production

In my region, (upstate South Carolina), the major honey flow occurs in mid-late Spring. But, I include it here in the Summer section because even though the calendar has not flipped over to Summer. The hot weather does arrive in May.

The Yellow Tulip Poplar is one of the major nectar providers in my area during this time of year. It is buzzing for several weeks in April/May.

And, if something happens that causes the bees to be unable to forage on Tulip Poplar – this usually results in a lower overall honey crop- or my bees not making honey at all.

Mid-Late Summer

As Summer arrives in force – many flowers, shrubs and trees for bees continue to bloom. Likewise, if you live near agricultural crops that bloom – your bees may be able to take advantage of those resources too.

Beekeepers must pay attention to their hives as we approach the later Summer months. This time of year often brings hot dry weather and possibly a nectar dearth in my region.

After a period of abundant nectar (in late Spring/early Summer), my colonies do well to gather enough for their daily needs. This is why it is important to know what to expect in your area.

If I took all the extra honey at the end of the honey flow – my bees may be hungry come Fall. We can not be certain they will be able to bring in food all Summer long.

Fall Honey Flow

In many parts of the U.S., Fall blooming plants feed bees-offering a second chance for honey production. This is very location dependent – you may not have a real nectar flow at the end of the season.

If you do, the Fall nectar flows can be heavy and productive. Aster and Goldenrod bloom in Fall and are major nectar sources. While the honey may not be of the best quality for our table, it is good for Winter bee food. And, some people like it as well.

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.

Factors that Affect the Honey Flow

Once you know what to expect in your region, you should have a pretty good idea of when there will be nectar for your bees to collect.

However, there are several factors that affect the honey flow in any area.

  • weather
  • floral sources
  • colony population

As in all farming pursuits, weather plays a role. Enough rain at the right time is important for nectar production. Inclement weather during the bloom can prevent foraging bees from flying. And please, no late season frosts!

The health and population of your colonies also plays a big role in how successful this time will be for you. Sick hives and those with a low percentage of workers will not be able to take advantage of the bloom.

Beekeeper adds more boxes to hive during nectar flow period.

Beekeeping Practices During the Honey Flow

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
  • worker bees leave the hive and do not hesitate but take off right away
  • no bees are hanging around the entrance during the peak foraging hours
  • you may see traces of new white wax placed on the top bars

It’s Time to Make Honey

I try to minimize hive interference during the time of honey production. This of course can result in things happening that I don’t desire but it is trade off – as messing with those heavy boxes in hot weather is no fun either.

Adding More Boxes

Watch for signs that it is time to add another box. Whether another honey super or a brood box for the bees.

Generally follow the 8/10 rule – if the bees are using 80% of the frames add another box. For a strong healthy colony during a strong flow – even the 7/10 rule can apply.

Watch for Swarming

The weeks leading up to the honey flow and during it can be a time of increased bee swarming. This is a natural process but a swarm make a definite dent in your harvest for the year.

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 or prevent swarming during the weeks before your local honey flow.

Give the colonies space when needed or just before. This means having extra beekeeping supers or boxes on hand.

But, be cautious to avoid giving the colony more space than they can patrol. Otherwise, wax moths and hive beetles may be a problem.

This time is certainly a balancing act for the beekeeper. We need to remember to work with the natural tendencies of the bees as much as possible.

Not Every Year is a Winner

Will you be able to harvest honey from your established colonies once during the season or several times?

To a large degree, the amount of honey a beehive produces in a year depends on local foraging conditions. Each region of the country (or parts of the world) have their own unique seasonal changes.

Sadly, some years will not produce a good honey crop. Locally, we often see this in regards to Sourwood Honey. But, it applies to any nectar source.

As the time of excess nectar starts to slow down, you will find the bees slowing down in collection.  New boxes added will not be filled as quickly.

Strong colonies show signs of crowding or bee bearding if the weather is hot. My hives often exhibit a activity referred to as washboarding bees after the major honey flow is over.

This is a time when the beekeeper must monitor colony conditions to prevent starvation. It may even be necessary to make some sugar water for your bees for a short time.

FAQs

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.

Final Thoughts

The honey flow represents that time (usually several weeks to several months) when bees are able to make honey for themselves and the beekeeper. No matter what happens. Do not take your share of honey and leave your colonies to starve. That is not good beekeeping.

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