The Honey Flow: Nectar Abundance

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Spring fills all beehive owners with anticipation for the first honey flow of the season. This time of the season when bees are collecting ample amounts of nectar to produce honey is the highlight of the season. Not only is it an important time for beekeepers, it is also critical for the colonies that must produce food for Winter. Beekeepers need to understand the honey flow in their region and know how to prepare their hives.

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. We are not talking about a few nectar-rich blooming plants but an thousands.

You may hear some beekeepers use the terms honey flow and nectar flow to mean the same thing. But, in general a nectar flow means that something is blooming out there that the colonies are foraging on.

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.

Seasonal Nectar 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.

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

Early 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. They need a lot of new workers before the major honey flow arrives.

Colonies coming out of Winter are low on food stores and population. These early nectar flows allow the hive to ramp up brood production. One important part of beekeeping in Spring is getting the hives ready.

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

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 food for bees

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This important nectar and pollen helps colonies get ready to make honey. But sometimes, cool weather or wind prevents flight during the bloom period.

Honey Production Season

As the weather warms and more plants bloom, hopefully the bee colonies have grown in population.

Some locations have several large honey flows throughout the warm season. This is the time when honey is produced to fill the hive and some extra for beekeepers.

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

Other areas, like mine, have one major honey flow in mid-Spring. There are many flowers, shrubs and trees for bees blooming during this time. But, the Tulip Poplar is the major nectar providing source 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.

Likewise, if you live near crops that bloom – your bees may be able to take advantage of those resources too.

After this period of abundant nectar, my colonies do well to gather enough for their daily needs. Remember your bees need to eat every day before cold weather arrives.

Summer often brings hot dry weather and no major nectar sources. This is why it is important to know what to expect in your area.

Fall Flow

In many parts of the U.S., Fall blooming plants offers a second chance for honey production.

Aster and Goldenrod bloom in Fall and are major nectar sources for hives. While the honey may not be of the best quality, it is good for Winter bee food.

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. Unfortunately, we must consider more than just a period of time on the calendar.

There are several factors that affect the strength of the honey flow and whether or not your hives produce honey.

  • weather
  • floral sources
  • colony population

In apiculture as all farming pursuits, weather plays a role. Enough rain at the right time is important for nectar production.

A lot of rain and windy during the bloom can prevent foraging bees from flying. And please, no late season frosts!

Hopefully, your region has an abundance of blooming plants of different varieties. This helps promote good bee health through a diverse diet.

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.

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 – if the frames below are all in use.

Beekeeper adds more boxes to hive during nectar flow period.

Managing Hives During Production

As the bees get to work on their most important task for the season, the beekeeper has a job too. The weeks leading up to the honey flow and during it can be a time of swarming.

This is a natural process of bee life 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 swarming during the weeks before your local honey flow.

Give the colonies space when needed or just before. This means adding extra honey boxes (supers).

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. After millions of years, they are not going to change to suit you.

Signs of the End

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.

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 a activity referred to as washboarding bees after the major honey flow is over.

Drought and Dearth

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 nectar source.

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. It may even be necessary to feed your bees sugar water 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. What that means for your hives depends on several factors as well as how well you manage your colonies.

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.