Nectar Dearth

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Bees work diligently collecting food from flowers but sometimes there is little to no food available – this is called a nectar dearth. Not all flowers feed bees and those that do are not always productive – blooms do not always mean that food is present. Short dearth periods are usually no big deal. But, beekeepers wanting to keep strong productive hives may have to step in and help if the situation continues for too long.

Fewer foragers entering a beehive during a nectar dearth period.

As a long time beekeeper, I have come to understand and expect variances in good beehive management. We are at the mercy of the weather to a degree. A calendar of what to do when is great but you can not carve those dates in stone.

What is a Nectar Dearth?

Honey bees collect several resources for the colony. They need large amounts of plant nectar in order to make honey. They also gather pollen as a protein source for developing young.

The word “dearth” refers to a lack of something. So, a nectar dearth means a reduction of available plant nectar and perhaps no nectar at all!

Regardless, bees do fly out looking for food and expend valuable energy in times when the return is not very good.

Many hives are affected each year by a nectar dearth. Often, it simply slows down colony growth and production. But, if it comes at a bad time-or lasts too long it could spell disaster for the colony.

Row of colorful hives during a nectar dearth or lack of forage image.

Seasonal Dearths – Lack of Bee Food

A lack of nectar (or pollen) can happen at any time during the growing season-but it is more common in mid to late Summer. This is especially true in areas where Summer months are hot and dry (like my region in South Carolina).

This is where the local component of beekeeping comes into play – benefits of connecting with your local beekeeping association.

An experienced beekeeper knows which plants in their area produces nectar and the general bloom time. We also learn which weeks or months of the season as more likely to result in bad foraging conditions each year.

Short Term Shortages

In addition to a seasonal nectar dearth that occurs every year at the same time, weather conditions can make things worse.

Short term situational dearths can happen though the are not as detrimental to colony health. Days of storms that rip flowers from the plants or late season frosts are good examples.

Many plants recover from this temporary shortage of nectar within a week or so as new flowers open. But, if your area is experiencing a drought, your bee food supply may be in serious trouble.

Honey bee collect nectar from low growing clover bloom during nectar dearth period image.

Signs of a Nectar Dearth

How do you know that your colonies are experiencing a dearth? There are several signs to look for and some include changes in bee behavior.

  • bees foraging on different flowers
  • visiting the same flower briefly and repeatedly
  • attracted to other sources of sweet liquids
  • behavior changes – louder buzzing
  • washboarding behavior
  • robbing

Visiting Different Flowers

Are the bees foraging on flowers that they normally ignore? This may indicate a shortage of nectar in their favorite flowers. They normally visit the best food sources. If they are buzzing around plants that don’t normally prefer (like azaleas etc.) they are gathering what they can.

Brief Flower Visits

Another sign of trouble is seeing bees visit a flower briefly and then return to it again within a few minutes. Unable to get a good load of nectar from a blossom – they are looking for every drop.

Attracted to Other Sources

If you see your bees behaving in a different manner, you have to wonder why. Keeping bees away from hummingbird feeders and trash cans becomes more difficult during a nectar dearth

Hungry bees are more likely to collect sweet insect secretions and make honeydew honey with them.

Changes in Behavior

During normal conditions, bees leave the hive quickly. They buzz off on their foraging mission with determination during the honey flow to take advantage of rich food sources.

However, during a nectar dearth, foragers may fly around low to the ground. They seem to be investigating every small opportunity.

The attitude of the whole colony can change. The bees may sound louder than normal. An angry buzz with more fanning bees can signal a queen problem or a hungry hive.

Expect a honey bee colony to act more defensive during dearth times. Are your bees more aggressive than normal during inspections?

A little late season defensiveness is common but be sure to check their food stores and queen status. Be prepared to take extra precautions when you do hive inspections.

Also, look in the hive on some of the frames. Do you see watery nectar in some of the cells or are they empty and dry? A lack of any fresh nectar is not a good sign as bees constantly forage during the warm season.


During a nectar dearth, you will see more bees lounging at the front of the hive. And the activity known as “Washboarding” is more common.

This is a strange activity where rows of bees seem to sway and polish the hive entrance with their front legs.

This dance-like movement is different than bee bearding that we see in hot weather-though both can occur at the same time.

Large amount of bees exhibiting washboarding behavior on outside of beehive image.

Robbing Others

Honey bee robbing becomes more likely during times when colony are hungry. Each colony is fighting for survival. Large colonies will attempt to rob out weaker ones.

It is a dangerous time to be a colony with a small population. Just like us humans, lack of food can affect the honey bees attitude in a negative way.

Effects on the Colony

Short of actual starvation, a dearth still causes some changes in the hive.

  • reduced brood rearing
  • reduction of food stores

Brood Rearing

The amount of incoming nectar and pollen regulates how the queen bee performs her role of egg laying. She may even stop laying all together.

When plentiful food returns, she will begin laying again if the season is not too late. A beekeeper seeing capped bee brood-but no eggs or larva during hive inspections, may be concerned.

Is the colony queenless? Perhaps, not. The queen may be present but has ceased laying for a while. This is natures way of reducing hungry mouths to feed during a time of little food.

This is no problem in a healthy strong hive that has some stored honey in reserves. As long as the situation does not continue for too long. Reduced brood production can become a dangerous situation with a long nectar dearth.

Lack of Food Stores

Late Summer is the time for the honey bee colony to raise healthy fat bees for Winter and finish honey storage. They can not do so without fresh incoming nectar. A dearth lasting all summer may lower the chance of winter survival of the colony. 

And yes, a large bee colony can starve in Summer – though it is more common for the colony to become weak. At that point, robbing or pests may finish it off.

Dearth Period Hive Management

While the beekeeper can not make flowers produce nectar, there are things we can do to help our colonies get through it. some of these include:

  • reduce hive entrances to discourage robbing
  • feed colonies that are low on food or not on track for Winter
  • add more bee friendly plants to the area – or even food plots you can water

During a nectar dearth, pay close attention to your hive entrance. If you have removed the entrance reducer, this may be a good time to put them back on.

This is especially true for small colonies or new colonies still being feed. Yellow Jackets (different than honey bees) will try to enter the hives and steal food. Everyone is hungry.

Internal jar feeders are always the best option because you are making sure your bees get all the benefit. However, external bucket feeders may be used in the yard.

They are not as economical (and not the best option for most beekeepers) and they may cause robbing behavior in your apiary.

In a dearth situation, you will likely need more than one and for heavens sake put them far away from your hives.

Honey bee gathering sugar syrup from feeder.

Providing Extra Pollen

Providing protein during times when natural sources are lacking should be done with caution. Dry pollen feeders outside (away from the hives) is one option.

Homemade pollen patties are also easy to use but beekeepers in some areas must be very careful.

Beekeepers in the South generally should not use pollen patties in warm weather due to Small Hive Beetles.

Add More Flowers

Another way to help bees overcome seasonal times of nectar shortage is to plant bee friendly plants that are known to feed bees. This may not be a complete solution during a true drought but every little bit counts.

Buckwheat is a fast growing honey plant that will produce flowers in 30 days. This can provide additional forage for your bees.

If this is a seasonal problem, include more drought tolerant bee friendly plants in your landscape. They will produce bee food during the regular season – yet be more likely to produce during the dry times too.


Should you always feed bees during a dearth?

Whether or not you need to provide sugar water for bees will depend on several factors. Established colonies may be able to weather a seasonal dearth with few problems. However, a long term drought situation could result in all your hives needing assistance.

Which hives are most susceptible to a beekeeping dearth?

New hives started from bee packages, splits or captured swarms are the most as risk during times of dearth. Plan on feeding package bees in mid Summer if needed.

Should you feed bees during a dearth?

Whether or not to feed bees during a dearth depends on the condition of the colony and the length of the dearth period. A short dearth may not cause harm.

What is the honey bee dearth period?

Normally, the honey bee dearth period refers to a time when flower are producing little nectar for bees to gather. But, it can apply to any condition that prevents incoming nectar such as long periods of heavy rain.

A Final Word

As time goes by, the serious beekeeper learns when to expect seasonal nectar dearths. This is valuable information because you can be prepared to help the bees-if needed.

Dearth periods in beekeeping vary with each location. It is wise to monitor the progress of your hives throughout the warm season.