Worker honey bees are industrious little insects that constantly search for food. Most of this activity takes place during the warmest months of the year. But, not all flowers feed bees and those that do are not always productive. When our bees are unable to find food during normal times of plenty, we call this a nectar dearth and the hives may need help.
What Does a Nectar Dearth Mean to Bees?
Even flowers that normally produce nectar may not do so during times of stress – such as a drought. Honey bees collect several things for the colony.
They need plant nectar in order to make honey and pollen as a protein source for developing young. But these are not always readily available.
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. In addition to daily needs, they must make honey and store it for Winter food. But, this time of plenty for the bees may come to an abrupt end.
Many honey bee colonies 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.
Seasonal 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.
This is where the local component of beekeeping comes into play. An experienced beekeeper knows which plants in their area produces nectar. Remember, you may see blooms but that does not guarantee that nectar is inside.
In addition to a seasonal nectar dearth that occurs every year at the same time, weather conditions can make things worse. If your area is experiencing a drought, your bee food supply may be in serious trouble.
Short term situational dearths can happen too. Days of storms that rip flowers from the plants or late season frosts are good examples.
If your bees are not properly prepared, you could end up in an emergency situation in late Fall as they head into Winter. Making sugar cakes for bees is okay but their own honey is best. Check their food stores periodically throughout the whole season.
Dearth Affects Brood Rearing
The amount of incoming nectar and pollen regulates the egg laying rate of the queen bee- her major role. 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.
Late Summer is the time for the honey bee colony to raise healthy fat bees for Winter. 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 due to lack of brood. At that point, robbing or pests may finish it off.
Signs of a Dearth Period for Honey Bees
How do you know that your bee colonies are in a dearth? There are several signs to look for and some include changes in bee behavior.
Are the bees foraging on flowers that they normally ignore? This may indicate a shortage of nectar in their favorite flowers. So, they are gathering what they can.
Another sign of trouble is seeing bees visit a flower briefly and then return to it again within a few minutes. They are looking for every drop of nectar.
During a normal nectar flow, bees leave the hive quickly. They buzz off on their foraging mission with determination.
During a nectar dearth, foraging honey bees may fly around low to the ground. The bees seem to be investigating every small opportunity.
Hummingbird feeders and trash cans become more attractive during this time also. If you see your bees behaving in a different manner, you have to wonder why?
Hungry bees are more likely to collect insect secretions and make honeydew honey with them.
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 hungry hive.
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.
Honey bee hive 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.
Expect a honey bee colony to act more defensive during dearth times. Are your beehive 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.
Dearth Period Management
While the beekeeper can not make flowers produce bee food, 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.
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.
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.
A new bee package started in April can get off to a great start. But a long summer nectar dearth with no beekeeper intervention (feeding) may result in a colony not ready for Winter.
Be especially watchful of new hives started this year. Plan on feeding package bees in mid Summer if needed.
October is too late to start – you can’t catch up. In most cases, you should not be feeding sugar water in cold weather.
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.
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.
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. The bees won’t always need your assistance. But, it is wise to monitor the progress of your hive throughout the warm season.