The Nectar Dearth – What it Means to Honey Bees
I enjoy seeing honey bees flying through the air on warm Spring mornings looking for food. Nectar and pollen collected from the new flowers is necessary for colony growth. The bees work diligently to make honey and raise young bees. 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.
Sometimes our bees need a little help during a dearth
What is A Nectar Dearth?
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! Sometimes, pollen collection is affected too.
However, it is possible to find bees bringing in pollen when no nectar is available. We must remember that blooming flowers are not a guarantee of nectar.
A nectar dearth can happen any time during the growing season but it is more common in mid-Summer. If you live in an area that has a year-round (or season round) nectar flow, that is great. But, most beekeepers will experience a nectar dearth at some time during the season.
An experienced beekeeper knows which plants in their area produces nectar. Knowing what blooms when and local weather conditions is important.
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 nectar dearth may be more severe.
How Do You Know if You Are in A Dearth?
Changes in Foraging Behavior
Honey bee behavior changes can signal a nectar dearth. Are the bees foraging on flowers that they normally ignore? This may indicate a shortage of nectar in their favorite flowers.
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?
How A Nectar Dearth Affects Bee Hive Population
The amount of incoming nectar and pollen regulates the egg laying rate of the queen bee. Reduced nectar availability causes the queen to lay fewer eggs. She may even stop laying all together. When plentiful food returns, she will begin laying again.
A beekeeper seeing capped brood but no eggs or larva during hive inspection, may be concerned. Is the colony queenless? Perhaps, not. The queen may be present but has ceased laying for a while.
Reduced brood production can be a dangerous situation with a long nectar dearth. Late Summer is the time for the honey bee colony to raise healthy young bees to survive Winter.
A dearth lasting all summer may lower the chance of winter survival. 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.
Honey Bee Behavior Changes
Your bee hive may sound louder than normal. It seems like an angry buzz with more fanning etc. 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.
Honey bee hive robbing becomes more likely during times of nectar dearth. 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 when a nectar dearth is happening. Be prepared to take extra precautions when you do hive inspections. And, the bees may resent your presence near the beehive.
What Can Beekeepers Do to Help the Bees?
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.
Also, it is not only large bee colonies that you have to worry about. Yellow Jackets and other wasps will try to enter the hives and steal food. Everyone is hungry.
Should You Feed Bees During A Dearth?
Whether or not you need to feed your bees will depend on several factors.
Established colonies may be able to weather a seasonal dearth with few problems. However, a drought situation could result in all your hives needing assistance. Lack of rainfall can result in a complete absence of nectar for our bees.
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.
Experience is the Best Beekeeping Teacher
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. Honeybee colony dearth periods 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.