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How to recognize a nectar dearth

“How can I recognize a nectar death?” is a common newbee question and a hard one to answer. I think most experienced beekeepers know which plants are in flower in any season, which bloom follows another, and how long each lasts. They are attuned to variations in the weather from year to year, and they know if things are early or late.

Here in the coastal Pacific Northwest, we can expect the summer dearth to follow the blackberry bloom—an event that coincides with the beginning of the dry season. But if you dropped me in the middle of Texas, Alberta, or Kentucky tomorrow afternoon, I wouldn’t know the plants, the weather patterns, or the rhythm of the seasons.

Also “dearth” will mean different things, depending on where you live. The dictionary defines dearth as “a scarcity or lack of something”—a definition with some wiggle room. A nectar dearth in some areas means there is a lot less forage than before; in other areas, it means nearly a complete absence of nectar. Again, the local people know what they mean, but it is hard for a complete stranger (or neophyte) to understand.

But no matter how you define dearth, the bees know the real status of the nectar flow. Honey bees behave in distinctly different ways when nectar shortages occur, so that is the surest way to recognize a dearth. No doubt, different beekeepers will notice different behavior changes, and not all bees in all places will behave the same. Nevertheless, below is a list of behaviors I have noticed over a number of years. Just remember that your list may be different.

  • One of the first things I notice is sound. The hives seem louder, almost like they’ve been disturbed. Many bees may mill around the outside of the hive, in some ways resembling an impending swarm.
  • You will often see honey bees on flowers they normally avoid. Not just honey bees but others, such as bumble bees, are suddenly trying new foods—eating their spinach, so to speak.
  • Bees will sometimes re-sample flowers. That is, they go back to a flower they already tried once and try it again. This is rarely seen during a good flow.
  • Robbing and fighting may occur. You may see a tussle on your alighting board or dead bees on the ground in front of the hive.
  • Your bees may get more defensive toward you. The bees that seemed so gentle up till now, may suddenly display impatience with the beekeeper.
  • Dumpster diving. One day I harvested Ross Rounds and left the wet supers outside on the picnic table for a few minutes. The minutes quickly turned into an hour and when I returned, I discovered the supers hidden by a brown and pulsating mass of bodies.
  • Bees alight in odd places. This morning I saw some on the side of the house, one crawling up my water bottle, a few loitering in the bed of the truck. Some may crawl around on blades of grass beneath the hive, or settle on the hive stand or lid. Bees with no place to forage can’t complete their main mission. They may act displaced, bored, or bee-wildered.
  • Similarly, bees will investigate promising smells. They may check out your bee suit, your hive tool, or you—especially if you use scented products. They check out anything that may contain a drop of nectar, even the odor of barbecue sauce.
  • Flying low. During a dearth, my bees often dash, dart, swoop, and dive around the yard. They perform close-up fly-bys—not aggressively, but curiously. They are loud because they are close, inspecting and hunting. During a nectar flow, honey bees fire out of the hive like bullets. They know where they are going and what to do. But bees in a dearth mill around, looking for a place to go and something to do.
  • For the reasons above, my bees become visible from the house. During a nectar flow, I never see my bees from the house because of their foraging patterns. But during a dearth, I can often see them fly by when I look out the windows or open a door.

How about you? Have you noticed something different that warns you of a nectar dearth? If so, please let us know.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Honey-bee-just before the nectar dearth
Before the coming nectar dearth, a honey bee takes advantage of the last of the blackberries. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Frank Olson
Reply

What do you do in a dearth to help the bees?

Rusty
Reply

Frank,

To help the bees during a dearth I reduce entrances to protect the bees from robbers and predators such as yellowjackets.

Anna
Reply

We had a ton of clover blooming in the lawns around us but no honey bees on the blooms. That told me they were working something else and didn’t need the clover. Then, within a week, they were working the clover. Then I found them on the snapdragons, of which there are not many, and all the other flowering plants that are NOT present in mass quantities. All of that tells me forage is low and we’re in the dearth. But a few more rains should keep the clover going. I cheer the lawns with ample dandelions and clover, beekeeper that I am, I love unkempt lawns 🙂

Pat
Reply

My bees are on-and-off about our lawn clover. A couple weeks ago it was very popular, but not quite so much now. I always feel tense about them getting swept up in the mower when our lawn guy comes by.

Aaron
Reply

With respect to clover and nectar flow, the guy who makes my woodenware told me that nectar doesn’t flow in clover until it hits 70° F. Has anybody else heard this before? When he was telling me, he mentioned that he was skeptical at first, and then noticed one day that once it hit 70° the bees were on the clover, whereas earlier on they weren’t.

Pat
Reply

If it was going to be cool in the next few days, I could do a one-field sample. But we’re headed for 75-80 the rest of the week.

Aaron

Good idea! As it happens, we’ve had about a day and a half of rain here and temperatures have not quite hit the mid-60s. It is supposed the pass through by tomorrow afternoon, so (if I remember) I will try to make regular assessments in our orchard, where the clover is as the day warms up.

David R
Reply

Observing the bees while they are feeding is perhaps my favorite part of beekeeping. Last year the tulip poplars did not have a long blooming season and the bees started working the clover early in May. This year they bloomed for several weeks and there were no bees to be seen on the clover until after the privet bloomed. But then they covered the clover up. It seems to me that the bees prefer the clover blossoms on day 6 and 7 after it has been cut. By rotating my mowing I try to keep clover in that age range. I wish I could find someone to confirm my observations.

Rusty
Reply

David,

Plants produce various amounts of nectar depending on the age, the time of day, the amount of sun and rain, etc. However, I don’t know any specifics about clover.

Aaron
Reply

Are you in a dearth now, Rusty? I’m NW of you, I think, on the Olympic Peninsula. We still have a fair amount of blackberry blossoms out, but they are fading fast. I planted about 1000 s.f. of pollinator-friendly wildflowers in 2 patches on our land which are still in bloom (lacy phacelia, crimson clover, poppies, etc.) though I see more bumble bees on them than my Carnies. We also have white clover in shaded areas, i.e. under our fruit trees where there is a decent canopy.

We have huge stands of fireweed in adjacent areas, but I don’t know of any close by enough to think the girls are making the trek. Next year I’d like to move a hive into one of those stands – the one I have my eye on is about 12-15 acres of recent clear cut, just off the main highway. They are still finding something worthwhile, since I don’t see the behaviors you mention above – yet.

Cheers and thanks again for such a great site!

Rusty
Reply

Aaron,

Yes, we are definitely in a dearth. I still have some lacy phacelia, but it’s mostly spent. I see a few small patches of fireweed here and there, but the blackberries are done. The lemon balm is starting to bloom, but I don’t have enough to make a difference.

Nel
Reply

Interested in knowing if anyone feeds the bees during the dearth? Especially if they are a weak hive and have very few stores. We feed with Gunther Hauk’s (Spikenard Farm and Apiary, Floyd, Va) Herbal Bee Tea as our base for 1:1 sugar solution and add a pinch of salt and a tablespoon of honey.

We have fed a small struggling hive the last few weeks (very little stores) and they seem to be enjoying it. A swarm settled in a nuc in our apiary on July 6th. We moved them into a top-bar hive (a more permanent home) and offered them some bee tea and they left. Maybe robbing caused this? Or we were too interfering/helpful? I have recently read that we should leave the bees along during a dearth.

We have a 2-acre yard that is full of clover and the bees are enjoying it. I also plant plenty of oregano, basil, hyssop, anise hyssop, catnip and motherwort.

We’ve been keeping bees for 3 years and they always make us feel like “newbees”. I like that part of beekeeping and do lots of “wondering” about what’s happening and why.

So enjoy all of your blogs! Very very helpful!!

Nel

Gus
Reply

Rusty,

If the bees are bringing in pollen are they also bringing in nectar?

Rusty
Reply

Gus,

Not necessarily. Lots of plants produce pollen that don’t produce nectar.

Bill Castro
Reply

Rusty, one aspect to beekeeping is to also be an expert phenologist. I believe that we must be expert phenologists BEFORE beekeeping…if we don’t it makes it that much harder for our bees to naturalize and for the beekeeper to know if the area can support honey bees…1 behavior I recognize right away during a dearth is the pace at which foragers exit the hive…more slowly and less vigor…but then the summer flows come and the foragers whip right out with purpose and direction.

All the best from Baltimore!!!

Silvia
Reply

Hello every one.! Question, can I put back in the hive some of the honeycomb removed from my wall?. ( I had to remove honeycombs and bees from my garage wall)

Also, some of the honeycomb is darker color, I can see it has pollen and honey, that is the one I want to reintroduce to the hive.

Rusty
Reply

Silvia,

Yes, absolutely you can put some of the comb in the hive. Tie it into a frame or onto a top bar using string, rubber bands or anything else that will hold it in place for a few days while the bees attach it permanently.

Darker color comb is older; the more it is reused by the bees, the darker it gets.

Monica
Reply

The girls tap the windows of the house or land on me when I am outside and crawl up towards my head. (I’m in the OR pnw)

In the last few years I fed my hive during the dearth. It’s was more of a proactive approach to keep a much stronger hive from robbing out my hive. I would set out 1/2 gallon of 50-50 and it would be gone in about 10 mins. It was great to watch and saved my hive from being overwhelmed. That severely aggressive hive died out this winter, so I don’t need to be so proactive now.

However I do feed 3 small hives. 50/50 mix with HiveAlive added. One of the hives is a cut out, and won’t survive without the supplemental feeding and the other two are rescue swarms. One of the swarms was sooo small – maybe 30 beez. So I am keeping it just in the off chance I loose a queen and need to re-queen.

I plant a large garden – I am constantly mentally assessing what is flowering and what is ready for harvest. For example, the snow peas and shelling peas have a short season. So as soon as harvest is done – I till, let the ground set for 3 days and reseed with a flowering cover crop. This year it’s buckwheat. It comes up in a couple days and flowers in 3ish weeks.

I also plan ahead and grow lots of sunflowers which are blooming for me right now.
And I love the mint family!! My favorite at the moment is Apple Mint and Walkers Low Catnip. They are tough, hard working plants that provide lots of flowers in dearth time for me. The deer don’t eat them so no protection is need. The voles dislike the mint family and the moles either avoid it or it’s not bothered by the tunneling.

One last beekeeper favorite right now is borage! Plant a few plants through your garden and let them go to seeds – you will never have to buy plants or seed again! They come up all spring, summer and fall for me. I now have so many I pull them like weeds. I love plants I don’t have to fuss with. 🙂 I also water everything. Plants in dry winds and heat can’t produce nectar without water.

This time of year I am wondering around the streets I don’t normally drive down, checking out what’s in bloom and if anything is working it. I feel like a plant detective, I’ll come across a plant/tree I have no idea what it is. I’ll take pics and then spend my late evenings finding the plant online and seeing if it’s applicable for me. I either dump the info in my ‘flower book’ or I put it in my order list. It’s a lot of work : ))

Kris
Reply

I, or my bees, are fortunate. Alfalfa is grown on the thousands of acres surrounding me in my rural community. The downside is that the farmers only allow the alfalfa to be in bloom for a couple weeks – just enough for the alfalfa to develop its maximum protein potential. It is then cut. The upside is that at any given moment between May and September, there is a large plot of alfalfa in bloom somewhere, so the bees have plenty of forage all season long.

Alfalfa honey is light colored and deliciously sweet and fragrant, but it also tends to crystallize rapidly (within 4 months of being harvested). It is similar to the crystallization of creamed honey once crystallized so that is a plus. I have had incredible honey crops the past three years I have been beekeeping thanks to the alfalfa.

Stacey
Reply

Yes, I have noticed that my bees get more defensive indeed. I was just on the receiving end of much more aggressive behavior from my bees (who are usually very gentle) during a nectar dearth. No fun for me or for them!

Peter
Reply

Hummingbirds also collect nectar and are affected by a dearth. If you find you’re filling up your hummingbird feeder more regularly it may be a sign.

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