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Summer nectar dearth and honey bee management

If you are in the northern hemisphere, there’s a good chance you are in a nectar dearth or approaching one. A nectar dearth is simply a shortage of nectar-producing flowers. Summer dearths are usually caused by high temperatures, a lack of rainfall, or both. Honey bee workers may become irritable, or they may beard on the hive and begin ditching the drones. Sometimes they begin visiting plants they previously had no interest in.

Provide water for your bees

A certain proportion of the water in the honey bee diet comes from nectar. So along with the nectar dearth comes a shortage of water. Unless your bees have a reliable natural source of water, consider setting up a watering hole. It can be as simple or complex as you like. Even though my own hives are near year-round water, they readily visit the water I provide on hot summer days. A saucer filled with water and rocks or marbles will keep them happy.

Removing honey supers

Depending on your individual situation, you may want to harvest before the nectar dearth begins. I find it much easier to handle the bees while they are still collecting because they remain focused on what they are doing rather than being defensive. Not only does the harvesting seem to go easier, but you also avoid the problem of attracting robbers with honey drips. Then too, if you wait too long to harvest, your honey stores may completely disappear.

Robbing caused by nectar dearth

With any luck, you will notice the dearth long before you notice robbing. Honey robbing is an inevitable consequence of dearth, yet it is something you can plan for in advance. I used to wait until I saw signs of dearth to make preparations, but now I prepare before the signs appear. Robbing is no fun. Regardless of whether your bees are perps or victims, you’re far better off to prevent it.

Colonies that get robbed can lose all the stores they have collected, and usually a lot of lives are lost in the fighting. Robbing bees can bring home the goods along with viruses, brood diseases, mites, and other parasites.

Robbers arrive from many places. They may come from your own hives, from neighboring hives, or from feral colonies. They may also come in the form of yellowjackets or other wasps that are interested in a meal of bee protein but are happy to have the honey as well. Shortages of food affect many species, so you never know who might show up for dinner. It’s best to be ready.

Dissuading the robbers

In my latest rendition of beekeeping, I keep the upper entrances confined to the honey supers so when I take off the supers, the upper entrances are gone too. I seldom open the bottom entrance more than about four inches, but depend on the super holes for extra doors. That means that during the nectar flow they have plenty of space, bottom and top, for ingress and egress. But come nectar dearth, simply removing the honey supers prepares them against robbing.

I now use robbing screens on all splits, swarms, and nucs as soon as I set them up. I figure that all three are nascent colonies that can use a little extra help. So I add the robbing screen right from the git-go. If they become strong enough for a honey super, they will gain an extra entrance along with each honey super I add.

Robbing screens

A robbing screen used during a nectar dearth.
Robbing screens keep away robbers and other predators, especially during a nectar dearth.

If you don’t want to build robbing screens, a number of companies have them available for sale. My favorite is the one made by BeeSmart Designs. They are made of plastic, will fit both 8- and 10-frame Langstroths, and install easily with a set of four push pins. I put them on my splits and newly captured swarms and leave them on. If you buy them along with the BeeSmart bottom board, you get a mouse guard as well. I’ve used them with both the BeeSmart bottom board and my standard wooden bottom boards with good results.

Preparing for the nectar dearth

To prepare for nectar death, you should at least close down the entrances to a size commensurate with the strength of the colony. A huge and feisty colony can guard a lot more space than a small or weak one, so consider their overall strength before you close them down too far.

Limit the number of times you open the hive during dearth. Each time you open the hive you break cells and send their odor out into the environment where it can be picked up by potential evil-doers. If opening is necessary, keep it short, and try to harvest either before or after dearth, if at all possible.

Some say that harvesting during dearth is fine because all colonies are open and therefore each is busy defending itself. There is some truth to that, but it doesn’t account for colonies not in your apiary, or for yellowjackets and wasps.

Likewise, some people say open feeding is better during a dearth because you won’t accidentally spill syrup in a hive and attract robbers. On the other hand, open feeding causes fighting and agitation among honey bees, attracts other predators, and often results in a considerable amount of bee death. If you must feed during a dearth, experiment to see what works best in your area.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

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Comments

Mike
Reply

Thx for the good info. I’ve noticed my hives just lack activity right now. Some pollen coming in but not the hustle they showed earlier this spring. Could be just a “dearth”. 😳.

Mike

Rusty
Reply

Mike,

Also remember that we are now in the contraction phase. From now until late December, colonies will be getting smaller.

Steve Riley
Reply

Tremendous article as always – thank you Rusty

We are not the biggest fans of open feeding due to the high risk of disease transfer from colony to colony. Internal feeding, hive by hive where required, plus small entrances (down to 1 to 2 bee space if necessary) or robbing screens, seem to do the trick.

Steve
(South East England)

Rusty
Reply

Steve,

I agree. I think open feeding is the worst idea ever.

JoAnne
Reply

I looked on the Bee Smart website and can’t find the robbing screens. Is it an old product they no longer make or so new they don’t have it on the website? I am interested in buying one to try. The kind I use now are a combo robbing/moving screen, depending on which tabs you open/close. They are way too fragile (weak screens and floppy tabs to open and close) and I have had them slip off while moving a colony, resulting in me driving an hour in my beesuit with plenty of angry bees flying around in the vehicle, on a hot day to boot.

Rusty
Reply

JoAnne,

The robbing screens are a new product. I don’t know why they are not on the website, but you can find them here at Midnight Bee Supply.

JoAnne
Reply

Thanks Rusty.

Deb Corcoran
Reply

Good morning Rusty, There isn’t a dearth here yet in Western Catskills with so much rain we have been having. There is an abundant amount of UNCAPPED nectar in the hives so far and not much of our usual yellow Spring honey but a medium dark with a reddish glow, so they are visiting other plants as you mentioned above. I keep adding supers. Any insight on how to get them to cap the honey? We have entrances in the supers so ventilation isn’t a problem unless it’s too much? Deb

Rusty
Reply

Deb,

It sounds like you have a good set-up. The bees will cap the honey when they decide it’s ready. They can do it quickly, so I wouldn’t worry about it. In fact, I just put some uncapped frames back in a hive so they can finish up. I don’t know how to encourage them—they work on their own schedule.

Gladys Hutson
Reply

I have to add some things to the comment about harvesting honey. Beekeepers need to keep in mind that the honey that their bees made is the bee’s honey…not ours!!! When I am too greedy and take too much honey, I am possibly setting my bees up for failure. (I know because I have done this in the past!) A beekeeper must ALWAYS evaluate how much honey the bees have in the brood boxes and leave (possible a super) of the honey for the bees. In late spring, the brood boxes may be full of brood and not really that much food. Leaving at least one super of honey for each hive gives the bees the food stores that they need. Because I plant many, many flowers for my bees, I see that super of honey disappear and then be refilled throughout the summer just from different flowers that come into bloom in my area. This allows my queens to lay that wall to wall pattern in the brood boxes and my bees still have enough food to survive.

Rusty
Reply

Gladys,

Very true. I’ve written about this before in “Whose honey is it? Unfortunately, I can’t repeat everything in every post, or they would be miles long!

Tim
Reply

Having a few birdbaths around our woods for the birds and squirrels, the bees congregate at one in particular during these hot days of summer. Hmmm, how to keep them safe. Well, I live in area rich with ancient ocean sea shells that are constantly being pulled from the cliffs of the rivers by frequent storms. These shells, being ridden with marine worm holes, looked to be the perfect bee watering device. So i placed a few large scallop shells in the bird baths. The bees adapted quickly to them. Sometimes as many as 50 bees will be sitting on these shells casually sipping water that is drawn up and available in the tiny marine worm cavities.

I would send a picture if I knew how!

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

I would love to see, and perhaps post, a photo of your shell waterer. Attach a photo to an email and send to rusty@honeybeesuite.com.

Simon Prepadnik
Reply

Hello,

Thank you for your advice. I follow your updates regularly and really enjoy them.

When do you start feeding them for winter? I start when the honey flow ends but am always afraid of robbing. I was told it’s better to feed early when there’s a lot of summer bees to build up stores and not to tire the autumn winter bees. I use feeders under top covers and reduce their entrances to 2 inch bottom entrance and one hole in the bottom super. After adding the feed (in the evening) there is always a lot of bees flying around the hive the next day. I use 7.5 liter feeders because I am not close to my bee yard so I add new feed every week.

Rusty
Reply

Simon,

I try to manage my bees so that I don’t have to feed them. Honey is the best food for bees, so if I can avoid giving them syrup, I do. Where I live, winters are not especially cold, but they are long and wet. I like to leave 80 pounds of honey on each hive, which is 8 or 9 full deep frames.

I generally remove my supers at the end of June. I freeze the frames overnight and then store them. If for some reason the bees don’t have enough frames of honey come winter, I can take some of these frames and give them back to the bees. Usually, however, they can make up the 80 pounds or so on the fall flow.

To me, sugar syrup is emergency feed, so I don’t give them syrup unless there’s an emergency. I do, however, give them candy boards in winter whether they need them or not, just as an emergency supply in case they can’t get to their honey frames.

Michael Judd
Reply

Rusty,

Your post is interesting about robbers. I did not know that bearding was a sign of summer nectar dearth. I have two that are doing that and it has not rained here for nearly 3 months. In this area we definitely have a dearth in July and August. I was interested in your robbing screens and wanted to see what they looked like to see if I could make one or buy one. However your link did not come up with anything. I actually found some photos in Google. Those incidentally looked just like the latest Asian Hornet muzzle that my beekeeper friend who is also a carpenter made. I have taken photos of these 3 devices and will send them to your blog Asian hornet section so as to keep subjects in order.

best regards Michael

Rusty
Reply

Michael,

I don’t know that I would say bearding is a sign of nectar dearth, but it correlates with nectar dearth because of high temperatures. The hives are hot and often the bees are less busy because there is nothing to collect, so they tend to hang around.

I will contact the manufacturer of the robbing screens for a photo and better link.

Michael Judd
Reply

Rusty,

Thank you so much

BTW. You did write a very good article – Thank you

Michael

Jason
Reply

I’m i first year newbie here in Eugene, Or. My one hive has has filled their upper deep with honey and has just started to draw comb in the super I added a few weeks ago. The blackberries are almost done blooming. I would like to at least get the comb in the super drawn out to give them a head start for next year. Would you recommend feeding one-to-one syrup during the summer nectar dearth in order to get this accomplished or let them forage and just feed two-to-one in the fall?

Rusty
Reply

Jason,

As for feeding, see my answer to Simon, above. If you have two full brood boxes, you probably don’t need to feed, but that’s up to you. I don’t ever feed if I don’t have to, after all bees are meant to eat honey. On the other hand, if your mission is to get the honey super drawn out, feeding syrup might accomplish that, or might not. In any case, the syrup may encourage robbers.

Mikey N.C.
Reply

Rusty,

Thanks for all the great information on your site.I live in the sandhills N.C. 3rd yr. Trying to keep bees. I’ve learned that we don’t have much of a fall flow like others in different parts of the US.

Still learning.
Thanks

Gladys Hutson
Reply

I live in North Carolina. The fall can be one of the best times to build up food stores for my bees. Here in Southern Union County, the Golden Rod is already starting to bloom (Late July!!). Last year they collected pollen and nectar from August to October. I noticed different species blooming continually through the fall of 2016. This does depend on the rain fall from year to year. Some of it produces nectar, some produce pollen. Also, several types of aster blooms and lately I have found a wild camphor blooming. I want to try to propagate it. You find camphor in some varroa treatments.

Many beekeepers do not know what is blooming in their area. I am blessed with natural areas all around my property and I grow a lot of different things for my bees.

I still keep an eye on their stores, but last year, did not have to feed them at all.

Mike2
Reply

Rusty,

Thanks for all the informative blogs you put out regularly. You mention that try to avoid going into the hive as little as possible, especially doing the dearth, but yet, I’m told to feed, feed, feed, because of the dearth. I think all of this comes down to what the beekeeper is comfortable for his/her hives. I could ask 6 beekeepers their opinion and get 12 answers. It gets confusing but I’m learning to figure it out on my own.

Rusty
Reply

Mike,

With the right equipment, you can feed without opening the hive. I use one of those one-gallon feeders that goes on top of the roof. No opening involved.

John Zone 5
Reply

Have you tried open feeding? I have always read to avoid this, but there are now many experienced beekeepers on youtube that feed this way and have no problems. They say you get less robbing because all the bees are kept busy and full. It seems like an easy way to feed multiple colonies.

Rusty
Reply

John,

I saw it once when I was working at the prison. It was a total fiasco, bringing in every wasp, hornet, ant, and fly from miles around. Plus, I think it actually increased robbing. Not at first but later. Once all the feral bees and wasps learned where the food was, they fanned out and found the hives. Not only that, it is a free-for-all for disease transmission. Feral hives or hives from other apiaries can share foulbrood, mites, viruses, whatever. The winter following that experiment, a hive came down with AFB, the first time we’d ever seen it at that location. I have to admit, though, that bees at open feeding stations make compelling YouTubes.

Anna
Reply

Question: if you have uncapped super frames once the dearth starts, will it ever get capped? Someone commented that the bees won’t cap those cells because the flowers from which the nectar was gathered are no longer blooming. Will the bees not mix nectars in cells? It’s something I always wondered and now that I have roughly 5 supers of uncapped stores, I’d like an answer to!

Rusty
Reply

Anna,

Nearly all honey is polyfloral. Even varietal honeys are only “predominantly” one floral type. So-called wildflower honey, meadow honey, spring honey are all mixed nectar. Although pollen analysis isn’t definitive (because some pollen can arrive airborne), it is still amazing to look at a sample of honey and see all the different types of pollen. When I open just one cell and look at it under the microscope, I see many kinds of pollen. The statement that “the bees won’t cap those cells because the flowers from which the nectar was gathered are no longer blooming” is nonsense, espoused by someone who isn’t going to let facts get in the way.

The usual reason for uncapped cells is the bees didn’t “think” it was ready to cap. It may look ready to us, but it may be at 19% water, rather than 17% or so. If you can’t shake it out when you invert the frames, it is really close. Unlike brood cells that are capped one-by-one, honey bees build a sheet over the ready-to-cap areas. This is why the honey caps lay flatter than brood caps, and it’s why you see portions of frames capped or uncapped, not individual cells uncapped in a field of capped ones. When the bees think a certain area is ready, they sheet it over.

In The Hive and the Honey Bee (2015) Kirsten Traynor writes about the stages of honey curing. The very last stage is passive, meaning the bees have done everything they can, and finally they just have to wait for the last bits of moisture to leave. This apparently is just the last few percentage points, and the moisture is eventually forced out from heat rising from the cluster. Once it’s right, they will cap.

Now, if the cluster it too small this could take a long time, so as the summer progresses and colonies get smaller, it could take a longer time. It may never be capped. Last week I harvested some uncapped frames and put them over a larger colony for capping. I checked this morning, and they are just about done, with just a few rows remaining at the bottom.

If you want to extract the honey, you can. I would first try to shake it out. If it won’t budge, extract a frame and test it with a refractometer. If it’s within range, go ahead and extract the rest. If it’s right on the border, you can refrigerate or freeze it.

Anna
Reply

Ah, thank you so much for the thorough response. The poly-floral honey is understood (I sell mine as wildflower due to lack of large areas of singular blooms).

The bit about covering the cells as a sheet goes a long way toward explaining the presence of large swaths of uncapped cells. And that the last “push” of evaporation is actually passive.

The colonies are very well sized but the humidity in MD has been brutal. I may experiment with a screened inner cover to see if that helps.

Thank you, this was the most coherent answer I have ever received regarding this issue. (Knew I could count on a reasonable explanation from you Rusty!)

Rusty
Reply

Anna,

Yes, I find the screened inner covers make a big difference. They give all that moist hot air a place to go.

JoAnne

Do your screened inner covers also have a hole in the center like a standard inner cover has? It’s pretty humid in Minnesota too and my colonies have several supers full but not capped. I have screened boards that I use for moving swarms and colonies but they obviously don’t have a hole in the center. I’m wondering if those will work. I’m thinking they would since the hole is used for a feeder pail and I’m certainly not feeding them now. Taking it a step further, would a shim between the screened cover (with no center hole) and the outer telescoping cover provide even more space for that warm humid air to go?

Rusty

JoAnne,

I’m not sure I understand your questions. My screened inner covers do not have a hole. They let warm air out but don’t allow predators, moths, etc. to enter. My screened inner covers, like those sold commercially, have built-in shims that hold the telescoping cover away from the screen on two sides. This allows warm air to flow though the screen and then out the two non-shimmed sides. It’s not like an attic that would hold the warm air in because the air is free to leave to the outside.

JoAnne

Thanks Rusty. I should have searched for screened inner cover. Your 2012 post on how to make one was the 2nd hit! I think I can modify mine to work. Thanks again for all the great info.

Fred
Reply

My Bee Guy (who brings hives that have done their duty in an apple orchard) to spend their summer in our back yard, came over to add two more supers to each of 12 hives, said that upon opening his truck door, got stung immediately (Just a reminder LOL) then got no more grief from the workers. Timing of the rains has been promising, the basswood had just finished blossoming. Next year we will try doing some honeycomb packages. He says too often the bees just chew up the foundation and use it elsewhere in the hive. It has been an interesting summer!

Fred

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