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Why won’t my bees store honey?

Why? Because conditions are not right. Pure and simple.

This time of year, new beekeepers are asking why their bees will not fill the honey supers or even visit the supers. Some report their bees walking around inside only to leave again, uninterested. Some blame queen excluders. Others believe they are doing something wrong. But most want to know how to “make” their bees store honey.

First off, you can’t make a honey bee do much of anything. Like teaching a pig to sing, you might be able to encourage certain behaviors, but it might not be in your best interest.

A colony needs time to establish

Let’s look at what happens when a new beekeeper starts a colony in a new hive. New bees—whether in a package or in a nuc—most often arrive in the spring. Spring is when most major honey flows occur, but a new colony has a lot of work to do before it can begin storing surplus honey.

Most pressing is raising lots of young. To do that the colony needs to build brood comb and collect food to feed the young. It needs to feed drones. It needs to fill the pantry with supplies, but first it has to build the pantry. It needs to collect water to cool the hive. It needs to defend itself. All of these chores take lots of energy which is readily available because it is spring and flowers are abundant.

New colonies expand on the nectar flow

From the beekeeper point of view, the hive is exploding and will soon be able to fill the honey supers. But just when you eagerly plop the honey supers atop the hive, the spring flows are winding down. The days get warmer and the flowers get scarce. You’ve raised your bees on the spring flow, but the flow is over and the bees have no motivation to draw out your supers because there is nothing to store.

When the nectar flows dry up, the days get hot, and the hours of daylight are less—think summer solstice—a colony shrinks the brood nest. Not as many bees are necessary to keep things going, so less space is devoted to nursery. The shrinking nest allows more nectar to be stored in the immediate area, and the bees will fill this instead of filling the supers.

A nuc has a much better chance of putting away some surplus the first year simply because part of the work is already done. But regardless of how the colony starts, it needs to get through the to-do list before it begins storing surplus.

Other factors also affect how much honey a colony will store, regardless of whether it is new or old. The climate and local weather is critical as is overall colony strength, genetics, available forage, and environmental stressors.

It’s all about the flowers

A beekeeper has to understand both the rise and fall of colony populations and the ebb and flow of nectar. In most places in North America, for example, we have one or more strong spring flows, followed by a dearth in mid-summer and, in most areas, a fall flow that may or may not materialize. These patterns vary depending on where you live, but once you learn the bloom schedule in your specific area, you will have a better idea of what to expect from year to year. Remember, beekeeping is all about the flowers.

Great expectations

I think it is a mistake for a new beekeeper to expect a crop the first year. There are exceptions, of course. But we all can’t be the exception.

Tricking your bees into building in the supers by baiting them with a frame of honey, for example, is not always the best thing to do. If you get them to store honey in the supers before the brood boxes are full, you may end up harvesting honey that they need for winter survival. You—and they—are better off if they are allowed to fill up the brood boxes first. Then, if they are healthy and make it through the winter, your bees can build up before the spring flow instead of building up during the spring flow, and you will gets lots of honey.

A word about queen excluders

Through the years, I have waffled over the use of excluders. I used to believe—as many others do—that queen excluders are honey excluders. In the past, I always put a section super directly above the brood box and it usually kept the queen away. But after more than a few ruined sections, I’ve gone back to queen excluders.

I’ve discovered that with an excluder, the bees will be more apt to store below it at first. But this gives them a good honey supply for winter because they fill every nook and cranny of the brood boxes. Once the boxes are full, however, the colony will burst through the excluder and fill up supers in a matter of days. It depends on the strength of the flow of course. This year I had nothing in the supers, nothing, still nothing, discouraging nothing, than bam! Full in a few days. Crazy full. Need-help-lifting-them full.

Sure, some colonies did not pass through the excluder, but I don’t think they would have stored surplus anyway. Not all colonies are created equal, and not all colonies will provide surplus every year.

A word about patience

We are used to instant gratification. We want honey and we want it now. But nurturing bees is more than collecting their honey. If we concentrate too much on the end product, we are missing the wonder of honey bees. The question, “How soon can I get honey?” always worries me. So does the beekeeper who buys an extractor along with his first package. Harvesting should not be your first thought.

This, I think, is why the hype about the Flow hive annoys me. All the concentration, all the focus, in fact the whole purpose of the Flow hive is to take the bees’ honey quicker and easier. Proponents say it’s better for the bees, gentler (as if stealing someone’s food supply is ever “gentle”). But when a first-time beekeeper starts with a Flow hive, his focus is already on the harvest. He’s calculating what’s in it for him­ before he’s ever seen a bee up close and personal.

If you take time to become a good beekeeper, you will have plenty of honey. You will have honey for years and years and years. Learn how the system works and your honey crops will come.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Flowers-and-patience
Flowers + bees + patience = honey. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Jesslyn Howgate
Reply

Absolutely great advice. After five years of beekeeping I learned a lot from this article Rusty.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Jesslyn. Glad it was useful.

Alex
Reply

Great article. I think it’s ok to shuffle a board up if you know your nectar flow pattern. But if you’re a first year beekeeper, spend your time learning about your bees and most importantly YOUR bees’ feeding area. Joining a local beekeeping group is great and helpful, just remember that because one person who lives 10 miles from you has a amazing nectar flow doesn’t mean that you will! For me I have my bees next to my hay field and before my last cut I let the fields seed out. When this happens I have a great August nectar flow for 2-3 weeks that I know is coming, so in mid-summer I have more flexibility then friends who live only 4 miles down the road. It takes a few years to know what to expect but once you do, it really helps!!

Rusty
Reply

Absolutely right, Alex.

Pam
Reply

Great comments and I SO feel the same way about harvesting honey. I don’t even want to harvest, and then feed them so they can make it up. I kinda feel that’s unfair to them ☺️ I am in my third year and still have some learnin’ to do. Every year has been different so far. Thank you Rusty.

Jim Burns
Reply

So encouraging.
You are truly a Blessed and gifted person.
Thank you for sharing.

Amy B
Reply

Rusty, I have been reading you for over a year. Wonderful stuff, beautifully written, and I can really relate to your approach to bees, nature AND science! Thank you for doing this blog. I think it’s unique for what’s out there.

About this entry, echoing Jesslyn: I’m in my 4th year, but learned a lot. Especially middle graph on queen excluders. Also, very belatedly thanks for your post on moving a hive a short distance. Last summer I followed instructions and it worked perfectly.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Amy.

Ronald Shenberger
Reply

Thank you for this article about why bees will not store honey. I am just getting started and all new information is helpful. I do not yet have bees and do not anticipate having them until spring of 2016 after I have taken classes. I do not anticipate a harvest until the second year following establishing a healthy hive. I have two different types of hive on order an Eco Bee Box and a Flow Hive. I understand your concern about early harvester of honey. I am interested in Flow Hive primarily because I did not want to invest in lots of equipment for which I do not have space, money or time. I want to learn about beekeeping by observing and propagating two hives. Not all of us are in it for the quick take.

Rusty
Reply

Ronald,

“I did not want to invest in lots of equipment for which I do not have space, money or time.” That’s an odd statement from someone who just bought the most expensive beehive on the market. Hope it works out for you. I love the Eco Bee Box, by the way. Nice equipment.

Shannon
Reply

Rusty, thank you for this article. I’m a 2nd year beekeeper. We got about 20 lbs of honey off of our 2 hives this year, but we left much more than we took. It was our first harvest, so it was pretty exciting. I have a great mentor who told me straight away that I wouldn’t get any honey my first year. But I’m so interested in the well-being of the bees, that the honey is secondary to me. It makes it that much more special to me every time I eat it. And you put into words exactly what I couldn’t articulate about the Flow hive. The focus shouldn’t be solely on the end result, but about the health and happiness of the bees themselves.

Mike Riter
Reply

Excellent! Very educational.

Tom F
Reply

Great article full of valuable beekeeping wisdom. Thank you for your advice. You are a gifted teacher.

Michael
Reply

My only hive last year had a few frames of honey in the brood boxes but still starved (They were JUST out of reach). So this year I shared the pre-drawn frames of wax and honey between two new packages. It’s amazing how fast they multiplied. Both hives now have enough honey for themselves and one hive has produced about 5 frames for me.

Peter
Reply

Hi Rusty! Thanks for a great read. I’m a new beekeeper and I think I’ve done a good job of going into this hobby with the intention of learning about bees vs when will I get honey. Thank being said, I am a little worried about my bees. Perhaps you can help me. Here is the scenario as best as I can describe. I have first year bees. I have one colony. I’m attempting to be an urban keeper so this colony in my back yard in a relatively large city. The colony has managed to only reach two 8 frame deep broad boxes. I have yet to but on a super nor will this year because I intend to winterize them. Problem I feel, is that at this time of the year there is probably in total just one frame worth of honey stored. Is this something I should be concerned about? Why have the bees not stored any honey for themselves this late in the season? Is this a sign that I’ve done something in correct. The queen is still laying broad down which I feel is a good sign.

Any help from you or anyone would be wonderful.

Peter

Rusty
Reply

Peter,

Depending on your climate, you will need 40 to 90 pounds of honey to overwinter a colony. One deep frame of honey weighs about 8 pounds, so you will have to do a lot of feeding to get them through the winter. Why did they not store more? There could be many reasons, such as an extended summer dearth. It’s probably not anything you did, but you will have to stay on it now.

Michelle
Reply

Rusty,
I have a new hive as of early May this year. I did not take honey this year as they started laying brood in the honey super during the hot drought we had in Georgia this year. The super is full again now with honey but only 1 deep brood box filled. I have a second empty box on bottom they had barely started drawing on at last check. I am leaving the super on for them this winter. I rescued a failing hive last week from someone that had open heart surgery and cannot manage the hive. The hive seems very weak. I will open it tomorrow to see its condition. I have not been able to get into due to long work hours. I am really concerned if enough bees in this hive to overwinter. I will feed them syrup and sugar patties this winter. Any recommendations?

Rusty
Reply

Michelle,

If both hives appear to be disease free, consider combining them into one strong hive for the winter. Then, if the hive overwinters successfully, you can always split it in the spring.

Michelle
Reply

I had thought about that but the second hive is not mine. I just went out when i got home and have orientation flight going on so i am pleased with that. When all settles down in a bit I will go in and see what is really going on in there. Temp here is still in the 90s and expected to be in the mid 80s next week. I am hoping this queen has enough time to lay for another week or so .

Michelle
Reply

Update…

This hive is a mess. There a lot more bees than when we first opened it to put mite away on it.
When i went in to do inspection i cannot pull up the frames due to comb stretching from frame to frame. The one frame i could get up had what looks like burr comb from one of your other threads. These girls do not know how to draw out their comb. I cannot see in where the brood and if any honey stored. I am afraid to cut between the frames at this time since i have no idea if brood in there. Should i wait until spring to try to remove this erratic comb? The owner of this hive was more of a hands off manager.

Rusty
Reply

Michelle,

I would cut apart the frames as soon as possible, otherwise you cannot do thorough inspections. Even if you have to cut through some brood, go ahead and do it. Just make sure your queen is in a safe place before you cut.

Debbie
Reply

Rusty, what about just the opposite .. the bees totally filling the brood nest with nectar so there is no room for the queen to lay. I am finding this in the hives I saw last week. The one hive, new pkg. from April 18th, had only four frames of brood in bottom brood box, all second brood box honey, super honey, all bottom brood box backfilled w/nectar as the bees emerge, no more room for queen to lay. Would this be ‘normal’ for this time of year? I haven’t seen this before at this magnitude. It seems this year the bees are shutting down so early. Any thoughts ? Plus, the bees have been swarming left and right this year. Leaving so much honey reserves. It’s quite a baffling bee year around here. It seems like we’ve been requeening like crazy and the bees are not producing bees, but honey ! It’s only July 5th, why would they be backfilling that nest now and leaving no room for brood ?

Rusty
Reply

Debbie,

Backfilling the brood nest is one way the workers control the nest size. If they have a compelling reason to restrict the queen’s egg laying, that’s how they usually do it. Shrinking the brood nest is absolutely normal and to be expected at this time of year. As I wrote last month, once the summer solstice hits, nest shrinking begins. I wouldn’t say this is early, rather it’s right on time.

Lots of swarming means you have strong, healthy colonies and excellent queens. Only the strongest and most robust hives can swarm, so that is a sign of vitality, a sign of success.

The most baffling thing is your comment about requeening. Why would you requeen a colony if you have a vibrant layer that produces lots of swarms and lots of honey? Isn’t that what we’re all trying to produce? You are not likely to be so lucky once you change queens. Not every queen is a better queen.

Debbie
Reply

We have been requeening colonies because they were swarming left and right, and queens are disappearing from the hives in the packages we put in. Also, the virgin queens have not been making it back to the hives. A lot of queens from spring packages have been drone layers. This is not a good queen year. (for us anyway) I have not requeened the honey producing hives, only the hives that are queenless. The requeening did not apply to that particular hive situation. I am sorry, I mixed thoughts here! I understand they shrink the brood nest down, but I never saw them, this early in the year, totally shutting down the queen and backfilling each and every space. I am wondering if it is an exceptional nectar year where they are pulling in so much that there is no where for them to put it and they are hoarding it everywhere. The bottom brood box frames were merged together and had no room for the bees to move around at all it was so jam packed. Good for honey production, but not good for a bee nest. It just seemed weird to me to see this in so many hives and it only being the beginning of July. Usually when one does inspections they see brood, larvae and eggs, not entire brood frames backfilled with honey and no place for her to lay, not even one cell! Just an amazing bee year around here.

The one colony had over 100,000 bees! It had two brood boxes, three supers, a slat rack, and still didn’t have enough room for all the bees, I am surprised it did not swarm, and I’ve been in these hives every two weeks to check on them and it seems one will do an inspection and all will be fine, then two weeks later, the hive has completely changed its dynamics. I am just so awed by the bees this year and what they are doing and producing. They are totally amazing, it makes me wonder tho. The one old time beekeeper said he thinks it will be an early frost and winter because of how they are doing this year. I guess we’ve had so many easy winters we may be due for a hard one. Will be interesting to see how this all pans out. Thanks Rusty! I won’t worry so much now!

Bob
Reply

Rusty

Thank you for your wisdom. Flow hive is what interested me in bee keeping before I started reading about bees. I really don’t care about the honey, I care about the bees. My question is if the supers are doing great can I add another or is that too much….. I found you because my honey supers have a lot of bees but there not making honey.. if they make honey but not full in the honey super, should i leave it on in the winter?

Thank You
Bob

Rusty
Reply

Bob,

You can add another super, but at this late date they may just hang around in it and not build. I don’t favor leaving a lot of empty space in a winter hive because it is harder for the bees to police and maintain. Extra space is an invitation to predators. So go ahead and add the super if you want, but before cold weather sets in, try to consolidate the frames and eliminate extra space. It’s not clear to me if you are using Flow supers or standard ones, but consolidating with flow frames might be impossible. In any case, my guess is they won’t use the extra super.

Bob
Reply

Rusty,

Thank you for your help. I have 2 hives 1 with 2 supers and a honey super #2, 2 supers with a flow hive on top.
I started the hives late June they seem to be doing well. I feed them once and they emptied the jars in 4 days,
Should I keep feeding them since I’m not going to collect honey this year.

Thank You
Bob

Rusty
Reply

Bob,

Usually I can figure out people’s terminology, but you’re confusing me. You have 1 hive with two supers and a honey super? Do you mean three supers in addition to your brood boxes, or are you calling your brood boxes “supers?” Then the other has two regular supers and a flow super on top of your brood boxes? Supers go on top of brood boxes (they are “super”structures).

Well, whatever you’re trying to say, just make sure you have about 80 or 90 pounds of honey on each. Then you can stop feeding.

See “English for Beekeepers.”

Chris
Reply

Rusty,

I live in a suburb of Denver, Colorado and obtained 2 Russian nucs on May 2nd of this year from Arkansas. Although certified as being healthy and low Varroa counts, I had to treat both mid-season (June 26th) with oxalic acid which seemed to do the trick. That being said, I did have one weaker (Varroa count of 26) hive swarm on me and they weren’t able to requeen successfully. My remaining hive is OK but the queen is laying sparsely and they have VERY little reserve capped honey anywhere on their frames. There seems to be plenty of pollen stores but very little honey. I put on a 2nd 8-frame deep brood box mid-May because they seemed to be growing nicely then and about 80% full but they have not used the 2nd deep brood box at all. I stopped feeding sugar syrup at the end of May. During my last inspection yesterday I added 3 built out frames from the other hive into the upper brood box to help them out. (I use wired wax foundations in all my frames).

My question is should I start now to feed them additional sugar syrup or wait another month to give them a boost for the winter? And how long into the fall should I feed them if they haven’t stored enough by the start of winter.

By the way, I am a beginner, Flow Jive user and have not added the honey super yet this year and have no expectations to get honey for myself. I realize it is all about the bees health. I just want to do right by my bees. The hives are housed in an 11′ x 11′ apiary shed with southerly access to go forage and I use a top feeder to prevent robbing.

Thanks for your time, Chris

Chris
Reply

oops, sorry about that. I meant to go back and put in my Varroa counts. The hive that swarmed on me had a count of 26 with a sugar shake test. My better hive that I still have had a Varroa count of 16 in June.

Tim
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Sorry I read your answer to Debbie, but mine is still the same, if the brood box is full of honey and brood will they move honey up to the super to make room for more brood or should i take out some honey frames and replace with empty so they can have more brood ? I am using a queen excluder.

Thanks for your time
Tim

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

Based on your email, I assume you’re in Australia, so it’s spring? No, your bees are not going to move honey up into the supers. If they get too crowded they may eventually swarm. You can move the frames around so they have more room for brood, especially the frames right above the brood box.

Tim
Reply

Yes Australia and a beautiful spring it is ….. my girls are working hard lol …. thank you very helpful

Bob
Reply

I’m in Chicago burbs if the broad boxes get to full and they don’t go up to the super add another broad box?

Rusty
Reply

Bob,

It depends on how many brood boxes are full. If they have two, I would make sure they’ve filled both before I added a third. At this time of year, your colony should be shrinking, not expanding. If you have two brood boxes, you may find few bees in the lowest one. If you want, you can just switch them so the fullest is on the bottom.

Bob
Reply

Very helpful information.

Thank you

jayprakash nawale
Reply

I have 25 honey box but not getting honey, so please inform ya. Help me.

Rusty
Reply

Not enough information here to help.

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