Why didn’t I get more honey?

It’s hard to say why honey production is so unpredictable. One year you get oceans of the stuff—maybe 200 pounds or more of harvestable honey per hive. The next year you get nothing—not even enough for the bees.

In truth, this variability is no different from any other crop, whether it be apples, tomatoes, corn, or cotton. There are great years and horrible years, but most fall in the middle.

I’ve seen various estimates for the average surplus crop in the United States. Surplus or “harvestable” honey is the amount of honey the beekeeper can take from the hive while still leaving enough for the bees. Here in the U.S. that number hovers around 40 pounds per hive—or about one medium super.

Of course, the amount varies according to where you live. States like North Dakota with vast areas of clover can out-produce areas covered in corn, wheat, or asphalt. Areas with long growing seasons can sometimes out-produce those with short growing seasons—but not always.

But even in a given location, your honey production will vary from year to year. We’ve all seen photos of colonies topped with 11 or 12 supers. But that is not typical. In fact, the reason those pictures were taken is that it is unusual. For every colony like that there are dozens—maybe hundreds—of colonies with one or two not-quite-full supers. Why?

More often than not it’s just a question of the local weather. Remember, beekeeping is all about flowers, and flowers are all about the weather.

Weather that is atypically hot, cold, dry, or wet will affect the ability of a plant to produce flowers and nectar. A late spring cold snap can freeze the buds. Excessive heat or drought can wither the blooms. Constant rain can dilute the nectar or prevent foraging. High winds can blow the flowers from trees or even topple them. And some great honey plants, such as black locust, just don’t flower every year.

Timing is critical as well. If the big bloom occurs before your bee populations are strong, you can lose a lot of nectar. The same is true if a bloom is followed by unseasonably cold, wet, or windy weather.

Unfortunately, it’s not only acts of nature that screw things up. Some invasive species that produce large and reliable crops of delicious honey, may suddenly come under attack by your local roads department, parks department, or other local, county, state, or private organization such as The Nature Conservancy. Some of these groups spray vast acreages with herbicide and destroy your crop. Invasive honey plants that come to mind are yellow star thistle, Himalayan blackberry, Japanese knotweed, purple loosestrife, and spotted knapweed.

Of course, there are many things a beekeeper can do to maximize the probability of having strong, populous hives during the honey flow. But if there is no strong flow, if the seasons and the weather don’t mesh in perfect harmony, there is very little you can do. The bees and the flowers are both at the mercy of larger forces.

Rusty

Spotted knapweed. Photo courtesy of Superior National Forest.
Spotted knapweed. Photo courtesy of Superior National Forest.

Comments

Jeff
Reply

Hey Rusty,

How effective is red clover as a nectar source for bees and what genre of honey bee is the most effective at collecting red clover nectar. I guess I am looking for the one with the longest probiscis to maximize nectar recovery.

I have to move the majority of my colonies off my property and a dairy farmer 15 minutes away has offered to let me put my bees on his land. At present he has 30 acres of new fields 0 – 1 year old of 30% red clover and balance timothy. Along with some older hay fields. Also is planning to try a new type of hardy alfalfa that is suppose to over winter well.

Also I can place as many colonies as I am comfortable with on his land. All it will cost me is a few bottles of honey in the fall. Sounds like a fair trade to me. Also there is some creeks and such as the land is not flat so it is predominanlty decidous treelined fields.

Thanks

Richard
Reply

I started beekeeping last year and collected plenty of honey from my hive before the bees just disappeared in the Autumn. This year, I thought I’d give it another go but with two hives, which I have placed next to each other. Therefore they are two new colonies of bees. Both have just one super each. One super is already almost full of capped honey but the other one has none! In this one the bees have only just made a start with building on the foundation. Any ideas?

Rusty
Reply

Richard,

It’s hard to say why one colony is stronger than another, but it could be the genetics of the queen, it could be due to a slow start, or it could be just chance. In any case, you might want to equalize your colonies and see if that helps. Take some brood frames from the stronger hive and give them to the weaker hive, making sure you don’t transfer the queen. If you can boost the population of the weak hive, they may still be able to put away some winter stores. You may also want to replace the queen. Some queens are stronger than others, just like some humans are stronger than others . . . it happens.

Richard
Reply

I understand what you are saying – it’s just that the difference between the two is so startling. And there seem to be more bees and more brood in the weaker colony if anything. As I’m still pretty new to this game I think I will leave them be for now – the strong hive is producing more than enough honey by itself.

Rusty
Reply

Richard,

Another possibility is that they are foraging in different areas. One hive may be having better luck than the other at finding ample nectar. Just be sure they have enough honey for winter.

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