honey production

13 reasons for small honey harvests (& how to improve them)

A small honey harvest can be disappointing, and many things can go wrong.

You did everything right, but your honey harvest is small and barely worth the effort. Here are some reasons for small harvests and a few tips too help you improve.

Inside: Below are 13 reasons for small honey harvests. Learn to recognize the things you can do to help your bees, but also understand those things beyond your control.

Common reasons for small honey harvests

Nothing is more discouraging than a small honey harvest, especially when your bees appear vibrant and busy. Worse, you may have seen frames loaded with honey earlier in the year, only to find them empty at harvest time. What happened?

Unfortunately, many things can interfere with a colony’s ability to store honey. Some are out of your control, but skilled management can fix some. Experienced beekeepers often get better yields because they’ve learned how to help their bees through the lean times.

Now, let’s look at potential problems.

1. Bad weather keeps bees inside

Bad weather happens. Anyone who grows plants knows there are good years and bad ones, but most are in between.

Weather conditions such as excessive rain, wind, heat, or cold affect plant growth, flowering, and nectar production. But bad weather also affects the bees themselves. Honey bees will not fly in heavy rain, excessive wind, or cold temperatures because it is too dangerous.

If flowers bloom while the bees huddle in their hives, your honey production will take a hit. And while that’s not your fault, it’s discouraging anyway.

What’s the difference between weather and climate?

Weather happens over a short period of time, like hours or days. A quick thunderstorm or a muggy afternoon makes for nasty weather.

Climate describes the average weather over a long period, years instead of days.

You can think of weather as short-term conditions and climate as long-term trends.

2. Climate change makes nectar dearths longer

Our changing climate is causing summer nectar dearths to be longer and hotter. Even though honey bees prepare for summer dearths by storing lots of honey in the spring, they will use up more of their stored honey if the dearth lasts longer.

In a long, hot summer with no flowers, a colony of honey bees can easily eat through everything they gathered in spring. Some may even require supplementary feed.

Flowers bloom but bees can't fly in the rain.
Flowers bloom but bees can’t fly in the rain.

3. Water shortage causes overheated hives

Like most animals, honey bees cannot work without a constant supply of water. Each bee needs water for proper health, respiration, and digestion.

In addition, the colony as a whole needs water for regulating hive temperatures and feeding the young. If your bees don’t have a naturally occurring water source, be sure to supply one for them.

4. Fewer flowers mean less nectar

Although it’s easy to forget, the plantings near our apiary can change from year to year. If the farmer down the road plants clover every spring, your bees (and you) are in for a treat. But if that farmer switches to hay, your bees need to go elsewhere.

Likewise, overgrown meadows rich with wildflowers and weeds can morph into parking lots. Or lightly forested land may disappear in favor of houses. All these changes can pinch your honey harvest.

Although honey bees usually find an alternative nectar source, it may be further away or may provide less nectar. This means that your bees need to fly further or work harder for the same amount of nectar. At the end of the season, you may have less honey than you had before.

5. Habitat fragmentation changes land use

Linked to a lack of nectar-producing plants is habitat fragmentation. Fragmentation is a result of urbanization. It is caused by roads, industrial complexes, shopping centers, housing developments, stadiums, and golf courses that chop the landscape into little pieces, most of which are not good for bees.

Not only do these things force honey bees to fly further, but they impose other dangers. For example, bees crossing roads get hit by cars, and bees on golf courses may be damaged by pesticides. Water supplies may be missing or polluted and flowers may be completely absent.

If your bees live in a developing urban or suburban area, note those things that may damage foraging opportunities. You may need to move your bees further away to get a good honey crop.

6. Hive placement affects bee behavior

To maximize honey production, a colony of bees should get morning sun and afternoon shade. This arrangement provides an early start without giving them heat stress in the late afternoon.

Also, when setting up a hive, avoid depressions or places where the air is stagnant and still. Fresh air and ventilation are equally important. Your bees try to move clean, fresh air in through the bottom while they expel moisture-laden air through the top.

The better the ventilation, the faster the honey can cure. If the hives sit in a damp area, it’s harder for bees to evaporate water from the nectar.

7. Predators ensure small honey harvests

Predators such as birds, wasps, frogs, skunks, badgers, bears, and lizards eat bees. Dead bees don’t produce honey, so be alert to any animals that pester your hives.

If you have yellowjackets, hornets, or other wasps, consider setting up robbing screens to keep them out.

8. Robbing honey bees steal honey from others

A small or weak hive will have trouble increasing its population and storing honey if it’s attacked by robbing honey bees from another hive. This is another reason to install robbing screens.

Once honey bee robbers begin, they can empty a hive of all its honey. It’s worthwhile to learn to identify robbing bees by their behaviors.

Colonies close to each other compete with each other. In places with lots of forage, this doesn’t matter much, but when resources are scarce, colonies that can’t find enough food from flowers often resort to robbing.

9. Pathogens and parasites lower productivity

Naturally, anything that hinders bee health will lower honey production. All beekeepers must recognize and treat the pathogens and parasites active in their area.

Here in North America, they include parasites like varroa mites, tracheal mites, small hive beetles, and wax moths. Diseases can be associated with parasites or they may appear on their own. Pathogenic diseases include viruses, bacterial infections like American foulbrood and European foulbrood, or microsporidian diseases such as nosema.

To get the most honey production from your bees, you must keep them safe from these and all other ailments that adversely affect honey bee health.

10. Queen bee health and genetics affect harvests

Not all queens perform equally when it comes to honey production by their offspring. Your choice of queen stock should be based on what works best in your area. I suggest talking to beekeepers who live near your to learn which lines work well in your local climate.

11. Time your management decisions to maximize populations

Remember, you need lots of bees to make lots of honey. If you decide to do something that lessens the number of bees right before the nectar flow, you will lessen your honey production.

For example, lots of beekeepers like to make splits in early spring when bee populations are rapidly expanding. That makes lots of sense. But it will drastically affect your honey production in the hive you split. The main thing is to be aware of how your management decisions will affect your honey production.

12. Hive style can affect honey production

Some hive styles naturally produce more honey than others. Overall, Langstroth hives produce larger colonies and bigger honey crops than Warre hives, long hives, or top-bar hives.

That’s not to say anything is wrong with these other hives; they simply address different problems a beekeeper might have. And remember, honey production depends more on beekeeper skills than anything else.

Just bear in mind that hive selection is a personal matter, and there are many reasons for choosing one style over another. The amount of honey you get is only one factor of many.

13. Good ventilation dries honey fast

Although the subject of hive ventilation is controversial, many experienced beekeepers attribute their large honey crops to improved ventilation, at least during the honey-producing months. Hives with excellent ventilation allow the bees to cure more honey in a shorter time because the moisture-laden air inside the hive is quickly exchanged for fresh air that can hold even more moisture.

In addition, many of those same beekeepers provide upper entrances during the nectar flow. Not only do upper entrances provide more ventilation, but they also allow nectar-carrying bees quicker access to the honey storage areas.

For more on providing upper entrances, see “Surplus secret: access holes with platforms” and also “Upper entrances can enhance your honey production.” Also, don’t miss “The Upstairs-Downstairs Intrance: better beehive access.”

Keep realistic expectations

To prevent disappointment, be mindful of what honey bees need to produce lots of honey. New beekeepers in particular sometimes forget that new colonies must put their energy into building comb and raising young in addition to providing food for the winter. Cut them some slack by not expecting honey for yourself as well.

If you keep your mind on what is best for the bees, honey production will eventually fall into place. In the meantime, think like a honey bee and do the most important things first. Your bees will reward you in the long run.

Honey Bee Suite

About Me

I backed my love of bee science with a bachelor’s degree in Agronomic Crops and a master’s in Environmental Studies. I write extensively about bees, including a current column in American Bee Journal and past columns in Two Million Blossoms and Bee Craft. I’ve endured multiple courses in melittology and made extensive identifications of North American bees for iNaturalist and other organizations. My master beekeeper certificate issued from U Montana. I’m also an English nerd. More here.


  • I set my first honey super (above he queen excluder) back about 1/2”. And boy do they use it.

    • Lloyd,

      I’m so glad you mentioned that. I’ve heard from others that setting back the super really draws in the bees. Honey bees don’t have to carry the load of nectar from the congested bottom entrance, up through the busy hive, and then into the supers. Foragers can quickly enter the top entrance, drop off their load, and leave.

      • Hi Rusty,

        I’m a bit surprised by your response as it’s my understanding that nectar foragers don’t traverse the hive to unload their nectar, but instead pass it off to receiver bees at the hive entrance. The wait time to unload is part of what informs the forager whether to quickly return for more nectar, or to slow down her nectar gathering, or to switch duties altogether. The nectar then gets passed bee to bee until the right amount of enzymes have been added, and the moisture content has been sufficiently reduced. Pollen foragers do have to go to the cell to deposit the pollen, but that’s in the broodnest and not so much of an in-hive journey.

        I’d be concerned that setting the super back would require a lot more guards to try and prevent robbing, especially during a dearth, but I’m not going to argue about what works for other beekeepers.

        • Gerard,

          Regardless of who carries a load of nectar from the entrance to the honey-curing area, somebody has to do it. So if a honey bee off-loads nectar at the bottom entrance, a bee needs to carry that load through the congested hive to reach the honey-curing area. It doesn’t matter exactly who collects it or exactly who carries it: somebody will need to move it to the proper place. This is both time-consuming and energy expensive.

          In a superorganism such as a bee colony, all the bees work for the good of the colony. So energy saved by one is energy saved by all. Time saved by one is time saved by all. If every bee maximizes efficiency, the entire colony benefits.

          As for setting the super back, I’ve seen people do this with excellent results. Obviously, you wouldn’t do this with a weak or poorly populated colony. This is a measure to take for those few times a year when nectar is coming in so fast, anything the beekeeper can do to expedite collection, curing, and storage is a good thing. No robbing bee or wasp in its right mind would try to enter a roiling, tumultuous hive when hundreds of bees are coming and going every second. Guards aren’t even needed during those times because the traffic is too great. Also, robbers don’t rob during prolific nectar flows because so much nectar is available, it’s easier to just collect it than risk one’s life trying to steal it. One thing to remember about robbers is they are smart beyond words; they are not dumb.

          Lastly, I know the writer of the comment did not just fall off the turnip truck but is a highly experienced and successful beekeeper. I wouldn’t expect you to know that, but I write responses to comments according to a person’s ability, if I happen to know it.

          • Hi Rusty,

            I still don’t see lost time because the bees cure the nectar by passing it from one bee to the next to the next before depositing it in a cell, and that’s going to take some time. A forager will only be at the entrance for seconds if there’s enough receiver bees, and if not, it’s because they have other resources they need more. And that process happens whether it starts at the bottom entrance, top entrance, or a super slid back. (Just my understanding from what I’ve garnered from studying Seeley’s work.)

            I agree that a knowledgeable beekeeper could slide the super back on a strong colony during a flow (and that would help with ventilation as well), but my concern is for those that don’t know when there’s a flow or a dearth, and having a large opening could be disastrous during a dearth. Even the absence of robbing screens at the bottom entrance is known to be disastrous (personal experience). I’ve been spending time on the Wisconsin Beekeepers Facebook pages and can see people latching on to a suggestion without knowing what else they need to know. And I was in that group not that many years ago.

            From my perspective, it’s the colony genetics and nectar availability that determines the honey harvest. Twice I’ve had package bees produce 240 lbs. of excess honey in their first season, whereas colonies right next to them, packages and survivors, produced 40 – 60 lbs. Those colonies may have been robbers as well as great honey producers.

            I’ve been doing this for 11 years, and also graduated from the Montana University Master Beekeeper program as you did some years before me, and I’ve been studying honey bees intensely right along. Your site has been instrumental to my learning over the years, and I recommend it to others. Thanks for all that you do. (That’s my bio in a nutshell.)

  • Rusty,

    HankB here, still following your posts, and wanting to learn more. I just read about the upstairs downstairs openings. How and where are these kits? The concept is great.

    I tried the link, but no luck. Can you help?

    • Hank,

      You’re right. The website says they are temporarily shut down, but it’s been a while. I will try to dig up Philippe’s email and see what’s going one.

  • I would like to blame all my neighbors for rudely dying, ’cause the heirs always seem to sell to people who cut down the forest, and turn the wildflower meadows into green desert lawns.

    However, some of it is on my bad beekeeping, because I can’t seem to get most of my colonies through the winter, and new colonies in the spring have more important things to do than make honey for ME.

    On the other hand, I don’t really need THAT much honey, and I can buy interesting varietal honeys off the internet if I need more, and a really big honey harvest (that once or thrice when I ever GOT such a thing) is seriously just too much work. So I will restrain my disappointment that there are no magical answers here.

    But I was told I could just thunk a flow hive on top and turn a handle. [snark detected]

  • My best and strongest colonies usually start out unbelievably well in spring. Then they start swarming, which creates multiple brood breaks. Little or no nectar gets put into upper supers that we can rob. Not to mention the quantity of honey those swarms take with them. It seems my best colony harvests come from hives that come through winter just barely making it. They are building up strong during swarm season but not overcrowded enough to swarm. That scenario seems to get me the most supers on one colony.

  • Thanks Rusty. I’m not getting much honey this year for sure though my hives are strong, full of bees. We had a cool dry spring so I’m blaming the lack of rain ; I’m told nectar production suffers in a drought. What do you think?

    • John,

      Since nectar is mostly water (about 80%), it makes sense that a drought would make nectar scarce. The plant needs to use water to keep itself alive before it uses it for nectar.

  • The info I have read here seems opposite to what I have just read in a book written by Ed.H. Clarke, written in about 1915. He is against extra ventilation and entrances to a beehive.

    • Joy,

      That sounds right. People are usually for extra ventilation or totally against it. But it’s your local humidity combined with the size of the colony that make all the difference. If you have humid winters, you will probably need extra ventilation, but if you have dry winters, you probably will not. And big colonies need more ventilation than small ones.

      The key thing to remember is that beekeeping is driven by local conditions, so you can’t have a one-size-fits-all rule. And even two colonies in the same location can be very different, just like two children can be different.

      As a beekeeper, what you need to do is open your colony during cold weather and look. If you see water everywhere, you’ll need to get rid of it. But if the hive is dry inside, you needn’t do anything. I can’t stress this enough: beekeepers cannot make the best decisions until they actually know what’s going on inside the hive(s).

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