“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.