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“How can I recognize a nectar death?” is a common question and a hard one to answer. To a new beekeeper, the signs of dearth may seem subtle and mysterious.
On the other hand, most experienced beekeepers know which plants are in flower in any season, which bloom follows another, and how long each lasts. Longtime beekeepers notice variations in the weather from year to year, and they know if things are early or late.
Times of nectar dearth depend on location
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, I wouldn’t know the plants, the weather patterns, or the rhythm of the seasons. Dearth is always regional.
Also, “dearth” can mean different things in different places. 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 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.
Your bees know something is wrong
But no matter how you define dearth, your bees know the status of the nectar flow. Honey bees behave in distinctly different ways when nectar shortages occur, so watching them is the surest way to recognize a dearth.
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 the years. Just remember that your list may be different.
- One of the first things I notice is sound. The colonies 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 sometimes 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 and try it again. We rarely see this behavior during a strong nectar flow.
- Robbing and fighting may occur when bees try to steal from each other. You may see a tussle on your alighting board or dead bees on the ground in front of your hive.
- Your bees may get more defensive toward you. The bees that seemed 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.
Notice a nectar dearth? Safeguard your bees
Here are two simple steps to help your bees through any nectar dearth:
Check the colony’s food supplies
Once you decide a dearth is coming, the first thing to do is check your bees’ food supplies. If they have plenty of stored honey, they will probably be fine. Preparing for the future is what honey bees do best.
On the other hand, if honey supplies are short, it’s probably time to start feeding. You can use honey that you previously harvested from a particular hive, or you can feed sugar.
Prepare for robbing bees and wasps
Nectar dearths and robbing go hand-in-hand. If your honey bees are hungry, chances are other honey bees and wasps are also hungry. Protect your colony by using a robbing screen, a device that confuses intruders.
If you do any colony management during a nectar dearth, try to get in and out as soon as possible. Any odors coming from your hive, including the smell of brood and drops of honey, are likely to attract intruders. Just be aware of the potential problem, move quickly, and keep your work area clean.
How about you? Have you noticed something different that warns you of a nectar dearth? If so, please let us know.
Honey Bee Suite