If you are in the northern hemisphere, there’s a good chance you are in a nectar dearth or approaching one. A nectar dearth is simply a shortage of nectar-producing flowers. Summer dearths are usually caused by high temperatures, a lack of rainfall, or both. Honey bee workers may become irritable, or they may beard on the hive and begin ditching the drones. Sometimes they begin visiting plants they previously had no interest in.
Provide water for your bees
A certain proportion of the water in the honey bee diet comes from nectar. So along with the nectar dearth comes a shortage of water. Unless your bees have a reliable natural source of water, consider setting up a watering hole. It can be as simple or complex as you like. Even though my own hives are near year-round water, they readily visit the water I provide on hot summer days. A saucer filled with water and rocks or marbles will keep them happy.
Removing honey supers
Depending on your individual situation, you may want to harvest before the nectar dearth begins. I find it much easier to handle the bees while they are still collecting because they remain focused on what they are doing rather than being defensive. Not only does the harvesting seem to go easier, but you also avoid the problem of attracting robbers with honey drips. Then too, if you wait too long to harvest, your honey stores may completely disappear.
Robbing caused by nectar dearth
With any luck, you will notice the dearth long before you notice robbing. Honey robbing is an inevitable consequence of dearth, yet it is something you can plan for in advance. I used to wait until I saw signs of dearth to make preparations, but now I prepare before the signs appear. Robbing is no fun. Regardless of whether your bees are perps or victims, you’re far better off to prevent it.
Colonies that get robbed can lose all the stores they have collected, and usually a lot of lives are lost in the fighting. Robbing bees can bring home the goods along with viruses, brood diseases, mites, and other parasites.
Robbers arrive from many places. They may come from your own hives, from neighboring hives, or from feral colonies. They may also come in the form of yellowjackets or other wasps that are interested in a meal of bee protein but are happy to have the honey as well. Shortages of food affect many species, so you never know who might show up for dinner. It’s best to be ready.
Dissuading the robbers
In my latest rendition of beekeeping, I keep the upper entrances confined to the honey supers so when I take off the supers, the upper entrances are gone too. I seldom open the bottom entrance more than about four inches, but depend on the super holes for extra doors. That means that during the nectar flow they have plenty of space, bottom and top, for ingress and egress. But come nectar dearth, simply removing the honey supers prepares them against robbing.
I now use robbing screens on all splits, swarms, and nucs as soon as I set them up. I figure that all three are nascent colonies that can use a little extra help. So I add the robbing screen right from the git-go. If they become strong enough for a honey super, they will gain an extra entrance along with each honey super I add.
If you don’t want to build robbing screens, a number of companies have them available for sale. My favorite is the one made by BeeSmart Designs. They are made of plastic, will fit both 8- and 10-frame Langstroths, and install easily with a set of four push pins. I put them on my splits and newly captured swarms and leave them on. If you buy them along with the BeeSmart bottom board, you get a mouse guard as well. I’ve used them with both the BeeSmart bottom board and my standard wooden bottom boards with good results.
Preparing for the nectar dearth
To prepare for nectar death, you should at least close down the entrances to a size commensurate with the strength of the colony. A huge and feisty colony can guard a lot more space than a small or weak one, so consider their overall strength before you close them down too far.
Limit the number of times you open the hive during dearth. Each time you open the hive you break cells and send their odor out into the environment where it can be picked up by potential evil-doers. If opening is necessary, keep it short, and try to harvest either before or after dearth, if at all possible.
Some say that harvesting during dearth is fine because all colonies are open and therefore each is busy defending itself. There is some truth to that, but it doesn’t account for colonies not in your apiary, or for yellowjackets and wasps.
Likewise, some people say open feeding is better during a dearth because you won’t accidentally spill syrup in a hive and attract robbers. On the other hand, open feeding causes fighting and agitation among honey bees, attracts other predators, and often results in a considerable amount of bee death. If you must feed during a dearth, experiment to see what works best in your area.
Honey Bee Suite