honey production

The nectar was there, but now it’s gone

Two weeks ago you peeked into your honey supers and were delighted to see cell after cell brimming with glistening nectar. Freshly drained from early blooms, the nectar was not yet cured but sparkled in the sunshine. You imagined the taste as you tucked the warm and fragrant frames back among the bees.

Today you peeked again, only to discover the bees restless and the cells empty. What happened? Where did it go? Gloom settled over your taste buds.

Dearths can occur at any time

We tend to think of honey bees storing nectar for winter, and indeed they do. But from a wider perspective, honey bees store nectar for times of dearth, regardless of when those times occur. Short periods of dearth can occur throughout the calendar: storms, prolonged rain, cold spells, high winds, and dry spells. Whenever the bees can’t fly, or can’t find food when they do fly, they are dependent upon the stores they stashed earlier.

In my part of the world, March was adorned with balmy afternoons that approached the 80s. The flowers invited the bees and the bees accepted their hospitality. But then it all went south; shivery days, frosty nights, and prolonged rain followed the ephemeral warmth. The air went thick and gray. The bees stopped flying, maple blossoms hung heavily from sodden branches, and cherry laurels bowed to the ground, dumping their rain-diluted nectar into the soil. So sad.

It is no wonder that the glorious partially-cured maple nectar made its way into the stomachs of bees. That is how the system was designed, and instead of grieving over the lost crop, we can be awed by the blueprint the honey bees used to sustain themselves through good times and bad. The strategy worked as advertised, and that is the wonder of honey bees.

Other bees are home as well

Also sticking close to home are the mason bees. I can peek around the corner of my house into the straw tubes. At the end of many, female masons are waiting for the skies to clear. All facing out, they peer at me peering at them. I don’t know what the masons do for food during long spells of inclement weather. The food they have collected thus far, nectar and pollen, is amassed in tight balls, one per chamber with an egg on top. I wonder if they ever eat the one they last collected, the one not yet sealed into its own chamber, but I do not know.

The weather is due to clear in the next days. It will be like starting over for the honey bees, refilling the now empty pantry. And the masons? I suspect they will start the day with an energy drink and then get back to work stocking the nursery for the next generation.

Honey Bee Suite


Many mason bees peering out of the tubes and waiting for the weather to clear. © Rusty Burlew.


  • Hi Rusty,

    Oh my goodness, you write like a poet (was that your minor? 🙂 )! Fabulous imagery, thank you! My nuclei are arriving next weekend, I hope that we have enough nectar and pollen (and water!) in San Diego to give them what they need. If not, I will try to supplement. Meanwhile, I am fascinated by your mason bees. Thank you for sharing this.


  • What a great reminder about what the true nature of keeping bees is about. Watching, waiting and rejoicing if all goes according to nature’s plan. But even if it doesn’t go according to our wishes, the honey bees know what they are doing.

  • Hi Rusty, did you make that mason bee hive pictured above? If yes, What do you use for the straws? I have a couple of honeybee hives but would love to make some homes for my mason bee friends. I do leave a lot of my yard waste out much to my neighbors unhappiness I am sure, but I do it more for my insect friends than my neighbors pleasure 🙂 Thanks for your great posts as always!

  • A similar thing happened here this spring. 3-31 and 4-1 were both 70, then it went down to 13 and seldom reached 45 for two weeks. There were enough creeping thyme flowers to keep them going on 3-31 and 4-1, but for the next 10 days there was not much activity at all. On 4-9 I saw @ 40 honey bees gathering water from a groove in a huge locust log, with no activity at the hives or the creeping thyme. The past few days have increased the creeping thyme, on the eight acres where I work, by @ 50,000 flowers a day. The dandelions aren’t plentiful yet and at least 90% of the fruit blossoms froze, so without creeping thyme the honey bees and bumble bees would be in trouble.

  • I love Honey! Honey is the best sweetener and the only one that is 100% natural. It is unfortunate that some honey in the today’s stores is just fake… that’s why I prefer to use only good brands like Carpathian (www.organicdrops.co.uk), RawHive (rawhive.co.uk). I sometimes use local honey but only in months like June to August. All the other months no, because the beekeepers take the set honey, heat treat it and make it runny again. When they heat treat the honey, all the enzymes and vitamins of honey vanish. However, my favourite place online is organicdrops.co.uk because they have a honey brought from the Carpathian Mountains… really tasty and yummy!

  • Hi Rusty,

    We are in a tough spot here in the northeast. In the foothills of the Berkshires MA after a couple great days in the 70s it’s been damp and rainy ever since. I think we’ve had rain 19 out of the last 21 days and at least another week of rain to come. Most days highs maybe hit 55*F, and it was down to 28*F two nights ago. I still have winter sugar patties on but also gave them two mason jars of 1:1 on top inside a deep super but I’m sure its too cold for them to eat it. My biggest fear is all the brood they had started will get chilled and the gap in new bees will cause the hive to fail. Do Seattle area beekeepers have any secrets for helping the girls in such wet conditions?

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