It’s hard to say why honey production is so unpredictable. One year you get oceans of the stuff—maybe 200 pounds or more of harvestable honey per hive. The next year you get nothing—not even enough for the bees.
In truth, this variability is no different from any other crop, whether it be apples, tomatoes, corn, or cotton. There are great years and horrible years, but most fall in the middle.
I’ve seen various estimates for the average surplus crop in the United States. Surplus or “harvestable” honey is the amount of honey the beekeeper can take from the hive while still leaving enough for the bees. Here in the U.S. that number hovers around 40 pounds per hive—or about one medium super.
Of course, the amount varies according to where you live. States like North Dakota with vast areas of clover can out-produce areas covered in corn, wheat, or asphalt. Areas with long growing seasons can sometimes out-produce those with short growing seasons—but not always.
But even in a given location, your honey production will vary from year to year. We’ve all seen photos of colonies topped with 11 or 12 supers. But that is not typical. In fact, the reason those pictures were taken is that it is unusual. For every colony like that there are dozens—maybe hundreds—of colonies with one or two not-quite-full supers. Why?
More often than not it’s just a question of the local weather. Remember, beekeeping is all about flowers, and flowers are all about the weather.
Weather that is atypically hot, cold, dry, or wet will affect the ability of a plant to produce flowers and nectar. A late spring cold snap can freeze the buds. Excessive heat or drought can wither the blooms. Constant rain can dilute the nectar or prevent foraging. High winds can blow the flowers from trees or even topple them. And some great honey plants, such as black locust, just don’t flower every year.
Timing is critical as well. If the big bloom occurs before your bee populations are strong, you can lose a lot of nectar. The same is true if a bloom is followed by unseasonably cold, wet, or windy weather.
Unfortunately, it’s not only acts of nature that screw things up. Some invasive species that produce large and reliable crops of delicious honey, may suddenly come under attack by your local roads department, parks department, or other local, county, state, or private organization such as The Nature Conservancy. Some of these groups spray vast acreages with herbicide and destroy your crop. Invasive honey plants that come to mind are yellow star thistle, Himalayan blackberry, Japanese knotweed, purple loosestrife, and spotted knapweed.
Of course, there are many things a beekeeper can do to maximize the probability of having strong, populous hives during the honey flow. But if there is no strong flow, if the seasons and the weather don’t mesh in perfect harmony, there is very little you can do. The bees and the flowers are both at the mercy of larger forces.