honey production

Why won’t my bees store honey?

Honey bees walking on comb. You can't force them to make honey.

Why won’t they store honey? Because conditions are not right. Pure and simple.

This time of year, new beekeepers are asking why their bees will not fill the honey supers. Some colonies won’t even visit the supers, acting like they don’t exist. Other colonies send bees to examine the honey storage, only to have them return, uninterested.

Some beekeepers blame queen excluders. Others believe they are making management errors. But most want to know how they can “make” their bees store honey.

It’s best to remember that you can’t make a honey bee do much of anything. Like teaching a pig to sing, you might succeed, but it might not be in your best interest.

A colony needs time to establish

Let’s look at what happens when a beekeeper starts a colony in a new hive. New bees—whether from a package, a swarm, or a nuc—most often arrive in the spring. Spring is when most major honey flows occur, but a new colony has a lot of work to do before it can begin storing the surplus.

Most pressing is raising lots of young. To do that, the colony needs to build brood combs and collect food for the young. The many drones need to be fed. The colony needs to build a pantry and fill it with bee bread. It needs to collect water to cool the hive. And it needs to defend itself.

All these chores take lots of energy. Luckily, energy-rich nectar is readily available because spring flowers are abundant. But it all takes time.

New colonies expand on the nectar flow

From the beekeeper’s point of view, the hive is exploding and will soon be able to fill the honey supers. But just when you eagerly plop the honey supers atop the hive, the spring flows are winding down. The days get warmer and the flowers get scarce. You’ve raised your bees on the spring flow, but the flow is over and the bees have no motivation to draw out your supers because there is nothing to store.

When the nectar flows dry up, the days get hot, and the hours of daylight are fewer. After the summer solstice, a colony shrinks the brood nest. Not as many bees are necessary to keep things going, so they devote less space to the nursery. The shrinking nest allows more nectar to be stored in the immediate area, and your bees will fill this instead of filling the supers.

A nuc has a much better chance of putting away some surplus in the first year simply because part of the work is already done. But regardless of how the colony starts, it needs to get through the to-do list before it can store surplus.

Other factors also affect how much honey a colony will store, regardless of whether it is new or old. The climate and local weather are critical, as are overall colony strength, genetics, available forage, and environmental stressors.

It’s all about the flowers

A beekeeper has to understand both the rise and fall of colony populations and the ebb and flow of nectar. In most places in North America, for example, we have one or more strong spring flows, followed by a dearth in mid-summer and, in most areas, a fall flow that may or may not materialize.

Patterns vary depending on where you live, but once you learn the bloom schedule in your specific area, you will have a better idea of what to expect from year to year. Remember, beekeeping is all about the flowers.

Great expectations

I think it is a mistake for a new beekeeper to expect a honey crop in the first year. There are exceptions, of course. But we all can’t be the exception.

Tricking your bees into building in the supers by baiting them with a frame of honey, for example, is not always the best thing to do. If you get them to store honey in the supers before the brood boxes are full, you may end up harvesting the honey they need for winter survival.

You—and they—are better off if they can store honey in the brood boxes that you won’t take. Then, if they are healthy and make it through the winter, your bees can build up before the spring flow instead of building up during the spring flow, and then you will get lots of honey.

A word about queen excluders

Through the years, I have waffled over the use of excluders. I used to believe—as many others do—that queen excluders are honey excluders. In the past, I always put a section super directly above the brood box and it usually kept the queen in the brood nest. But after more than a few ruined sections, I’ve gone back to queen excluders.

I’ve discovered that with a queen excluder, the bees will be more apt to store below it at first. But this gives them a good honey supply for winter because they fill every nook and cranny of the brood boxes.

Once the boxes are full, however, the colony will burst through the excluder and fill up supers in a matter of days. It depends on the strength of the nectar flow, of course. Some years I’ve had nothing in the supers. Every time I looked, nothing. Still nothing. Bleakly nothing. Then bam! Full in a few days. Crazy full. Need-help-lifting-them full.

Sure, some colonies did not pass through the excluder, but I don’t think they would have stored surplus anyway. Not all colonies are created equal, and not all colonies will provide a surplus every year.

A word about patience

We like instant gratification. We want honey and we want it now. But nurturing bees is more than collecting their honey. If we concentrate too much on the end product, we are missing the wonder of honey bees. The question, “How soon can I get honey?” always worries me. The beekeeper who buys an extractor along with his first package also worries me. Harvesting should not be your first thought, especially in your first year.

For many, all the concentration and all the focus, in fact, the entire purpose of beekeeping is to steal honey quicker and easier. Some claim we should treat bees gently when we steal their honey, as if stealing a creature’s food supply is ever “gentle.” Still, many first-time beekeepers start with the honey harvest on their mind, calculating what’s in it for them­ before they’ve ever seen a bee up close and personal.

If you take the time to become a good beekeeper, you will have plenty of honey for you and for them. You will have honey for years and years and years. Learn how the system works. Then when your honey crop finally arrives, you will be happy and your bees will be healthy. Shouldn’t that be the goal?


Your bees will store honey after the to-do list is done. Patience is your number one job. Pixabay photo.
Your bees will store honey after the to-do list is done. Patience is your number one job. Pixabay photo.

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  • Absolutely great advice. After five years of beekeeping I learned a lot from this article Rusty.

  • Great article. I think it’s ok to shuffle a board up if you know your nectar flow pattern. But if you’re a first year beekeeper, spend your time learning about your bees and most importantly YOUR bees’ feeding area. Joining a local beekeeping group is great and helpful, just remember that because one person who lives 10 miles from you has a amazing nectar flow doesn’t mean that you will! For me I have my bees next to my hay field and before my last cut I let the fields seed out. When this happens I have a great August nectar flow for 2-3 weeks that I know is coming, so in mid-summer I have more flexibility then friends who live only 4 miles down the road. It takes a few years to know what to expect but once you do, it really helps!!

  • Great comments and I SO feel the same way about harvesting honey. I don’t even want to harvest, and then feed them so they can make it up. I kinda feel that’s unfair to them ☺️ I am in my third year and still have some learnin’ to do. Every year has been different so far. Thank you Rusty.

  • Rusty, I have been reading you for over a year. Wonderful stuff, beautifully written, and I can really relate to your approach to bees, nature AND science! Thank you for doing this blog. I think it’s unique for what’s out there.

    About this entry, echoing Jesslyn: I’m in my 4th year, but learned a lot. Especially middle graph on queen excluders. Also, very belatedly thanks for your post on moving a hive a short distance. Last summer I followed instructions and it worked perfectly.

  • Thank you for this article about why bees will not store honey. I am just getting started and all new information is helpful. I do not yet have bees and do not anticipate having them until spring of 2016 after I have taken classes. I do not anticipate a harvest until the second year following establishing a healthy hive. I have two different types of hive on order an Eco Bee Box and a Flow Hive. I understand your concern about early harvester of honey. I am interested in Flow Hive primarily because I did not want to invest in lots of equipment for which I do not have space, money or time. I want to learn about beekeeping by observing and propagating two hives. Not all of us are in it for the quick take.

    • Ronald,

      “I did not want to invest in lots of equipment for which I do not have space, money or time.” That’s an odd statement from someone who just bought the most expensive beehive on the market. Hope it works out for you. I love the Eco Bee Box, by the way. Nice equipment.

  • Rusty, thank you for this article. I’m a 2nd year beekeeper. We got about 20 lbs of honey off of our 2 hives this year, but we left much more than we took. It was our first harvest, so it was pretty exciting. I have a great mentor who told me straight away that I wouldn’t get any honey my first year. But I’m so interested in the well-being of the bees, that the honey is secondary to me. It makes it that much more special to me every time I eat it. And you put into words exactly what I couldn’t articulate about the Flow hive. The focus shouldn’t be solely on the end result, but about the health and happiness of the bees themselves.

  • Great article full of valuable beekeeping wisdom. Thank you for your advice. You are a gifted teacher.

  • My only hive last year had a few frames of honey in the brood boxes but still starved (They were JUST out of reach). So this year I shared the pre-drawn frames of wax and honey between two new packages. It’s amazing how fast they multiplied. Both hives now have enough honey for themselves and one hive has produced about 5 frames for me.

  • Hi Rusty! Thanks for a great read. I’m a new beekeeper and I think I’ve done a good job of going into this hobby with the intention of learning about bees vs when will I get honey. Thank being said, I am a little worried about my bees. Perhaps you can help me. Here is the scenario as best as I can describe. I have first year bees. I have one colony. I’m attempting to be an urban keeper so this colony in my back yard in a relatively large city. The colony has managed to only reach two 8 frame deep broad boxes. I have yet to but on a super nor will this year because I intend to winterize them. Problem I feel, is that at this time of the year there is probably in total just one frame worth of honey stored. Is this something I should be concerned about? Why have the bees not stored any honey for themselves this late in the season? Is this a sign that I’ve done something in correct. The queen is still laying broad down which I feel is a good sign.

    Any help from you or anyone would be wonderful.


    • Peter,

      Depending on your climate, you will need 40 to 90 pounds of honey to overwinter a colony. One deep frame of honey weighs about 8 pounds, so you will have to do a lot of feeding to get them through the winter. Why did they not store more? There could be many reasons, such as an extended summer dearth. It’s probably not anything you did, but you will have to stay on it now.

  • Rusty,
    I have a new hive as of early May this year. I did not take honey this year as they started laying brood in the honey super during the hot drought we had in Georgia this year. The super is full again now with honey but only 1 deep brood box filled. I have a second empty box on bottom they had barely started drawing on at last check. I am leaving the super on for them this winter. I rescued a failing hive last week from someone that had open heart surgery and cannot manage the hive. The hive seems very weak. I will open it tomorrow to see its condition. I have not been able to get into due to long work hours. I am really concerned if enough bees in this hive to overwinter. I will feed them syrup and sugar patties this winter. Any recommendations?

    • Michelle,

      If both hives appear to be disease free, consider combining them into one strong hive for the winter. Then, if the hive overwinters successfully, you can always split it in the spring.

      • I had thought about that but the second hive is not mine. I just went out when i got home and have orientation flight going on so i am pleased with that. When all settles down in a bit I will go in and see what is really going on in there. Temp here is still in the 90s and expected to be in the mid 80s next week. I am hoping this queen has enough time to lay for another week or so .

  • Update…

    This hive is a mess. There a lot more bees than when we first opened it to put mite away on it.
    When i went in to do inspection i cannot pull up the frames due to comb stretching from frame to frame. The one frame i could get up had what looks like burr comb from one of your other threads. These girls do not know how to draw out their comb. I cannot see in where the brood and if any honey stored. I am afraid to cut between the frames at this time since i have no idea if brood in there. Should i wait until spring to try to remove this erratic comb? The owner of this hive was more of a hands off manager.

    • Michelle,

      I would cut apart the frames as soon as possible, otherwise you cannot do thorough inspections. Even if you have to cut through some brood, go ahead and do it. Just make sure your queen is in a safe place before you cut.

  • Rusty, what about just the opposite .. the bees totally filling the brood nest with nectar so there is no room for the queen to lay. I am finding this in the hives I saw last week. The one hive, new pkg. from April 18th, had only four frames of brood in bottom brood box, all second brood box honey, super honey, all bottom brood box backfilled w/nectar as the bees emerge, no more room for queen to lay. Would this be ‘normal’ for this time of year? I haven’t seen this before at this magnitude. It seems this year the bees are shutting down so early. Any thoughts ? Plus, the bees have been swarming left and right this year. Leaving so much honey reserves. It’s quite a baffling bee year around here. It seems like we’ve been requeening like crazy and the bees are not producing bees, but honey ! It’s only July 5th, why would they be backfilling that nest now and leaving no room for brood ?

    • Debbie,

      Backfilling the brood nest is one way the workers control the nest size. If they have a compelling reason to restrict the queen’s egg laying, that’s how they usually do it. Shrinking the brood nest is absolutely normal and to be expected at this time of year. As I wrote last month, once the summer solstice hits, nest shrinking begins. I wouldn’t say this is early, rather it’s right on time.

      Lots of swarming means you have strong, healthy colonies and excellent queens. Only the strongest and most robust hives can swarm, so that is a sign of vitality, a sign of success.

      The most baffling thing is your comment about requeening. Why would you requeen a colony if you have a vibrant layer that produces lots of swarms and lots of honey? Isn’t that what we’re all trying to produce? You are not likely to be so lucky once you change queens. Not every queen is a better queen.

  • We have been requeening colonies because they were swarming left and right, and queens are disappearing from the hives in the packages we put in. Also, the virgin queens have not been making it back to the hives. A lot of queens from spring packages have been drone layers. This is not a good queen year. (for us anyway) I have not requeened the honey producing hives, only the hives that are queenless. The requeening did not apply to that particular hive situation. I am sorry, I mixed thoughts here! I understand they shrink the brood nest down, but I never saw them, this early in the year, totally shutting down the queen and backfilling each and every space. I am wondering if it is an exceptional nectar year where they are pulling in so much that there is no where for them to put it and they are hoarding it everywhere. The bottom brood box frames were merged together and had no room for the bees to move around at all it was so jam packed. Good for honey production, but not good for a bee nest. It just seemed weird to me to see this in so many hives and it only being the beginning of July. Usually when one does inspections they see brood, larvae and eggs, not entire brood frames backfilled with honey and no place for her to lay, not even one cell! Just an amazing bee year around here.

    The one colony had over 100,000 bees! It had two brood boxes, three supers, a slat rack, and still didn’t have enough room for all the bees, I am surprised it did not swarm, and I’ve been in these hives every two weeks to check on them and it seems one will do an inspection and all will be fine, then two weeks later, the hive has completely changed its dynamics. I am just so awed by the bees this year and what they are doing and producing. They are totally amazing, it makes me wonder tho. The one old time beekeeper said he thinks it will be an early frost and winter because of how they are doing this year. I guess we’ve had so many easy winters we may be due for a hard one. Will be interesting to see how this all pans out. Thanks Rusty! I won’t worry so much now!

  • Rusty

    Thank you for your wisdom. Flow hive is what interested me in bee keeping before I started reading about bees. I really don’t care about the honey, I care about the bees. My question is if the supers are doing great can I add another or is that too much….. I found you because my honey supers have a lot of bees but there not making honey.. if they make honey but not full in the honey super, should i leave it on in the winter?

    Thank You

    • Bob,

      You can add another super, but at this late date they may just hang around in it and not build. I don’t favor leaving a lot of empty space in a winter hive because it is harder for the bees to police and maintain. Extra space is an invitation to predators. So go ahead and add the super if you want, but before cold weather sets in, try to consolidate the frames and eliminate extra space. It’s not clear to me if you are using Flow supers or standard ones, but consolidating with flow frames might be impossible. In any case, my guess is they won’t use the extra super.

      • Rusty,

        Thank you for your help. I have 2 hives 1 with 2 supers and a honey super #2, 2 supers with a flow hive on top.
        I started the hives late June they seem to be doing well. I feed them once and they emptied the jars in 4 days,
        Should I keep feeding them since I’m not going to collect honey this year.

        Thank You

        • Bob,

          Usually I can figure out people’s terminology, but you’re confusing me. You have 1 hive with two supers and a honey super? Do you mean three supers in addition to your brood boxes, or are you calling your brood boxes “supers?” Then the other has two regular supers and a flow super on top of your brood boxes? Supers go on top of brood boxes (they are “super”structures).

          Well, whatever you’re trying to say, just make sure you have about 80 or 90 pounds of honey on each. Then you can stop feeding.

          See “English for Beekeepers.”

  • Rusty,

    I live in a suburb of Denver, Colorado and obtained 2 Russian nucs on May 2nd of this year from Arkansas. Although certified as being healthy and low Varroa counts, I had to treat both mid-season (June 26th) with oxalic acid which seemed to do the trick. That being said, I did have one weaker (Varroa count of 26) hive swarm on me and they weren’t able to requeen successfully. My remaining hive is OK but the queen is laying sparsely and they have VERY little reserve capped honey anywhere on their frames. There seems to be plenty of pollen stores but very little honey. I put on a 2nd 8-frame deep brood box mid-May because they seemed to be growing nicely then and about 80% full but they have not used the 2nd deep brood box at all. I stopped feeding sugar syrup at the end of May. During my last inspection yesterday I added 3 built out frames from the other hive into the upper brood box to help them out. (I use wired wax foundations in all my frames).

    My question is should I start now to feed them additional sugar syrup or wait another month to give them a boost for the winter? And how long into the fall should I feed them if they haven’t stored enough by the start of winter.

    By the way, I am a beginner, Flow Jive user and have not added the honey super yet this year and have no expectations to get honey for myself. I realize it is all about the bees health. I just want to do right by my bees. The hives are housed in an 11′ x 11′ apiary shed with southerly access to go forage and I use a top feeder to prevent robbing.

    Thanks for your time, Chris

  • oops, sorry about that. I meant to go back and put in my Varroa counts. The hive that swarmed on me had a count of 26 with a sugar shake test. My better hive that I still have had a Varroa count of 16 in June.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Sorry I read your answer to Debbie, but mine is still the same, if the brood box is full of honey and brood will they move honey up to the super to make room for more brood or should i take out some honey frames and replace with empty so they can have more brood ? I am using a queen excluder.

    Thanks for your time

    • Tim,

      Based on your email, I assume you’re in Australia, so it’s spring? No, your bees are not going to move honey up into the supers. If they get too crowded they may eventually swarm. You can move the frames around so they have more room for brood, especially the frames right above the brood box.

      • Yes Australia and a beautiful spring it is ….. my girls are working hard lol …. thank you very helpful

  • I’m in Chicago burbs if the broad boxes get to full and they don’t go up to the super add another broad box?

    • Bob,

      It depends on how many brood boxes are full. If they have two, I would make sure they’ve filled both before I added a third. At this time of year, your colony should be shrinking, not expanding. If you have two brood boxes, you may find few bees in the lowest one. If you want, you can just switch them so the fullest is on the bottom.

  • Great article Rusty! I put in 3 new hives this spring with some honey frames in each from the hives I lost over the winter. I put a third honey super on thinking the the new bees would have a jump start with the honey frames and would certainly fill the third super, since as I like to say “bees abhor a vacuum” so imagine my surprise yesterday when I opened one of the hives and the bees did nothing in the 3rd box. I’ve been keeping bees for several years but this was new to me. But their need to populate very quickly and the wet weather we have had in New York this spring and summer would explain a lot. I just needed to read your article to get back into “bee mode” and out of “honey mode”. Thanks Rusty. 🙂

  • It’s funny to read old posts ! You crack me up … you didn’t even ‘touch’ the ‘broad boxes’ comments ! That was so funny !

  • I have two beehives with Russian bees. I bought a second one as a package last spring, I fed this second hive all summer. They survived well over the winter, the populations increased very well, but they do not produce any honey second summer, and now, in September, I do not see that they are ready for the winter- there is no honey, just pollen and nectar. They did not touch a super I put on the top of the two brood boxes. What I have to do? Should I feed them whole winter?

    • Nataliya,

      If they didn’t store any honey, you will have to feed them to keep them alive. It happens sometimes.

      • Thank you, Rusty! That’s what was thinking to do, but just wondering why they do not store honey for the winter, are they mentally damaged? Should I change the queen next spring?

        • Nataliya,

          It’s usually environmental factors that prevent them from storing honey. If it was very dry, for example, they may have had to eat everything they collected just to survive. When the nectar flows are strong, they can store lots in a hurry. Like other forms of agriculture, you will have good years and poor ones.

          • Rusty, this is only my newest beehive does not have honey for the winter. They are very aggressive, they bite me a lot.

            The older one is working good: I had some honey for myself in June, and they already stored for themselves for the winter, and they are very nice to me:)

  • Hi Rusty –

    After losing both my colonies over last winter (multiple weeks of temps going from the 30s to 60s in January!), I caught and installed two swarms this spring. My Bravo colony is overperforming in every way; the population was big enough I put on a third box for them to draw out and they currently have about 11 frames of honey and a couple of pollen ready for winter, with the queen still producing tons of brood.

    It’s my Alpha colony I’m worried about… it has a full population and is putting away a lot of pollen. However, this colony just won’t store honey. Going into fall they have 3 frames, and in spite of me feeding (both colonies) constantly – as little or as much as they’ll take – trying both internal top feeders and outside bucket feeders, they’re not storing. Even when they keep emptying and I keep refilling their internal top feeder, they’re still sticking with just about 3-4 frames of honey, even though there are other frames that are drawn but completely empty. The other weirdness is the queen seems to be laying more and more in the top box; the bottom box has a little brood and a lot of pollen, but overall is extremely light.

    I’m debating on moving all the brood frames in the top box to the bottom box and bringing up the empties; not sure what else to do, but I have a feeling I’m going to be spoon-feeding Alpha all winter at this rate.