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.
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?