Why? 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 or even visit the supers. Some report their bees walking around inside only to leave again, uninterested. Some blame queen excluders. Others believe they are doing something wrong. But most want to know how to “make” their bees store honey.
First off, you can’t make a honey bee do much of anything. Like teaching a pig to sing, you might be able to encourage certain behaviors, but it might not be in your best interest.
A colony needs time to establish
Let’s look at what happens when a new beekeeper starts a colony in a new hive. New bees—whether in a package or in 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 surplus honey.
Most pressing is raising lots of young. To do that the colony needs to build brood comb and collect food to feed the young. It needs to feed drones. It needs to fill the pantry with supplies, but first it has to build the pantry. It needs to collect water to cool the hive. It needs to defend itself. All of these chores take lots of energy which is readily available because it is spring and flowers are abundant.
New colonies expand on the nectar flow
From the beekeeper 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 less—think summer solstice—a colony shrinks the brood nest. Not as many bees are necessary to keep things going, so less space is devoted to nursery. The shrinking nest allows more nectar to be stored in the immediate area, and the bees will fill this instead of filling the supers.
A nuc has a much better chance of putting away some surplus 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 begins storing 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 is critical as is 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. These 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 crop 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 honey that they need for winter survival. You—and they—are better off if they are allowed to fill up the brood boxes first. 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 you will gets 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 away. But after more than a few ruined sections, I’ve gone back to queen excluders.
I’ve discovered that with an 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 flow of course. This year I had nothing in the supers, nothing, still nothing, discouraging nothing, than 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 surplus every year.
A word about patience
We are used to 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. So does the beekeeper who buys an extractor along with his first package. Harvesting should not be your first thought.
This, I think, is why the hype about the Flow hive annoys me. All the concentration, all the focus, in fact the whole purpose of the Flow hive is to take the bees’ honey quicker and easier. Proponents say it’s better for the bees, gentler (as if stealing someone’s food supply is ever “gentle”). But when a first-time beekeeper starts with a Flow hive, his focus is already on the harvest. He’s calculating what’s in it for him before he’s ever seen a bee up close and personal.
If you take time to become a good beekeeper, you will have plenty of honey. You will have honey for years and years and years. Learn how the system works and your honey crops will come.