Are Your Bees Hungry? Look for Signs of the Dearth

Summer is an abundant time, but nectar sources can decrease as part of nature's cycle. Here's how to spot the dearth and how to respond.

by Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
PHOTO: toholio/Flickr

Summer is in full swing. Insect populations are exploding, the garden is lush and beautiful, and the farmer’s markets are plentiful with fresh fruits and vegetables. The natural world feels abundant—and for us, it probably is. But do your bees feel the same way?

Slow times, where nectar and pollen count is low, is called the “dearth” in beekeeper talk. This natural period of scarcity is as ominous as it sounds, for a heavy and prolonged dearth can have serious consequences for your hive. Weeks or even a month or more without quality nectar flow can mean compromised health, decreased populations and even death for some hives. Remember, the honeybee’s goal for the summer is to store up as much food for winter as possible—bees always think ahead. If a dearth hits and the bees can’t forage, they must dip into that stored supply, reducing the amount of their winter food.

It’s important to note here that dearths are natural periods of nature’s nectar flow. With that said, climate change has radically altered the seasons and their predictability in most areas on Earth. We’re beginning to experience more extreme drought, prolonged heat and intense storms, all of which significantly affect flower trees and plants as well as the amount of nectar or pollen that they produce.

So what’s a beekeeper to do?

1. Look for Bee Behavior Changes

First, watch for the signs of the dearth. You might notice your bees behavior change: Are they acting strange? Buzzing around aimlessly? Seemingly with no task? Worker and forager bees want to keep busy—they know they have an important task—and if they’re thrown off by lack of resources, they’ll keep searching.

2. Check Weight and Stored Honey

Next, check the weight of the hive and count the stores during hive inspection. How many frames of fully capped honey are in the hive? Is it more or less than it was one week ago? One month ago? Remember to keep good records in a notebook or document while you’re inspecting, so you can track the weather, any patterns, and be better able to predict what’s coming.

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3. Consider Feeding to Mitigate the Dearth

Finally, don’t panic. If your bees look OK, just keep an eye on them. If they seem to be struggling or appear to have less honey than usual at this time of year, consider your options. Some beekeepers choose to feed their bees during this time. This is a personal choice and one that is discussed often. Personally, I prefer to keep some honey set aside for bees during this time. Feeding honey, rather than sugar water, serves two purposes: It gives the bees the food that is the most nutritionally appropriate, and it ensures that you don’t contaminate the hive’s honey with sugar.

4. Don’t Harvest During a Dearth

There’s one last dearth caveat: Whatever you do, never, ever harvest honey during a dearth. It might seem like common sense, but it’s worth mentioning, because a dearth can sneak up on you, and a novice beekeeper might not know what to look for. Even if your bees have full stores but you know that no nectar is coming in—leave it. You never know what will happen later in the season. Though we always hope for even levels of rain, moderate sun, lots of nectar and endless honey. Happy summer!

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