Helping Bees Through a Nectar or Pollen Dearth

Being a beekeeper often requires you to pay attention to what’s happening in the environment around your bee yard, especially when it comes to keeping an eye on your colonies’ sources of pollen and nectar.

Taking note of what you’re seeing and when throughout the year is something we often touch on, especially when it comes to identifying and preparing to help your bees get through a nectar dearth.  

Planning for it and mitigating the risks that come along with a nectar dearth (covered below) can make it a much less stressful time in the bee yard for bees and beekeepers alike.  

Not being ready to assist your bees during a dearth if needed can potentially impact even the healthiest colony in a very detrimental way.  

What is a “Nectar (or pollen) Dearth”?

It’s a commonly used beekeeping term, but what does a nectar dearth really mean for you and your bees? A “dearth” is considered “a scarcity or lack of something”.  

There are certain times throughout the year when there are simply very few or none of the flowers and plants that bees rely on to provide them with resources, those times are considered pollen or nectar dearths, depending on which plants are and aren’t blooming. A pollen or nectar dearth can happen any time of year but is most often seen in middle-to-late summer and in the fall for much of the United States.  

The dearth lasts for as long as there are no nectar and/or pollen-bearing plants available, but it’s often for around a month or so in many places. Some places go through it for much longer and others don’t experience a dearth at all. It’s so important to know what’s blooming in your area by taking notes and doing your own research or learning from other local beekeepers (Colony Members, don’t forget that you can connect with beekeepers near you on the Colony Forum!).  

How You Can Identify a Dearth is Happening 

To identify that a pollen or nectar dearth is occurring, you’ll want to keep a close eye on the colony and its behaviors, in and out of the beehive. Keep an eye on the entrance, do you notice that bees are less active and fewer foragers are returning (especially those carrying pollen)?  

You’ll also note a decline in stored nectar inside the hive. Were they filling 1 frame per week before but now aren’t adding any new nectar? It’s possible a dearth is occurring if you’re noticing the number of frames with pollen or nectar stored decreasing or staying the same.  

A prolonged pollen dearth, or especially so with a nectar dearth, can lead to changes in bee behavior, brood pattern, and brood production. If there are fewer resources to sustain the colony, the queen’s egg-laying will likely slow the brood pattern leading to a decrease in brood of all stages. Fewer bees mean less of a burden on resources but leaves the hive vulnerable.

Because a dearth means no pollinators have resources available, robbing may be seen where other bees and insects look to “steal” nectar from your colony. This often causes bees to become extremely aggressive and defensive both inside and near the outside of the hive.  

How a Dearth Can Affect Your Honeybee Colonies 

When a nectar dearth is happening and affecting your bees, it’s impacting all the other pollinators in the area, too. The lack of resources in combination with the smell of stored nectar coming from your beehives can entice many other insects (and sometimes other animals, too) to attempt to take some of those resources for themselves.

A nectar dearth can also mean your bees are going to have reduced brood rearing and have food shortages. Reduced brood rearing can slow down even a healthy colony’s progress and food shortages can lead to starvation in hives, even those who had plenty of stores. Read on to our “learn more” section below to find a great resource on preventing starvation in honeybee colonies.

Following the tips & tricks below will help you to easier mitigate the risks that come along with a nectar or pollen dearth.

  • Plan & Prepare – Knowing what’s blooming and when can help you be prepared for the start of a dearth and have what you need on hand (like supplemental feed/feeders or entrance reducers) to help bees get through it. 
  • Add Robbing ScreensAdding a robbing screen or entrance reducer helps bees defend their entrance and fend off robbers. This is especially necessary if you have a new or weaker colony that’s experiencing a dearth.
  • Leave Some Resources in the Hive – Many beekeepers with 2nd year and beyond colonies will see an increase of honey and/or pollen coming into hives in early Spring and want to harvest and bottle the excess for their consumption (or possibly to sell). You can still harvest excess sources, but rather than use them right away, consider storing them for the bees to use later during the nectar dearth.
    • Removing and storing extra frames full of food stores can be especially helpful when brood boxes are honey or pollen-bound as the colony needs space to expand the brood nest in the spring. Having extra food frames there definitely does not help with that. Check out the “learn more” section below to find resources on pollen/nectar stores in the brood nest.
  • Keep Inspections Quick – If you’re inspecting hives during a dearth, it pays to get them over and done with quickly. Keep the opened hive bodies covered (you can use a cloth inner cover to do this) so that robbers are unable to enter from above and the hive stays dark and cool.  
  • Manage Mite Levels – Managing mite levels means that bees are healthier and better able to defend their colonies. The nectar dearth often coincides with a time that varroa mite populations are spiking and treatment might be applied if mite control wasn’t done proactively. So it’s important to remain vigilant in your mite counts and treatments, preferably ahead of the dearth, to ensure colonies are not more vulnerable because of viruses transmitted by mites and the treatments applied to keep levels low. Learn more and find even more resources on proactively managing varroa mites here.  
  • Equalize Colonies – A weaker colony is more likely to be susceptible to the dangers that come with a pollen or nectar dearth. Combine weak colonies with stronger ones or borrow resources from a stronger hive to help ensure their success. 
  • Plant Pollen and Nectar Sources – By adding plants around your bee yard that bloom when others don’t, you provide accessible sources of pollen and nectar that bees don’t otherwise have available. Herbs (like mints, basil, oregano, lemon balm, borage, and thyme) are an excellent resource that often bloom when other plants don’t. Read on to find more information about planting for pollinators. 

How You Can Help Your Colonies During a Dearth

Your first step should be planning to leave enough food sources for bees to sustain themselves through the dearth. If bees have gone through their stores too quickly or did not collect enough in time, they may not survive the dearth.

Adding supplemental feed (while being conscious of mitigating robbing activity by adding entrance reducers and/or robbing screens) can help your bees get through the pollen and nectar dearth with enough stores to sustain them through the rest of the season. Check out the “learn more” section below for additional resources on feeding your bees.  

Be sure that you do not feed your bees externally (outside the hive) if a nectar dearth is happening. The scent of sugar syrup is a beacon for robbers and can cause great distress for your bees.

If you have multiple bee yards or a large property, you may also be able to move your hives to an area that has more abundant nectar or pollen resources that bloom when the bees really need them. There are many important factors to consider when it comes to moving beehives, though! Learn more from our article here.  

Adding Pollen and Nectar Sources to the Environment 

Knowing what’s blooming when can make a huge impact on how your honeybee colonies handle a dearth. If you have taken good notes through the season or have talked to some local beekeepers about what plants bloom when and know that you have no flowers or plants that bloom during July, it can be a huge help to your bees if you plant some that do!  

If you’re planting for your bees, it helps to plant a wide variety of plants that provide pollen and nectar sources but bloom at various times throughout the season, not just during the dearth.  

Learn more about planting for honeybees and other pollinators in our Snippet here

Keep an eye on your inbox for our next Snippet where we’ll cover dealing with robbing (which occurs often during a dearth) and managing your hive’s entrance. 

Learn More

Find our free resources on bee yard situations relating to the nectar dearth below. Colony Members, read on to find member-only lessons and Colony Forum discussions about these topics.  

Feeding Your Bees – Dearth Related PerfectBee Store Products 

Having the equipment on hand and ready to feed your bees quickly when a dearth occurs can make a huge difference in how they manage the time when no natural resources are available. Check out some of our favorite pieces of feeding-related equipment in the PerfectBee Store below.  

  • Bee Pollen – When pollen isn’t available, you may need to provide it supplementally to your bees.  
  • Pollen Patties – Use pollen patties to provide pollen, especially helpful during the early spring months. Add a Trivet patty holder to help avoid SHB infestations. 
  • Hive Alive Fondant – A quick and easy way to provide carbohydrates to bees when it isn’t available, like during the winter months or during a dearth. This fondant also contains HiveAlive Supplement to provide added vitamins and benefits to your bees.  
  • Small Jar Feeder – This small jar feeder works perfectly to securely hold a mason jar full of sugar syrup. Place it on the inner cover inside another hive body to ensure syrup is safe from robbers. 
  • 1 Gallon Feeder Pail – Holds up to 1 gallon of sugar syrup with a slow drip feed method. 
  • Ultimate Direct Feeder – An in-hive feeder that provides the preferred method for bees to feed on sugar syrup. 
  • Wood Frame Hive-Top Feeder – This hive-top feeder has a large syrup capacity and stays protected by the hive’s outer cover to help inhibit robbing. 
  • Division Board Feeder – Though a frame (sometimes two) must be removed to use one, many beekeepers prefer division board feeders as they keep the syrup safe inside the hive.  
  • Boardman Feeder (with Jug) – During a nectar dearth, using a Boardman feeder at the hive’s entrance is not recommended as it can encourage a LOT of robbing activity. A Boardman feeder can be used inside the hive instead, with an extra hive body placed around it (and the inner and outer covers on top) to keep the syrup inside the jug or jar protected. 

Colony Member Resources

Member-Only Academy Lessons 

Colony members, check out these member-only Academy lessons to learn more about pollen and nectar resources and how they may impact your bees. 

Related Colony Forum Posts 

Members of the Colony Forum often start discussions because of a concern they need help with in or around their bee yards. Pollen and nectar dearths have certainly come up as a concern in many of our members’ discussion threads.  

Colony Members can check out some of the related topics in the Colony Forum here:  

Are you not yet a Colony member but want access to awesome beekeeping resources like the member-only lessons and Forum discussion threads listed above? Head to our Colony page here to learn more about all that’s included with membership and to sign up today!