What is Nectar Dearth?

When flowers start to dry up and die, bees struggle to find nectar and pollen.

Honeybee on Pink Dahlia Flower
Sumiko Scott / Getty Images

Summer is a pleasant time for many creatures, but for bees, it can be a challenge.

This season is a common time for nectar dearth. As the name implies, a nectar dearth is a time of nectar scarcity. These periods differ from area to area, but they are marked by high temperatures when flowers are dry. The transition between seasons, like spring to summer and summer to autumn, when plants are ending and beginning their respective life cycles, can also result in a dearth.

Dearths can be devastating to colonies as it means there's less food to go around, especially if the previous season was one of abundance for the bees. Bee populations swell when there's plenty of nectar, but if there's less nectar, that bigger population can go hungry. Beekeepers can inadvertently compound a dearth if they've already taken honey from the hive, reducing the bees' stores further.

But even if you don't own a hive, you may see some of the signs of nectar dearth around you. Here's what some of them mean.

Signs of a nectar dearth

Luckily, the bees will let you know in a few different ways if there's a dearth happening. Some of them are behaviors intended to help them survive while others are reactions to external dangers that occur during dearths. Bee behaviors will differ depending on the conditions.

1. Bees are Louder

According to HoneyBeeSuite, you can expect the bees to make quite a ruckus during a dearth, almost as if they've been disturbed. Bees will also be moving around outside the hive, and in larger clumps, as if they're ready to swarm.

2. Bees Check and Re-Check Flowers

Because there's less nectar, bees will forage for it on flowers they've already been to. You often won't see this behavior when the nectar is flowing. Additionally, bees may visit flowers and plants that they otherwise avoid in an effort to gather more nectar.

3. Bees are More Inquisitive

A combination of lack of food and an inability to do their primary jobs in life will push bees to investigate new smells and sights. They'll be drawn to floral smells, including perfumes, Hobby Farm reports. You may also spot them in places you wouldn't expect, including near vehicles or recycling bins.

4. Bees Fight Off Would-Be Robbers

Perhaps the worst thing for a colony related to dearths is the robbing that occurs. Bees may fly into hives that aren't theirs and steal what nectar is available. Wasps and yellow jackets may also participate in these raiding activities. Instead of foraging what nectar they can find, the bees are forced to defend what little they already have. A sure sign that robbing is occurring is a number of dead bees outside of a hive. (If you own your own hives, you should reduce the size of the entrance to the hive. It will make it much easier for the bees in the smaller colony to defend themselves and survive.)

If you're still not sure there's a dearth happening, Beekeeping365 recommends placing a quart jar filled with syrup some distance away from the hive, far enough away so as to avoid a feeding frenzy. If the bees are flying all the way to the jar, they're likely experiencing a dearth since the sugary syrup isn't as attractive to bees as nectar.

How to Help Bees During a Dearth

You can assist bees experiencing a dearth by feeding them.

Feeding the bees involves using either pollen patties or a sugar syrup mixture. The mixture can vary from one part water for one part sugar, though a dense syrup with more sugar is an option as well. Feeding out in the open can be dangerous to the bees and wasteful. Battles may break out over access to the syrup, especially if you're limiting access with fewer holes.

As for how much to feed the bees, this depends on your goals, according to Beekeeping365. If you're just looking to sustain the colony over the dearth, a quart of sugar syrup a week should do the trick. If you're doing a split in the hive, then you basically have to feed the bees as much as they want. Of course, the amount you feed will also hinge on the size of the colony and how depleted the bees' stores already are. Of course, this process also means marking which combs are already somewhat capped so you can avoid harvesting honey made with sugar.

Ultimately, experience with beekeeping will help you the most. If you begin to learn when dearths are coming, you can opt to not harvest as much honey for yourself and allow the bees to survive on their own. This will reduce your workload as well as theirs. You'll also know when you need to feed them during a dearth and when you don't. Remember, beekeeping isn't just about the bees in the hives; it's about the whole environment around the hive. So "bee" aware and alert to changes.