Honey Bee Starvation
Reading Time: 5 minutes
In my neck of the woods, honey bee colonies typically succumb to starvation between the end of winter to the first of spring and again during the summer dearth. However, honey bee colonies readily starve at other times as well. In all cases, the reason is simple — colonies have consumed all of the honey stores while waiting on the next honey flow. So, what’s a beekeeper to do? Learn to recognize a nectar flow, what sufficient food stores look like, and how to create an artificial nectar flow.
Recognize a Nectar Flow
One of the first signs of an incoming nectar flow is a new influx of nectar being stored where cells were once dry. Over a short period, simultaneous inspections will reveal increasingly larger nectar rings as the flow continues to grow and progress. You will also notice flight activity increases with heavy nectar flows causing large numbers of foragers to zip back and forth through the air around their colonies at seemingly lightning speed. Foragers have a mission to accomplish and their flight activity shows it.
Another sign to watch for is the distribution of new wax, particularly along the top bars of frames when a nectar flow begins. This wax may be seen as a small line of white wax on the top bar as the bees begin laying out ‘the plan’ for their new comb. If supers are not added at (or before) this point, the bees will continue building that line of white new comb into honeycomb in any crevice they can find as they strive to store every drop of the nectar flow. An attentive beekeeper, however, learns to detect this white wax before the bees make a mess of comb by watching closely for the first signs of white wax and adding supers to accommodate the work of their bees as they bring in their food stores.
Recognize an Upcoming Dearth
Knowing when a nectar flow is going on or about to occur is great when your bees are needing food and when you’re hoping for surplus honey. However, the flip side to that coin is knowing when to anticipate an upcoming dearth — or those times when there is a lack of nectar flow in an area. Most areas in the U.S. experience a winter dearth with many also experiencing a summer dearth after the spring flow. Knowing the timing as well as how long a regular dearth lasts goes a long way towards preventing honey bee starvation by enabling the attentive beekeeper to prepare ahead of time before trouble begins.
The timing of these dearths and how much honey to leave for the dearth periods are two major areas where local bee clubs and mentors play a significant role in assisting new beekeepers as they learn the ropes. These are the folks who already know which plants are the nectar producers and when they should bloom. They are also able to advise which areas within the region are rich in these nectar sources. This information plays a key role in learning to gauge the number of surplus honey stores to leave during the various times of the year.
Recognize Proper Food Stores
Just as a well-stocked kitchen will get a family through a specific period without restocking, so should a well-stocked colony. Each region has a typical amount of surplus honey recommended for each season. For example, in our area, a single loaded deep of honey is sufficient for most winters. However, go further north or south and the recommendations go either up or down. The same is true throughout every season whether it’s spring, summer, fall, or winter — each season has its own typical requirements for sufficient honey stores. Again, this is where local clubs and mentors are invaluable, especially for new beekeepers.
Create a Nectar Flow
Every colony needs supplemental feeding at one time or another to prevent honey bee starvation. This is true regardless of which management style you choose because hungry bees starve. It’s that simple. And while the bees don’t particularly concern themselves with which type of feeder is used, they do care about the amount and the timing.
The most basic form of supplemental feeding is a sugar/water syrup of 1:1 during buildup and summer and 2:1 in fall. Ratios do not have to be exact. The importance should instead be placed on the act of feeding. If the colony shows they need supplemental feeding, then sugar water/syrup should be fed until sufficient stores or a nectar flow occurs, whichever occurs first. Do take care to not harvest any of this nectar syrup as honey as it is sugar honey and not real honey. Once feeding is accomplished, continue to monitor food stores weekly or as needed and begin feeding once again if stores begin dropping too low for the season.
Preventing honey bee starvation is one of the first skills a new beekeeper needs to master and yet is highly variable according to region. Discovering the timing of a region’s nectar flows and dearths as well as a region’s surplus honey needs are key elements to preventing starvation regardless of where in the world you keep your bees. So take the time to make a few seasonal notes and within a short period, you and your bees will sit back comfortably knowing they have plenty of food no matter which season they are in.
Originally published in the September/October 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.
Story and photos by: Kristi Cook
KRISTI COOK lives in Arkansas where every year brings something new to her family’s journey toward a more sustainable lifestyle. She keeps a flock of laying hens, dairy goats, a rapidly growing apiary, a large garden, and more. When she’s not busy with the critters and veggies, you can find her sharing sustainable living skills through her workshops and articles.