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Importance of the Nectar Flow in Beekeeping

5/1/2014 8:50:00 AM

Tags: beekeeping, Tennessee, Betty Taylor


It's late April in Middle Tennessee and our nectar flow is on! In my first year of beekeeping, I made a lot of mistakes because I didn't understand what the nectar flow was or its importance. Since then, I've learned to watch the bees, learn from them, and work with them as the season progresses.

What Is the Nectar Flow?

The nectar flow is the time of year when the native vegetation is in full bloom. Here that starts about mid-April, when the trees begin to flower, and continues through May with blooming shrubs like blackberries, honeysuckle and, yes, even multiflora rose and privet, as well as a multitude of wildflowers. Then at the end of June, the summer dearth begins with little blooming other than clover. In the fall, we usually have another, smaller bloom of asters, goldenrod, and other wildflowers. In very dry years, this fall bloom can be pretty minimal.

Why Is the Nectar Flow So Important?


It's important to understand how the bees respond to the bloom. Even before the flowers begin to appear in the spring, the trees will begin to produce pollen. At the same time, the queen resumes laying eggs to build up the hive population that will soon collect nectar and make honey. The worker bees bring in this first pollen of the year to feed all the new larvae that will metamorphose into adult worker bees. By the time the flowers begin to bloom, the population in a healthy hive is exploding and drone bees also begin to appear in preparation for future swarming.

With the bloom, the bees can build new wax. It takes several times more nectar to make a pound of wax that it does to make a pound of honey, so the bees can't make wax unless they have lots of nectar--only during the flow. As the spring bloom builds, healthy hives may produce queen cells in preparation for swarming, their normal method of making new colonies. The old queen and a large swarm of bees will go off and begin a new hive.

Knowing the specifics of the flow for your geographical location is important in managing your bees to maximize hive health as well as honey production. If you create artificial swarms or nucleus hives (nucs) when the bees would normally swarm, the bees get to start a new colony and you get to keep more bees. And because you won't lose up to half of your bees, which can happen in a normal swarm, more bees will be left to produce honey. The original hive will think it has swarmed and settle down to building its stores. The purpose of a spring flow, for the bees, is to provide food for the rest of the year. (Many of my customers are surprised to learn that bees do not make honey all year long and that a bee hive isn't a year-round spigot for honey.)

Knowing when the flow ends and the dearth begins also will help you know how much honey to leave in your hives for the bees. Feeding is an unnecessary expense of time and money in a well-managed hive. Nothing you can feed them will be as good for them as their own nutritious honey. Here, the fall honey from asters and goldenrod serve as supplies for the bees to winter on. I may share combs of honey among hives in the fall and winter, giving frames from overstocked hives to lesser prepared hives, but I won't feed them sugar syrup.

Another drawback of artificial feeding is that you can stimulate your bees to behave as if it is spring at the wrong time of the year, causing them to build up and collapse if nectar and pollen are not sufficient for their increased population and abundance of off-season brood.

Effects of Changes in the Native Environment

I have described a nectar flow in one particular native environment. City dwellers may have a more prolonged bloom, because people plant and water flowers for an all-summer-long bloom. This can benefit the bees and increase honey harvest for urban beekeepers. On the other hand, if you live in an agricultural area, native vegetation may have been plowed under for row crops. Your bees will have less natural forage and a more feast-or-famine supply, depending on the crops and when they bloom.


How Are the 2014 Nucs Doing?

It's been a month since my last blog post and I described making the first nucleus hives of 2014, see At the end of last week, I found new queens in the nucs but no signs yet that they were laying. However, the bees were building wax and bringing in honey and pollen, so I should see brood soon.

I moved each of those nucs into its own single deep hive body. The 3 frames from each nuc went into the center of a deep brood box. On both sides of these frames, I added three empty, foundation-less frames for the bees to draw out. Remember, they can draw out these combs only during a nectar flow. The bees have a lot of work to do to establish the new hives, and these colonies won't produce extra honey until next year.

After checking all my established hives and adding honey supers to those that needed it, I decided to make more 3-frame nucs from the strongest hives. Doing so may cut down a bit on the honey harvest this year, since I will be taking away more bees from each hive. However, 2013 was a dismal year for bees and beekeepers, and we need to rebuild. Now, during the nectar flow, is the time!

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