Home Beekeeping 13 reasons for small honey harvests (& how to improve them)

13 reasons for small honey harvests (& how to improve them)

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13 reasons for small honey harvests (& how to improve them)

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Inside: Below are 13 reasons for small honey harvests. Learn to recognize the things you can do to help your bees, but also understand those things beyond your control.

Common reasons for small honey harvests

Nothing is more discouraging than a small honey harvest, especially when your bees appear vibrant and busy. Worse, you may have seen frames loaded with honey earlier in the year, only to find them empty at harvest time. What happened?

Unfortunately, many things can interfere with a colony’s ability to store honey. Some are out of your control, but skilled management can fix some. Experienced beekeepers often get better yields because they’ve learned how to help their bees through the lean times.

Now, let’s look at potential problems.

1. Bad weather keeps bees inside

Bad weather happens. Anyone who grows plants knows there are good years and bad ones, but most are in between.

Weather conditions such as excessive rain, wind, heat, or cold affect plant growth, flowering, and nectar production. But bad weather also affects the bees themselves. Honey bees will not fly in heavy rain, excessive wind, or cold temperatures because it is too dangerous.

If flowers bloom while the bees huddle in their hives, your honey production will take a hit. And while that’s not your fault, it’s discouraging anyway.

What’s the difference between weather and climate?

Weather happens over a short period of time, like hours or days. A quick thunderstorm or a muggy afternoon makes for nasty weather.

Climate describes the average weather over a long period, years instead of days.

You can think of weather as short-term conditions and climate as long-term trends.


2. Climate change makes nectar dearths longer

Our changing climate is causing summer nectar dearths to be longer and hotter. Even though honey bees prepare for summer dearths by storing lots of honey in the spring, they will use up more of their stored honey if the dearth lasts longer.

In a long, hot summer with no flowers, a colony of honey bees can easily eat through everything they gathered in spring. Some may even require supplementary feed.

Flowers bloom but bees can't fly in the rain.
Flowers bloom but bees can’t fly in the rain.

3. Water shortage causes overheated hives

Like most animals, honey bees cannot work without a constant supply of water. Each bee needs water for proper health, respiration, and digestion.

In addition, the colony as a whole needs water for regulating hive temperatures and feeding the young. If your bees don’t have a naturally occurring water source, be sure to supply one for them.

4. Fewer flowers mean less nectar

Although it’s easy to forget, the plantings near our apiary can change from year to year. If the farmer down the road plants clover every spring, your bees (and you) are in for a treat. But if that farmer switches to hay, your bees need to go elsewhere.

Likewise, overgrown meadows rich with wildflowers and weeds can morph into parking lots. Or lightly forested land may disappear in favor of houses. All these changes can pinch your honey harvest.

Although honey bees usually find an alternative nectar source, it may be further away or may provide less nectar. This means that your bees need to fly further or work harder for the same amount of nectar. At the end of the season, you may have less honey than you had before.

5. Habitat fragmentation changes land use

Linked to a lack of nectar-producing plants is habitat fragmentation. Fragmentation is a result of urbanization. It is caused by roads, industrial complexes, shopping centers, housing developments, stadiums, and golf courses that chop the landscape into little pieces, most of which are not good for bees.

Not only do these things force honey bees to fly further, but they impose other dangers. For example, bees crossing roads get hit by cars, and bees on golf courses may be damaged by pesticides. Water supplies may be missing or polluted and flowers may be completely absent.

If your bees live in a developing urban or suburban area, note those things that may damage foraging opportunities. You may need to move your bees further away to get a good honey crop.

6. Hive placement affects bee behavior

To maximize honey production, a colony of bees should get morning sun and afternoon shade. This arrangement provides an early start without giving them heat stress in the late afternoon.

Also, when setting up a hive, avoid depressions or places where the air is stagnant and still. Fresh air and ventilation are equally important. Your bees try to move clean, fresh air in through the bottom while they expel moisture-laden air through the top.

The better the ventilation, the faster the honey can cure. If the hives sit in a damp area, it’s harder for bees to evaporate water from the nectar.

7. Predators ensure small honey harvests

Predators such as birds, wasps, frogs, skunks, badgers, bears, and lizards eat bees. Dead bees don’t produce honey, so be alert to any animals that pester your hives.

If you have yellowjackets, hornets, or other wasps, consider setting up robbing screens to keep them out.

8. Robbing honey bees steal honey from others

A small or weak hive will have trouble increasing its population and storing honey if it’s attacked by robbing honey bees from another hive. This is another reason to install robbing screens.

Once honey bee robbers begin, they can empty a hive of all its honey. It’s worthwhile to learn to identify robbing bees by their behaviors.

Colonies close to each other compete with each other. In places with lots of forage, this doesn’t matter much, but when resources are scarce, colonies that can’t find enough food from flowers often resort to robbing.

9. Pathogens and parasites lower productivity

Naturally, anything that hinders bee health will lower honey production. All beekeepers must recognize and treat the pathogens and parasites active in their area.

Here in North America, they include parasites like varroa mites, tracheal mites, small hive beetles, and wax moths. Diseases can be associated with parasites or they may appear on their own. Pathogenic diseases include viruses, bacterial infections like American foulbrood and European foulbrood, or microsporidian diseases such as nosema.

To get the most honey production from your bees, you must keep them safe from these and all other ailments that adversely affect honey bee health.

10. Queen bee health and genetics affect harvests

Not all queens perform equally when it comes to honey production by their offspring. Your choice of queen stock should be based on what works best in your area. I suggest talking to beekeepers who live near your to learn which lines work well in your local climate.

11. Time your management decisions to maximize populations

Remember, you need lots of bees to make lots of honey. If you decide to do something that lessens the number of bees right before the nectar flow, you will lessen your honey production.

For example, lots of beekeepers like to make splits in early spring when bee populations are rapidly expanding. That makes lots of sense. But it will drastically affect your honey production in the hive you split. The main thing is to be aware of how your management decisions will affect your honey production.

12. Hive style can affect honey production

Some hive styles naturally produce more honey than others. Overall, Langstroth hives produce larger colonies and bigger honey crops than Warre hives, long hives, or top-bar hives.

That’s not to say anything is wrong with these other hives; they simply address different problems a beekeeper might have. And remember, honey production depends more on beekeeper skills than anything else.

Just bear in mind that hive selection is a personal matter, and there are many reasons for choosing one style over another. The amount of honey you get is only one factor of many.

13. Good ventilation dries honey fast

Although the subject of hive ventilation is controversial, many experienced beekeepers attribute their large honey crops to improved ventilation, at least during the honey-producing months. Hives with excellent ventilation allow the bees to cure more honey in a shorter time because the moisture-laden air inside the hive is quickly exchanged for fresh air that can hold even more moisture.

In addition, many of those same beekeepers provide upper entrances during the nectar flow. Not only do upper entrances provide more ventilation, but they also allow nectar-carrying bees quicker access to the honey storage areas.

For more on providing upper entrances, see “Surplus secret: access holes with platforms” and also “Upper entrances can enhance your honey production.” Also, don’t miss “The Upstairs-Downstairs Intrance: better beehive access.”

Keep realistic expectations

To prevent disappointment, be mindful of what honey bees need to produce lots of honey. New beekeepers in particular sometimes forget that new colonies must put their energy into building comb and raising young in addition to providing food for the winter. Cut them some slack by not expecting honey for yourself as well.

If you keep your mind on what is best for the bees, honey production will eventually fall into place. In the meantime, think like a honey bee and do the most important things first. Your bees will reward you in the long run.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

About Me

My love of bee science is backed by a bachelor’s degree in Agronomic Crops and a master’s in Environmental Studies. I have written extensively about bees, including a current column in American Bee Journal and past columns in Two Million Blossoms and Bee Craft. In recent years, I’ve taken multiple courses in melittology and made extensive identifications of North American bees for iNaturalist. My master beekeeping certificate issued from U Montana. More here.

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