Where are all the bees?

~ Tips for Attracting Pollinators and Wildlife ~


Honey bees forage heavily on tulip poplar nectar and it is often a major component in much of the spring honey that is harvested in this region. Photo credit: Shannon Trimboli, all rights reserved

“I haven’t seen many bees this spring. Do you know what happened to them?” Is a question that I get 2-3 times each spring. This year is no different, and in fact, because everyone has been home more, I’ve gotten the question more often this year than in previous years. I also know that for each person who asks a question, there are usually many more who have the same question, but for whatever reason aren’t asking. So, in this week’s blog I’m going to answer that question.

First of all, it is important to recognize what type of bee we’re talking about. Most people when they ask this question are talking about honey bees, or possibly honey bees and bumble bees. These bees, along with carpenter bees, are the big, easy-to-spot bees. Usually they aren’t thinking about all the other bee species, many of which are the size of an ant. The reason knowing what type of bee we’re talking about is important is because different types of bees have different life histories and having a basic understanding of those life histories is an important part of answering our question.

Honey bees live in huge colonies of tens of thousands of individuals. They also make honey to sustain their colony during times when there isn’t as much food available, including over the winter. Bumble bees also live in colonies, but the scale is much different with a large colony only having a few hundred individuals during the middle of the summer when the population is at its peak. Bumble bees also make honey but only little gumball-sized pots of honey which are designed to help feed the colony through the summer, not the winter. Only the new bumble bee queens that hatch each fall live through the winter and they hibernate so don’t eat during the winter. Most of our other bees are solitary and produce zero honey.

The answer to the question of “Where are all the bees?” really depends in part on what type of bee we are talking about. We’ll start with the honey bee. In the spring (in Kentucky, we’re talking about April and May, maybe late March or early June depending on the year) the answer is that they are in the trees collecting the nectar that will make this year’s honey.

In much of this region, a significant portion of the nectar that becomes the honey that beekeepers harvest in June or July comes from trees. Examples of the spring-blooming trees that honey bees collect nectar from include silver and/or sugar maple, black locust, wild black cherry, tulip poplar, holly, persimmon, and many others. These trees produce lots of flowers with lots of nectar within a relatively small horizontal space which makes it easy for the honey bees to go from one flower to the next. The honey bees, therefore, can collect more nectar from trees faster, and with less energy expenditure than they could if the same number of flowers were spread out along the ground using only horizontal space. By utilizing primarily tree flowers in the spring, the honey bees are able to get more bang for their colloquial buck.

For example, I currently have 10 hives in my backyard. Some of these hives are small, baby hives (nucleus colonies or nucs) that only have a few thousand bees in them. Other hives are full-sized hives with many tens of thousands of bees. On a warm, sunny day, I can watch clouds of bees rapidly coming and going from my hives. Obviously, there is no lack of bees on my farm. However, over the past two months I haven’t seen a honey bee on the clover in my yard or any of the flowers in my gardens until just the other day.

Although my honey bees actively worked the abundant blackberry and raspberry brambles on our farm for the first few days or so that they were in bloom, the honey bees quickly abandoned the blackberry and raspberry flowers when the tulip poplars went into full bloom. Photo credit: Shannon Trimboli, all rights reserved

Even the large thickets of blackberry and raspberry brambles up in the pastures, only received attention from the honey bees for the first few days to a week that they were blooming. As soon as the tulip poplar really got going on the farm, the honey bees disappeared. I wasn’t worried though because I know tulip poplar flowers produce lots more nectar than blackberry flowers and tulip poplar nectar is often one of the biggest components of spring honey in this region. Now that the tulip poplars on our farm are pretty much done blooming for the year, I’m starting to see a few honey bees on my yard clover and garden flowers. I expect that number will increase greatly over the next few weeks.

I’m much more likely to see bumble bees foraging at ground level during the spring than I am to see honey bees. Based on my casual observations, they also seem to stay on the blackberry and raspberry flowers longer than the honey bees. However, they will also spend a significant amount of time foraging from the tree flowers in the spring.

On the other hand, even when I can’t find honey bees or bumble bees on the flowers in my yard and gardens, I can usually find several different types of smaller, solitary bees using those flowers if I look hard enough. You just have to pay more attention because they are smaller and harder to see. I would assume that many of them still work some of the tree flowers, but some flowers are designed so a visitor has to be a certain size in order to gain access to the nectar. In some cases, that may mean the smaller, solitary bees are too small to use some of the tree flowers. It would also make sense that because they don’t produce honey, they don’t need to collect as much nectar. In which case, it might be more energetically efficient for the smaller solitary bees to stay down towards the ground where they are closer to their nesting sites and don’t have to compete with the bigger honey and bumble bees as much for the nectar. That’s partly speculation but it makes logical sense. I need to learn more about the foraging behaviors of our smaller, solitary bees before I could say whether that was definitely true.

All of this is to say that if you aren’t seeing many honey bees or bumble bees in your yards in the spring, then it likely means that they have found a better nectar source (probably in the trees) and are working that instead. If, however, it is July or August and you aren’t seeing any honey bees or bumble bees, then there might be more cause for concern because there aren’t many trees that bloom during the summer months so the bees are more likely to be at ground level where we can easily see them.



Shannon Trimboli is a beekeeper, farmer, wildlife biologist, and author. She owns Grassy Roads Farm and Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting. Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting specializes in plants and habitat consulting services for honey bees, native pollinators, and wildlife conservation. In 2018, her first book, Plants Honey Bees Use in the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, was published. Shannon also writes a weekly blog called Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife. The blog features profiles of pollinators and wildlife, tips for attracting pollinators and wildlife, highlights of different plants for pollinators and wildlife, and life on the farm and nursery. You can sign up to have her blog emailed to you.

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