Synechococcus- and Prochlorococcus-specific narB genes that encode for an assimilatory nitrate reductase are found in coastal to open-ocean waters. However, it remains uncertain if these picocyanobacteria assimilate nitrate in situ. This unknown can potentially be addressed by examining narB mRNA from the environment, but this requires a better understanding of the influence of environmental factors on narB gene transcription. In laboratory experiments with Synechococcus sp. CC9311 cultures exposed to diel light fluctuations and grown on nitrate or ammonium, there was periodic change in narB transcript abundance. This periodicity was broken in cultures subjected to a doubling of irradiance (40–80 μmol photons · m−2 · s−1) during the mid-light period. Therefore, the irradiance level, not circadian rhythm, was the dominant factor controlling narB transcription. In nitrate-grown cultures, diel change in narB transcript abundance and nitrate assimilation rate did not correlate; suggesting narB mRNA levels better indicate nitrate assimilation activity than assimilation rate. Growth history also affected narB transcription, as changes in narB mRNA levels in nitrogen-deprived CC9311 cultures following nitrate amendment were distinct from cultures grown solely on nitrate. Environmental sampling for narB transcripts should consider time, irradiance, and the growth status of cells to ecologically interpret narB transcript abundances.