Author: Heather Broccard-Bell, Ph.D., Honey Bee Health Researcher
Humans have been gathering honey from honey bees in one form or another for millennia. For most of that time, “management” was as simple as harvesting honey from wild bee colonies wherever they could be found. Apiculture has been transformed over the last couple of centuries by advances in technology. The invention of modular hive systems and moveable frames has greatly improved productivity, mobility, and the welfare of the bees themselves. Ultimately, most of this has been done in the service of one goal: to produce honey.
Now that we’re well into fall honey season (at least in Ontario, Canada), it seems like an opportune time to discuss some of the main considerations of modern honey harvesting. I realize that beekeepers around the world deal with many types of hives these days, but I am going to focus on the most common in North America: the 10-frame Langstroth.
A Sweet Setup
Long before the sweet rewards of your fall harvest are enjoyed, you will need to make some important decisions. First, you’ll need to determine how much weight you want to lift. With Langstroth colonies, extra boxes (“honey supers”) are typically placed above the brood chamber during the summer. Honey supers are often separated from the brood chamber using a queen excluder that allows only workers to enter, ensuring that only honey is placed in these boxes—and no eggs from the queen. The two most common sizes of honey supers these days are mediums (16.8 cm or 6 5/8” tall) and deeps (24.4 cm or 9 5/8″ tall). Deeps are also the standard size of most brood chambers.
A deep super can weigh as much as 40 kg (90 lb) when filled with honey, whereas a medium super maxes out at about 25 kg (50 lb). Remember that you’ll need to multiply that weight not only by the number of colonies you have, but also by how many supers you plan to place on each colony. Of course, not all honey supers will necessarily be filled by harvest time—but it could happen! You don’t want to be stuck with a bunch of honey that you can’t move.
Another thing to consider when you are setting up is what type of foundation you want in your frames. Most starter colony kits come with frames containing a thin layer of plastic “foundation” that may or may not be coated with a small amount of wax. Foundation is by no means necessary, as bees are more than capable of building honey comb without our help. If you’re after traditional bottled honey, keep in mind that most available honey extractors are designed to work only with foundation. On the other hand, if you want to try your hand at comb honey—honey harvested directly by cutting out pieces of honey comb—you’re going to need to supply your bees with foundationless frames.
Finding Your Flow
OK, so you’ve got your supers selected, your frames of choice all set up, and your bees have now been busily working away for a couple of months. How do you know when it’s time to harvest the fruits of your (but mostly their) labour?
With honey production, timing is everything. If you want to harvest honey of a specific type, such as clover, buckwheat or dandelion honey, you’ll need to understand when your target plant species typically produces nectar, and make sure it’s readily available nearby for your bees to forage. But memorizing dates won’t get you very far if you’re not able to understand what is actually happening in your colonies. Nectar flows are weather-dependent, and the weather on any specific calendar date is subject to change from year to year. Rather than targeting specific plant species, most beginning beekeepers find it easier to simply harvest whatever honey is available in their supers at the end of the season. But when is that? How can you determine when a nectar flow is happening? The easiest method is to inspect frames in your supers. If you see a lot of cells filled with liquid that shakes out easily, you can be fairly certain that you are in the midst of a nectar flow. You’ll need to wait a few days (at least) until that nectar is converted to honey and capped with wax before you can harvest it.
It’s Go Time
Once you’ve got enough frames of capped honey, it’s time to remove (“pull”) your honey supers. Since most beekeepers don’t want to end up with a whole bunch of bee “helpers” in the extracting area, you’ll need to remove the bees from the honey supers by some means. There are many such methods. Bee escape boards that allow bees to exit but not enter can be placed between the honey supers and brood chambers for a day or two before pulling your honey. Bee blowers (leaf blowers) are also widely used to blow bees out of the boxes after they are removed from the hive. To use a bee blower, first stand your super up on its side, with the frames perpendicular to the ground. To make your life easier, it is helpful to put the supers on top of something (e.g., a spare deep box, a sturdy folding table, or even on a colony). Whatever method you choose, when it comes time to actually moving the honey supers, you should try to remove them from the yard as quickly as possible to avoid robbing.
Honey is best removed from the comb when it is both warm and dry. Whenever possible, it is best to let your supers rest for a day or two in a heated room with a dehumidifier prior to starting the extraction. It’s important to keep the moisture content of your honey below 17% to prevent it from fermenting. A honey refractometer is a handy beekeeper’s tool to check moisture content. It’s also a good idea to check with your local beekeeping association to see if you live in an area with small hive beetle. If so, then you’ll need to be extra careful that you’ve removed all bees and beetles (e.g., with a bee blower) before storing your supers, and you’ll want to avoid beetle-related spoilage by extracting as soon as possible (24-48 hours after harvest, ideally).
Getting the Good Stuff
Now that the moisture content and temperature of your honey are perfect, how do you get at it? The first step is to remove the wax cappings from the honey. This can be done manually with uncapping forks, knives, or planes, all of which come in a variety of styles. Electric knives and planes add the element of heat to speed things along. Be careful with tools, like blow torches and heat guns, that reach high temperatures. Heating honey too much can negatively affect the naturally-occurring enzymes, or even caramelize the sugar, both of which can alter the flavour.
Whatever uncapping technique you choose, try not to cut too deeply into the frame so that the majority of the honey can be removed with the extractor. That said, you should always uncap over a bucket or uncapping tank with some sort of strainer (e.g., cheesecloth) to ensure you are able to harvest every last drop of honey and wax. I should mention that manual uncapping is not the only option—although it is common among first-timers. For example, commercial extractors have automatic uncapping mechanisms and catchment systems, so all you need to do is pull the frames out of the supers and place them into the machine.
There are probably as many extracting setups as there are beekeepers. Personal preference, the size of your operation, and how much cash you are willing to throw down will all determine just how you get your honey out of supers and into your mouth. A full-sized commercial extractor can run upwards of $100,000 CAD, whereas a manual extractor might only cost a few hundred—and a used one could be even cheaper. At their core, most modern extractors spin frames at high speeds so the honey is pushed out of them, sort of like a giant salad spinner. Honey pools in the bottom of the extractor, and from there, it is usually drained and placed into a holding tank of some kind before bottling. Some people choose to bottle their honey at this stage, but it is often easier to let it settle overnight so wax and other debris floats to the surface, where it can be easily removed. Regardless, honey should be filtered before bottling.
Beyond the Honey
Prolonging the lives of your colonies through proper management not only increases the welfare of your bees, it makes good economic sense. One of today’s biggest concerns for beekeepers is mite control. We recommend assessing your Varroa loads using alcohol washes (watch a how-to video). Are you at or above the treatment threshold? If so, you should treat as soon as possible—but if you haven’t harvested your honey yet, your options are going to be limited. Developing an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program will help you proactively manage Varroa treatments that work with your honey harvest and regional climate. Be sure to read and follow all product labels for proper application. Most mite control products require you to remove honey supers prior to treatment, whereas Mite Away Quick Strips™ and Formic Pro™ can be safely used with honey supers on—letting you stay on top of treatments without risking your honey crop.
It is important to note that honey supers are not the only places that bees store honey! And let’s face it, if we were able to ask them, bees would tell us that they aren’t making that sweet treat for our benefit. Honey is the primary natural food produced and stored by honey bees that enables the colony to make it through winter. If colonies are not able to stockpile enough honey to meet their needs before winter, they will not survive. In most parts of the world, supplemental feed must be provided to bees after the honey harvest. Consult the guidelines in your local area for when and how much to feed. Here in Ontario, Canada, OMAFRA recommends that all honey bee colonies are fed 15 L (4 gallons) of 70% (2 to 1) white sugar in water solution as soon as honey supers are removed. To make sure your bees are adequately fed to survive and thrive, you should do a “heft test”. Tilt each of your colony boxes up to feel how heavy it is to assess how much stored honey is in the brood chamber. You’ll need some practice to get comfortable with how heavy the colonies should feel, so make sure to do this during your inspections throughout the season.
It’s no secret that a lot of hard work goes into beekeeping—but the rewards are pretty darned sweet. Despite the many styles and preferences of the beekeepers we meet, one common thread seems to unite all of us: a deep curiosity and desire to continually grow with this amazing industry.
Wishing beekeepers everywhere a happy and fruitful harvest!
About Heather Broccard-Bell, Ph.D.
Dr. Heather Broccard-Bell is the Honey Bee Health Researcher at NOD Apiary Products. She is a scientist and educator with over 15 years research and teaching experience. Heather has been focused on investigating issues surrounding honey bee health and communication since 2014. When Heather’s not in the lab, you can usually find her in the bee yard or on a trail hiking with her many pawed pals.
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Featured photo credit: Mae Mu via Unsplash.