Whether you plan to sell it, share it with friends and family, or just have some with breakfast, there's no doubt that getting ahold of some fresh, sweet honey is one of the great joys of beekeeping. Most everyone loves the taste, some will tell you of its countless other benefits, but for beekeepers, there is also the simple joy of getting to share in what you helped create. Today, let's get into the basics of actually getting that golden goodness from hives to jars through the two part process of harvesting and processing honey.
To harvest honey simply means to get the bees off the honeycombs and get the honeycombs safely out of the hive and into your processing area (maybe your kitchen or garage). This is simple enough, but what about deciding when in the season to harvest or how much honey to leave the bees? These are important questions that can affect your colony's ability to survive.
When to Harvest
We recommend that you do not harvest honey during your first season with a colony. Instead, you should let them build up stores and get established. Hopefully they will produce a good surplus the following year. For established colonies, depending on local climate, many beekeepers will harvest around July, on the heels of a big nectar flow, when there is lots of capped honey in the hive. The calendar date is much less important than when the nectar flow occurs and when the most capped honey is available. It can also be possible to harvest in the fall as there is often a second nectar flow at that time.
Credit: Casia Charlie
When deciding when to harvest, it will pay to bear in mind that the bees can protect honeycomb better than you can, so as Prof. Dewey Caron advises:
"Leave it with the bees if you are not ready. At the very least, you can harvest it later, such as in the fall, or plan to use it next spring for feeding bees. In areas of small hive beetle and warmer climate areas where wax moths are continually present, you need extra precautions in harvesting honey. This might mean harvesting only what you can immediately process."
How Much to Harvest
Whenever you harvest, it is critical to remember that the colony's winter survival depends on having enough honey. Some beekeepers with strong, well-established colonies harvest in both summer and fall, but if your colony has had a hard year, you may need to think about erring on the safe side and harvesting little or even no honey for a season. If a colony does make it through winter, they may have extra stores left over that you could harvest in spring, if you were playing it safe the previous summer and fall.
Some beekeepers will recommend that you leave a certain amount of honey by weight in a hive for the winter. In our video on harvesting (which you can watch below) we suggest that you can roughly work out the amount of honey to leave your bees by ensuring that there is at least a 1:1 ratio of brood to honey. That means if a Langstroth hive has 1 brood box, you should leave at least 1 honey super. Similarly, if a top bar hive has 5 bars of brood, you should leave at least 5 bars of honey. If in doubt, as always, we recommend you ask the experts at your local beekeeping organization for help.
Now that you've decided when and how much to harvest, it's time to gently persuade the bees to leave the honey for a bit and take it to your processing area. We'll start with methods for Langstroth hives, which are the most commonly used. However, even if you use a top bar or Warre hive instead, these ideas will likely be helpful. Firstly, we strongly recommend that you watch this video by Paul Kelly of The University of Guelph on honey harvesting:
This video demonstrates 3 methods for safely removing the bees from honey supers and making it possible to remove the honey to your processing area. If you don't have time or can't watch the video, we'll break down the main points quickly here:
1. Use a Bee Brush
If you don't have many supers to go through, and you prefer a simple, inexpensive solution, using a bee brush is likely the method for you. Set aside an empty super box next to your hive, then start taking frames full of capped honey from a super, brushing the bees off downward, gently but firmly, with as few strokes as possible. Once the bees are all off the frame, put the full frame in the empty super box and cover it to prevent robbing. Once you have filled up that box, you're ready to take it to your processing area.
2. Use a Bee Escape
A “bee escape” is a flat board that you put underneath your full supers to separate the supers from the brood area. It has a little screen and what looks like a simple maze on the underside. This acts like a queen excluder, but for all the bees. Once they come down, they can't get back up.
To install it, first remove your full supers. Next, place an additional super on top of the brood box. The idea here is to give the bees space to work during the time you are processing the supers you remove. Ideally, this additional super will contain frames that had honey extracted from them the previous season or other drawn comb, making them available for the bees to work with. If you only have foundation or empty frames, you will need to use those.
Now place the bee escape, screen side down, on top of this super, and put your full supers on top of the bee escape. To see a demonstration of this process, you can watch the relevant part of the above video from Paul Kelly at the University of Guelph.
Once you have put the excluder in place, you will need to wait at least 2 nights for all the bees to go down through it (bees go down to warm up the brood at night). You will also need to seal any cracks or possible entrances in the supers to prevent bees getting back in. Protip: use painter's tape. When the bees have all passed through the bee escape, the supers will be empty, and you can just carry them to your processing area.
3. Use a Bee Blower
A bee blower is really just a leaf blower with an attachment on the end to make the airstream very narrow. This attachment lets you blast air between frames of a super, blowing the bees off the side of each frame. First, set the super on its side at about hip level, somewhere with plenty of open space. Then turn on the blower and go frame by frame through the super, blowing the bees out. You will need to use your free hand to tilt the frames a bit as you go, so you can aim at each side of each frame. Once the bees are off every frame, the super is ready to go to your processing area.
Top Bar and Warre Hives
When harvesting from top bar hives, you will likely need to use the bee brush method. With a Warre hive, you may be able to make the other Langstroth methods work one way or another, but if not, you can always fall back on the bee brush method.
Credit: Valeria Boltneva
Processing honey means getting it out of the frames and into the jars (or whatever containers you have in mind). This is a world apart from your in-the-field beekeeping, and some beeks go so far as to outsource this part of the process completely. Meanwhile some find they would rather go all in on processing honey and give up tending hives altogether. Most beekeepers, though, tend to do a bit of both. If that sounds like you, here are your basic processing options, from small to large scale:
1. Cut Comb Honey
The simplest and easiest method for processing honey yields what we call "cut comb honey". This is essentially a square of raw honeycomb, removed from the frame with a comb cutter. With a comb cutter and little boxes the same size, you can easily cut and store squares of honeycomb for later use or sale.
Cut comb honey includes both the honey and the wax, but the wax is safe to eat, and hardly noticeable in small quantities or when mixed with other food. Cut comb can also be chewed like gum. When you're finished with the honey, just throw away the wax.
2. Crush and Strain
Perhaps the most common small-scale honey processing method is called "crush and strain". There are many variations, but the basic idea is to uncap/puncture every cell in the comb so that honey can flow, then put the comb into a sieve or cheesecloth so that the honey can drip down into a container while the wax stays behind. You can "crush" the honeycomb by chopping it up with a knife on a cutting board, slicing off the caps while it's still in the frame and simply sliding the uncapped comb into a bucket with a spatula, mashing it up with your hands, or any number of other ways. As long as every cell is broken so the honey can flow out, you're good to go. Fair warning, this can make a real mess, so you will want to consider going to the garage instead of the kitchen if possible.
If you have lots of supers to process every season, you may consider investing in a centrifuge. This is a machine that spins very fast and flings the honey out of the frames. You uncap the frames and place them inside the machine, then turn it on and wait for the honey to start flowing into your bucket or other receptacle. Centrifuges range from relatively small and hand-cranked to massive, room-sized machines that can handle huge numbers of frames with impressive levels of automation.
Credit: Antoni Shkraba
Aside from automating much of the labor, centrifuges also allow you to leave the wax inside the frames as drawn comb, which is a highly valuable resource. Bees will be able to use this drawn comb in a variety of circumstances in the future in ways that will make your life (and theirs) considerably easier. To get a sense for how centrifuges work, and what their benefits are, you can take a look at this video on honey extraction from The University of Guelph, showing their large-scale centrifuge:
Part of being a natural beekeeper means putting the needs of your bees first and looking out for the health of the colony as well as the local ecosystem. Once you've done what you can in that regard though, and your colony is thriving and producing a surplus of the golden stuff, it's time to celebrate and harvest. We hope you have a blast out there this season, and if you have tips or stories about harvesting honey, we'd love to hear from you. Drop us a line in the comments or on social media.
Written by Zak Garland
Featured image by @solod_sha