Harvesting Honey From Your Bees
Do you have a dream of harvesting honey from your own bees? Many people do. In fact, it is the most popular reason for getting involved in beekeeping.
Of course, not everyone keeps bees in order to produce a honey harvest. Some folks keep bees for pollination or just fun. But honey is still the goal for many new beekeepers.
Time Before Harvesting Honey Begins?
In other words, how long have I got to wait before I can get honey from my hive? Yes, this is one of the first things that students in my Beekeeping Class ask, ” When can I expect a honey harvest? In a few weeks, or will it be a few months?
Well, yea – it is usually a much longer wait. This is one of those times where your location plays a role. Available forage for the bees, the length of your growing season and are your bees starting from scratch- these factors affect the timing of your first honey harvest.
Beekeepers in many regions will not be able to harvest honey from a new hive until the second year. Taking honey for yourself too soon, can lead to hive failure. Don’t rush the harvest and leave your bees to starve.
What is the Best Type of Hive for Honey Production?
There are several different types of honey bee hives in use in the United States. The top 3 hive designs are: top bar hives, warre hives and Langstroth hives.
Technically, you could harvest honey from any of these beehive types. The most common type of hive used for honey production is the Langstroth Hive.
The stacked format of this hive style is well suited to honey production. Langstroth Hives have been the industry standard for commercial beekeepers for many years.
I suggest beginners start beekeeping with a Langstroth Hive. This is especially true if harvesting honey is a major goal. But any hive design will work, if you have a mentor in your area using the same style.
It’s Ok to Harvest Excess Honey
There is nothing wrong with being excited about getting your own honey made by YOUR bees. If fact, your first honey harvest from your bees will likely be the best honey you have ever tasted.
Maybe even the best honey in the world? (Ok, I’m getting a little carried away here.) However, before you run down to the area general store and load up on glass jars, you have a few things to consider.
Harvesting honey does not hurt the honey bee colony. This is true as long as you practice good beekeeping and do not take too much. Greedy beekeepers often end up with starving bees. That is just not right – in my opinion.
No harm is done to the bees with responsible honey collecting. Always leave the bees enough honey for Winter. Don’t assume they will make more honey in the few warm months of Fall. They may not!
Know normal foraging conditions in your region. Learn when honey producing plants bloom and when the honey season is over. Don’t leave your bees to starve.
Tips For Harvesting Honey
Here are my best tips to make your honey harvest the best it can be – we will look closely at each one.
- know how much honey you can expect your hive to produce
- learn when the honey is ripe or ready to remove from the hive
- what should I do if I have uncapped honey
- getting the honey away from the hive
- protecting your harvest
#1: How Much Honey Will a Beehive Produce ?
How much honey your bees produce varies from year to year. But over time, you learn what the average honey production is for your area.
Your location factors into all aspects of honey production and harvesting honey. This is because different climates have different blooming plants. The length of Winter cold (and amount of honey your bees need to keep) will also vary.
In my area of South Carolina, I know that we do not have a good Fall honey flow. I take the surplus honey (made in the Spring) in June or July. I don’t expect to make more for the year.
If I took all of the honey from my colonies in mid-Summer, they would not be able to replace it before Fall. My bees would starve.
Many locations do have a good Fall honey flow and will make excess honey production for beekeepers and bees. You must learn to understand local conditions and how they affect you.
When you are harvesting honey from a beehive, don’t be greedy. Your bees need good nutrition that only honey can provide. Sugar syrup is an emergency plan not a nutritious diet.
Harvesting the excess honey produced does not harm the bees. But only take the surplus honey beyond what the bees need for Winter.
#2 How do I Know When to Harvest Honey?
Bees gather plant nectar from many blooming plants. This nectar is transformed into honey by reducing the water content and adding enzymes.
As the conversion from nectar to honey is completed, house bees store the honey in wax cells. Each cell of honey is sealed with a wax cap. The nectar has become “capped honey” or ripe honey.
In general, honey bees will not cap honey cells until the honey is ripe and ready for storage. This usually happens when the moisture content is about 18.6%
It is pretty impressive to consider that bees collect nectar with a water content of around 80% and transform it into honey with a water content of 18.6% or less.
A few open cells are no cause for worry. A frame of capped honey is ready to harvest.
What to do if Your Honey is Not Capped!
Can your honey be uncapped and still ripe and ready to take? Yes! I have had some years when the nectar source was abruptly cut short by weather conditions. Once several days of storms ripped blooms from the trees.
My poor bees had finished the honey making process but they were struggling to cap the full cells. Bees need food in order to produce beeswax. And, they need wax to cap the ripe cells of honey.
Because honey production season was ending, it was time to take my share of the honey. Using a special tool called a “Honey Refractometer”, I was able to test the moisture content of the uncapped frames of honey.
I verified that the honey was ripe and ready to harvest. This enabled me to continue my harvest.
In most instances, you should listen to your bees. They will cap the honey when it is ready in most instances.
It is Harmful to Take Honey from my Bees?
This is a “touchy” subject that gets into all kinds of ideas and points of view. I will share mine and respect yours.
Personally, I do not like the term “robbing bees”. I always leave the hive enough honey to get them through an average winter. Sometimes, I am wrong and have to feed my bees in the Fall.
I never take all the honey and force my bees to survive on honey made from sugar water. So, I do not feel that I am robbing my bees – its more like collecting rent.
#4: How Do I Get the Honey Away from the Beehive?
Honey is heavy ! Use a truck or have a cart nearby. Have a plan for getting it back to an inside bee tight room.
The honey bees will probably not be too happy about giving it up either. If you are harvesting honey from a beehive late in the season, your colonies may be large and powerful.
Bee Escapes: Some beekeepers use bee escapes to harvest honey from the hive. This small plastic piece is inserted into a hole in an inner cover or similar board. (You can also purchase bee escape boards for use that are ready to go.)
The idea is that the bees will leave the top honey supers at night and go down to the brood area. The bee escape is a one way tunnel so the bees can not get back into the honey supers.
This requires lifting the heavy honey boxes twice – Once to place the escape board and once to harvest. This method does not work well in the South where its hot at night.
Power Approach of Harvesting Honey
Just Bees Blowing In The Wind: Some ingenious beekeepers developed the idea of using a blower to harvest honey.
Assuming you use a queen excluder to keep the queen out of the honey supers, bees are blown out of the honey box without inspecting the frames.
A full honey box is set on its end on the tailgate of a truck or something similar. A leaf blower or bee blower is used to blow the bees back towards the hive.
This works but it really makes the bees mad. Also, if you are not careful you will end up blowing dirt etc around and it will get in your honey box. (Don’t ask how I know this.)
Most Popular Method of Harvesting Honey
My favorite method of harvesting honey is the use of a fume board.
I have been using fume boards for several years. I highly recommend it to those of you with a few hives – or a few hundred.
A small box with a metal top and an inner surface of absorbent material is used (very similar to a telescoping top – except it doesnt come down over the sides). It is the same size length and width as a honey super.
A special product is lightly sprayed on the absorbent material inside the fume board. I do not use or recommend any of the stinky liquid products.
I use Honey B Gone or Bee Quick. After spritzing the inside of the fume board. Place it on the honey super that you want to remove. The bees do not like the scent and should leave the honey super within 10 minutes. No harm – no foul.
#5: Protecting the Honey
“I have harvested several boxes of honey, now what? ” Don’t stand there ! The bees will take that honey back !
Have some extra equipment (beehive tops), canvas clothes, etc to cover each honey super as you remove it from the hive. As soon as you finish in the bee yard, get those honey supers inside a bee tight room.
Can I Keep Bees Without Harvesting Honey?
Yes, of course. Many people keep bees and never harvest or collect honey. They want the hives for pollination or just because they enjoy watching them.
If you do not collect honey, your hive will swarm when it gets crowded – but that’s okay. You can simply enjoy being a part of the honey bee world.
Some homeowners keep bees with no thoughts of producing honey. Honey bees live in large colonies that excel in pollination.
Having bees on your property increases the average yield of your vegetable gardens & orchards – including those of your neighbors!
Bees are a welcome part of any homestead. This applies to a 40 acre farm or a 1/4 acre backyard.
Enjoy the Sweet Rewards
If you live in a region with cold weather, and you are a beekeeper, you may want to create a way to safely warm your crystallized honey.