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Harvesting Honey (From Hive to Table)

For many people, the idea of harvesting honey from your own bees is the primary reason for becoming a beekeeper. Of course, keeping bees has other rewards too. But, the promise of a fresh honey harvest leads thousands of beekeepers to invest the time and money into this hobby.

Your First Honey Harvest

Beekeeper harvesting frames of honey from a beehive image.

Producing a good crop takes some time and requires good planning. It doesn’t just happen. Having bees is not like hanging out a bird house. For a good crop, you have to manage your colonies.

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In many regions, those of you who start new colonies from scratch may not get a honey harvest the first season. I know, I know – its difficult to wait a whole year.

However, your beekeeping adventure will not be successful unless your bees are able to survive Winter. In order to do that, they need to be strong and have plenty of food.

If you have to start over every year because your bees starve that’s not good beekeeping. Is there something wrong in your hive management plan. It would be time to evaluate what you are doing and where improvements can be made.

The amount of stored food needed by the colony for Winter varies greatly from one region to another. Around 60# of excess stored honey is the average needed. Those of you in colder regions will need to leave more.

Best Hives for Honey Production

Bees make honey from plant nectar collected from blooming plants. This natural process takes place inside any type of beehive regardless of the style.

You will find a couple of hive styles that are popular in the United States. When you say “beehive” most people automatically think of those white boxes stacked at the sides of fields or in someone’s backyard.

These are Langstroth hives that were developed by Rev Langstroth back in the 1800’s. Langstroth Hives have been the industry standard for commercial beekeepers for many years. The stacked format of this hive style is well suited to honey production.

I suggest beginners start beekeeping with a Langstroth Hive. This is especially true if harvesting honey is a major goal.

Of course, other hive styles will also work – but the management of the colony may be a bit different. Find some beekeeping friends who have the style of beehive that you prefer.

Various beehive styles for beekeepers to use for honey production image.

When Will You Have a Honey Harvest?

This is one of the first things that students in my beekeeping class ask, ” When can I expect frames of honey? In a few weeks, or will it be a few months?

Well, yea – it is usually a much longer wait. Available forage for the bees, the length of your growing season and whether your bees are starting from scratch- all these factors affect the timing of your first honey harvest.

For most new beekeepers, it may be the second year before your bees are able to produce a crop for you. The colony has a lot to do that first season with building comb, population and storing food for themselves.

Of course, you may get lucky and live in a region with abundant nectar, a long warm season and have very healthy colonies – but be prepared to wait until year 2.

You have put a lot of work and effort into learning how to start beekeeping – be patient. I know it is hard.

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And the absolute truth is this – not every hive will make enough to share every year. Things happen. Bad weather, too much swarming, sickness, queen problems – there are a lot of things that affect the bees.

A large crop of honey to harvest is never guaranteed. Colonies that are poorly managed and suffer from pest infestations or poor health in general are rarely productive.

How Much Honey Can I Take?

Harvesting should only be done when the bees have surplus. This means enough food is stored beyond what your colony should need for Winter.

How much is that? It depends. You knew I was going to say that didn’t you? Check with local beekeepers and learn how many boxes is normally required for hives in your region.

The beekeeper should not take all the honey from the bees and rely on feeding sugar water. It is a suitable strategy for hives in need but does not replace the nutritional value of their own honey.

In most areas, bees do not produce all season long. Some hives will not produce any excess honey after Spring is over. While the colony needs enough food stored for Winter, they have to eat every day during the Summer as well.

If no nectar is available, what are the thousands of colony members going to eat right now? Sometimes the hives suffer from a lack of natural nectar or dearth during the middle of Summer. Are the bees needing to dig into their Winter stores to survive in July?

A fume board on a beehive is being used to remove bee from honey supers during harvest image.

How to Remove Honey From the Hive

It is normal to feel a bit overwhelmed, but taking supers off the hive can be a lot of fun too. You may have several crops to harvest throughout the season – or only once.

Late season colonies are often strong and may be extra defensive. Be prepared to protect yourself against stings – wear your protective gear.

Consider the different ways to collect honey from the hive (bee brush, bee escapes, fume boards etc)- I discuss several.

Choose one that works well with your style of beekeeping and physical ability. What works for one beekeeper may not be the best plan for you. However, it can be done without a lot of pain to the bees or the beekeeper with the proper tools and some patience.

Your first time of removing honey from the beehives can be a little frightening. Those bees are not going to willingly give up all their hard work.

Of course you won’t take all of their food stores – will you? I sure hope not – but they don’t know that. It is their natural tendency to protect the hive and food stores.

How Long to Wait Before Extraction

“I have harvested several boxes, now what? ” Don’t stand there ! The bees will take it back-if they can get to it !

Plan your strategy for getting those heavy super boxes under cover once they are off the hive. You can not stand around in the bee yard. Each box should be covered as it is removed or you will have bees getting back in.

Have some extra equipment (beehive tops), canvas clothes, etc to cover each 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.

Some beekeepers have a dedicated honey house to keep the boxes until extraction. While it is not necessary to have a dedicated building you do need some place clean and safe.

Too many new beekeeper lose boxes of honey because they delay processing. Extract your frames within 2 days if you live in an area that has Small Hive Beetles.  These pests and/or their eggs can be inside your supers.

Supers of honey left to sit (unattended by bees) can be ruined in just 4 or 5 days. Don’t delay using your extractor to process your crop.

Raw honey pouring from extractor into a storage bucket image.

Honey Extraction: With or Without an Extractor

Many beekeepers have access to a honey extractor. The machine is used to sling liquid honey out of the beeswax comb. Some models are electric but manual ones will work too.

Learning how to extract honey is a simple process. First, the wax cappings are removed from the comb. Then, the frames are placed in the extractor and shortly – out flows delicious honey.

Must you use an extractor? No, a honey extractor is not mandatory. The extractions process has benefits. But, the “crush and strain method” has worked for hundreds of years and still does.

All of the honeycomb is removed from the frame and crushed to break open the wax cells. Then, hanging the comb in a filter bag allows the liquid to drain out. Either way results in a beautiful honey crop.

How to Store Bulk Honey

After the harvest is over, you need a good storage plan. If you have a lot of honey, you will probably store it in 5 gallon buckets. These are very heavy but a great way to store a lot of product.

Smaller producers usually bottle up the total crop into jars. Quart jars are the most common size for storing honey. These are not as heavy as buckets and are easy to re-pour into smaller containers if desired.

Unless you consume or sell the honey quickly, some of it will likely crystallize. Do not panic if your honey “turns to sugar”. This is a natural process and honey can be decrystallized with ease.

Preparing Honey to Sell or Give Away

Most beekeepers sell or give away jars in smaller sizes such as quarts, pints, bears and other decorative containers.

Present your jars of honey in the best manner possible. Take the time to choose nice clean containers.

Wipe away any stickiness from the outside of the jar. Take pride in this wonderful product that you and the bees have made.

Small jar of honey with twine around the top and a honey dipper image.

Beekeepers have many different choices when it comes to containers. If you plan to give away or sell it, plan on having containers of different sizes.

Consumers who use a lot of will go for the big jars. Those who are not as familiar with raw honey like to buy smaller containers.

The last step of harvesting honey is getting it bottled in suitable containers and ready to use. You may choose jar or various sizes and bottle only liquid honey. Or larger glass jars of chunk honey may be your favorite.

Do Your Honey Jars Need A Label?

Honey labels can be purchased ready to use – just add the weight and contact information. Or, you can design and print your own label.

Either way, the honey harvest is not complete until you have the correct information on each jar. This is especially important if you are planning to sell them.

In my honey labeling guide, I cover the key elements that need to be in place on every label. Beyond that, you may have to meet local regulations if you sell very much product.

Producing honey requires a level of patience. Some hives will not produce any extra – even in a good year. Educate yourself and understand the needs of your colony. Strong, healthy hives are more productive.

I always tell my beekeeping students, ” nothing will ever taste better than honey from your own beehive”. A lot of hard work is involved – make the most out of every drop.

FAQs About Harvesting Honey

Are you stealing honey from the bees?

Harvesting does not hurt the bee colony – as long as you do not take too much. Don’t be greedy.  Always leave the bees enough food for Winter.

How much honey will a beehive produce ?

Production varies from year to year. But over time, you learn what the average excess production is for your area.

In my region, 60 pounds or about 1 5-gallon bucket per hive is a good average. Your location factors into all aspects of production and harvesting.

Bees capping honey for harvest image.

Can I keep bees without harvesting honey?

Yes, of course.  Many people keep bees and never collect honey.  They want the hives for pollination or just because they enjoy watching them. 

Having bees on your property increases the average yield of your vegetable gardens & orchards – including those of your neighbors!

Should I use a smoker during my honey harvest?

No bee smoker is required at harvest time. In fact, it might make the job more difficult.

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8 Comments

  1. WILLIAM B CHILDERS Sr says:

    Both of my hives have five or more frames of capped honey. And I have no idea how much they will need to survive the winter. So I have left them alone and next year I will be taking some for the rent. LoL But I would love to harvest some this year.

  2. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    I understand completely. Been there ! It’s late August and I know that my bees need a full shallow super before the end of October. You probably need to be feeding them now. For sure, if they have not drawn out all the comb. I know its hard to wait but the honey will taste even better next year.

  3. Thank you so much for your blog. I’m a second year beekeeper and have learned so much from you in the past year. I live in East Tennessee outside of Knoxville.
    I have harvested 12 frames of honey and some of it has been reclaimed while I was trying to figure out how to get them off the honey and closed up. I’ve been waiting on an extractor from my club to extract the honey. It’s been two days now and I am worried about my honey. It’s closedup but not air tight. What should I do? Thank you.

  4. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Yea, I would be worried as well if you have Small Hive Beetles in your area. You may have to consider freezing it and then letting it thaw before extraction.

  5. Marlow Shubert says:

    I am new at beekeeping and need to harvest some honey so need all the help that I can get Thank you for the info Marlow

  6. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    You are certainly welcome. Be sure to read my posts on storing honey, bottling honey and storing equipment. I also have a How to Harvest Class.

  7. Joylane S Russo says:

    We are bee keepers in Murphy NC. We have bee keepers bring in hives from other states and dropping them off simply to collect the Sourwood. Nobody inspects the hives or treats them. Is this legal?

  8. Charlotte Anderson says:

    It can be a problem for sure. My understanding was that you had to have a permit. I would contact the NC Department of Agriculture for verification of the law at this time.

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