How to Harvest Honey
Many beekeepers keep bees for the sole purpose of producing honey. Do you dream of having jars and jars of delicious honey from your own hive? Once the bees are finished with the crop, it’s our time to get busy. These tips for harvesting honey should help make the job of collecting honey a sweet experience.
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 a honey harvest? 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.
If may be your hives second year before they are able to produce a honey crop for you. The colony has a lot to do that first season.
There are several different types of honey bee hives in use in the United States. Technically, you could harvest honey from any of them.
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.
Are You Stealing the Bees 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.
The Best Tips For Harvesting Honey
Here are my best tips to make your honey harvest a breeze – 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
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. 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.
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.
This process of bees making honey is remarkable and requires a lot of work from the bees.
As the conversion from nectar to honey is completed, house bees store the honey in wax cells.
Water Content of Honey
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 of honey 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 frame of capped honey is ready to harvest. If only a few open cells are not capped this is okay. But if most of the frame is uncapped, the bees may need a bit longer to finish.
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 moisture content was below 18 %.
In most instances, you should listen to your bees. They will cap the honey when it is ready but you can always test a frame if you are in doubt.
Getting 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. If you are harvesting honey from a beehive late in the season, your colonies may be large and powerful.
I do not use smoke to harvest honey. (Though I do keep one on hand in case a colony become overly defensive.)
Take care to avoid spilling an honey in the bee yard. This could start robbing and result in colony losses.
Removing Bees From Honey Supers
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. I don’t prefer them.
Power Bee Blower
Just Bees Blowing In The Wind: Some ingenious beekeepers developed the idea of using a blower to remove bees from the ready boxes of 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.)
Collecting Honey with a Fume Board
My favorite tip for collecting honey is to use a fume board and a special spray. I have been using the fume board method for several years.
I highly recommend them 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.
Protect Your Harvest – Extract Quickly
“I have harvested several boxes of honey, now what? ” Don’t stand there ! The bees will take that honey back if they can get to it !
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.
Extract your honey within 2 days if you live in an area that has Small Hive Beetles as a pest.
Beetles and/or their eggs can be inside your supers. They can ruin boxes of honey left unattended by bees.
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.
Having bees on your property increases the average yield of your vegetable gardens & orchards – including those of your neighbors!
Enjoy the Sweet Rewards of Honey Harvesting
Congratulations on harvesting your first crop of honey – now enjoy. With proper storage, your honey will last forever. If you don’t eat it first.