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For many people, the idea of harvesting honey from your own beehives is the primary reason for becoming a beekeeper. The promise of a sweet reward is why we spend hours tending our buzzing hives and worrying over their health and happiness. Harvest season is filled with much anticipation and excitement. Will all of our hard work pay off? As you learn how to harvest honey from bees, you will see that it too involves some hard work. But, nothing is a sweeter reward than a jar of delicious fresh honey from your very own beehive.
Once you have a few years of experience, you will learn the having your own apiary is not the same as hanging out a bird house for birds. If you want healthy productive hives, you are going to have to invest some time and effort into proper beehive management.
Are Your Hives Ready for a Honey Harvest?
Before you get too excited about how many jars you will need to “jar up” your honey crop, you have to consider a few things. Not every colony makes excess honey every year. This is an honest (if sad) truth.
If you have colonies that were started this Spring from scratch, you 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.
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.
Don’t rob your hives of their Winter food leaving them to starve. Check the boxes that you will leave on the hive to make sure they contain honey for your bees – before taking your share.
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?
Is the Honey Ripe?
Once you confirm that the bees will have enough food left for their use, do a good inspection of the frames of honey in your super boxes.
The bees normally cap each cell with a thin wax covering. Ideally, we want to only harvest capped honey frames.
Bringing In the Honey
The actual process of harvesting your honey crop consists of several stages. Once you decide that you do have excess honey to take off the hive, it is time to spring into action.
- gather materials and tools
- remove honey supers from hives
- process the honey crop
You also need a way to get the honey supers back to your honey house or secure “inside location” as quickly as possible.
Removing Honey Super Boxes or Frames
Take a nice calming breath before you start this process. It is normal to feel a bit overwhelmed, but taking supers off the hive can be a lot of fun too.
Your goal is to get the box of honey off and leave the bees behind without harming them. You can ready about my favorite ways to remove bees from honey supers (bee brush, bee escapes, fume boards etc).
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.
Late season colonies are often strong and your bees may be more aggressive. Be prepared to protect yourself against stings – wear your protective gear.
“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.
Processing : To Extract or Not
Perhaps, you have a honey extractor? This 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 to spin and shortly – out flows delicious honey.
Must you use an extractor? No, a honey extractor is not mandatory. The extraction process has benefits-such as being able to give the empty honeycomb back to the bees.
But, the “crush and strain method” is another option. This is where the honeycomb is removed from the frame and crushed to release the liquid.
Don’t Delay Processing Your Honey
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.
Store Bulk Honey
After the honey harvest is over, you need a good storage plan. Thankfully, raw honey is easy to store.
If you have a lot, you will probably store it in 5 gallon buckets with an air-tight seal. Smaller producers usually bottle up honey into quarts or smaller jars.
Share Your Harvest with Others
You may want to sell some honey to friends and family. Smaller sizes such as as quarts, pints, bears are popular.
You may choose jar or various sizes and bottle only liquid honey. Or larger glass jars of chunk honey may be your favorite.
Especially if you plan to sell product, be sure to have a proper label. In my honey labeling guide, I cover the key elements that need to be in place on every label.
How much honey a beehive produces varies year to year and by location. 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.
No bee smoker is required at harvest time. In fact, it might make the job more difficult.
Yes, of course. Many people keep bees and never collect honey. They want the hives for pollination or just because they enjoy watching them.
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.
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? For most new beekeepers, it may be the second year before your bees are able to produce a crop for you.
Harvesting should only be done when the bees have surplus. This means enough food is stored beyond what your colony should need for Winter.
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, beehives do not produce all season long. Some hives will not produce any excess honey after Spring is over.
Harvesting honey is a lot of hard work and 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 students in my online beekeeping class, ” nothing will ever taste better than honey from your own beehive”. Make the most out of every drop.