How to Collect Honey from Bees
Many beekeepers get into the hobby for the simple purpose of producing honey. With some hard work and a little luck, your bees will be productive and produce enough to share. Once the crop is ready, your first step is taking the boxes off the hive. Now, you need to know how to collect honey supers – and live to tell the tale. 🙂
Removing Honey from Your Beehive
For the new folks, you beginning beekeepers – the idea of a honey harvest is the golden dream. Of course, we wish to get the honey from the bees with a minimum of disturbance. Anytime we can manipulate our hives without damaging any bees – that is a win.
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If this is your first time, a lot of excitement and maybe just a bit of nerves is normal. It will be okay – you just need to prepare before you start.
Honestly, the bees will probably not be thrilled about giving up part of their food stores. As honey is often collected from hives later in the Summer, colonies are usually strong and full of bees.
Also, removing the honey crop is about much more than just taking up the boxes. We have some decisions to make before getting too involved and removing every box.
Not Every Colony is a Producer
In many areas of the country, beekeepers do not get to collect honey from new hives the first season. Finding a hive with empty honey supers is not uncommon.
Even with supplemental feeding, new colonies may need the whole first season to get into good shape before Winter. On average, it will be the second year before you can enjoy the golden goodness.
Try to be patient. Taking too much and leaving your bees to starve is not good beekeeping or even smart beekeeping.
How Much Honey Should You Leave Your Bees?
Deciding how much honey to leave your bees is one of the most difficult decisions for new beekeepers. Alas, it is not easy to give a solid answer.
Confer with local beekeepers-as the amount needed depends in part on where you live? Honey bees survive Winter by consuming stored food and generating heat within the bee cluster.
Those of you in a climate with long Winter months will require more food stores. Also, some colonies keep a larger population over the Winter and require more stored food.
In general, leaving around 60 pounds of honey for the bees is a general number to start with. Experienced beekeepers in your region will know how much food stores you should leave on your hive.
How Often do You Remove Honey from Your Bees?
Beekeepers in some regions may have several small harvests during the season. Other beekeepers have a shorter time when honey production is high. They may only pull honey off the hives once a year.
Honey is often collected from the hives after a “nectar flow“. This refers to a period of time when the natural world has abundant nectar available. So many plants are in bloom that the bees simply can not harvest all of it.
How long this period lasts, depends on your climate and the local forage. For many, there are a couple of months during the warm season when the bees can be very productive. It always surprises non-beekeepers to learn that bees don’t make honey all year long.
Most of the excess in my area is made in the Spring. We do not have a true Fall flow where the bees make honey for me to harvest.
When you remove your honey crop depends on your climate. In my area, I only make excess honey during Spring. So, I will take the ripe honey from the hives in late May or Early June.
If I am lucky, I may get to pull another batch in late July. This will be Sourwood Honey. Other areas do experience a Fall flow – it depends on the forage available in your area.
Testing Honey Before Collecting
Each cell is sealed with a wax cap when ripe. In general, bees will not cap cells until the honey is ripe and ready for storage. This usually happens when the moisture content of honey is about 18.6%
In most cases, we want a full frame of capped honey with only a few open cells. If the majority of the frame is not capped, the bees may need a bit longer to finish.
What to do with Uncapped Honey Frames
Bees know best and in most cases we should trust their opinion. However, things happen sometimes. Usually, uncapped honey frames should be left in the hive another week or two.
Can your frames 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 which is used to cap the cells. Most beekeepers keep a honey refractometer on hand.
This special tool is able to test the water content of uncapped frames. Thankfully my frames of were ripe and ready to collect. If you need a device, you can purchase a refractometer rather cheaply.
Remove Bees From the Honey Supers
Ok, we have a super that is mostly capped and ready to harvest. But, there’s bees in there! How do we evict the bees from their bounty?
There are several ways to remove bees from supers. But, none of them involve using a smoker. Smoke causes bees to move away but they take honey with them. Collecting honey is easier if you set the smoker aside.
- use bee escapes
- remove bees with a blower
- use a bee brush frame by frame
- use a fume board
If you live in a region with cool nights, you may use “bee escapes” to separate the bees from the honey. This is a one-way gate. The bees leave the super and cannot return.
This does not work in my area because the temps are hot at night and bees remain in the honey supers. Escapes also require opening the hive twice (once to place them and the next day to collect honey).
They are not my favorite item but may work well for you. Be aware, if you live in an area with Small Hive Beetles you risk them infesting the unguarded super. Overnight should not be a problem but don’t leave them in place for days.
Using a Bee Blower
Some beekeepers use a leaf blower to blow bees out of the honey supers. They remove the super and stand it on end.
The air from the blower removes the bees. This method is a bit too exciting for me but it works if you need to harvest a lot of boxes. A bit messy for smaller scale beekeepers in my opinion.
A bee brush is a useful tool for many beekeeping activities. If you have just a few boxes, you can remove the box and gently brush the bees from each frame.
Sometimes this works well-but the bees do not like it. If you want to use your brush, have an extra box with a tight lid nearby. After brushing the bees off a frame you can place it in the tight box.
Fume Board & Liquid
The use of a fume board is the most common method for small scale beekeepers. A special non-toxic liquid is sprayed on the inside of a special top.
An absorbent material holds the liquid which emits an odor. The bees move away from the scent, leaving the top super almost bee free.
This is my way of harvesting but you must have a bit of patience. Fume boards work well but it takes a few minutes. They work better on warm sunny days.
There are several approved liquids that can be used to remove the bees. One works very well but smells like dead things – I do not use it.
Bee suppliers have an almond/cherry scented product the smells great and works almost as well. I would choose either – Bee Quick, Honey B Gone or other pleasant scented removal liquid.
One Method of Pulling Honey Supers
Most beekeepers have a method of steps they use when collecting honey supers. This is mine and it is a common practice.
Harvest begins during early morning. Hopefully, most of the foragers are out working. And remember – no smoke.
The tools needed include:
I also have an extra empty honey super box that I can make “bee-tight” by using several pieces of wood or 2 hive tops. Turn an outer cover upside down and the empty box fits inside. A second outer cover (or piece of wood) sits on top of the empty box. This keeps visiting bees out.
1. Spray a small amount of (removal)liquid on the inside of the fume board. A “X” shaped pattern is good. You do not have to use very much – don’t try to soak the fabric.
2. Gently open the hive (no smoke), remove the outer cover and inner cover of the hive – set aside. Now, place the fume board (that has been sprayed) on top of the first honey super to be removed.
You will hear an increased buzzing. In a few minutes (8-10) the majority of the bees will leave the super and go into the box below. It works faster on a sunny day.
3. When most of the bees are out (you can check by lifting the fume board to peek in), remove the super from the hive and set it on a nearby stand. Place the inner cover back on the hive to keep the bees inside calm.
4. Using a hook hive tool (my favorite), and a pair of frame grips – remove each frame. Gently brush off the few bees remaining and place the honey in an extra empty super or tight box.
Perform, a quick check of each frame to be sure it does not contain baby bees. Some beekeepers use queen excluders to help keep brood out of supers. But, it is still a good idea to check.
Continue the process until you have collected all of the honey supers. Then, close up the hive. Take your harvest away from the bee yard quickly. You do not want it to attract the attention of other bees! They may take it back…LOL
The boxes may be very heavy. Consider having an ATV, wheelbarrow or truck bed to help you get your supers under cover.
Temporarily Storing Supers of Honey
Many beekeepers do not have the option of processing their boxes the same day. Place them in a bee-tight space that is protected from pests such as ants.
You may have a few honey leaks due to some of the cell breaking open – that’s okay. Placing a plastic drop cloth under them is a good idea.
The garage is not a good option if bees can get in – they will smell the honey and you will have thousands of girls waiting outside the door.
Almost remember that honey is hygroscopic. It absorbs water from moist air. Keeping the supers in a room with fans and/or an air conditioner is not a bad idea.
Process your honey right away, especially if you live in an area with Small Hive Beetles. Even if you do not see any adult beetles, they may have been in the hive.
Any beetle eggs on the comb (no you can not see them – they are tiny) can hatch and destroy your harvest in just a few days. Do not leave supers sitting around for more than a day or two.
Extracting and Processing
Most people prefer jars of liquid rather than eating honeycomb. There are several methods of separating honey from beeswax.
Choosing the best way to extract honey depends your goals, the time you have and the available money to spend.
A honey extractor is a special piece of equipment used to process honey. Extractors come in many configurations and styles. You do not have to use an extractor but it does make the job much easier.
As you complete your harvest, don’t throw away the left over beeswax. After you clean or process the wax cappings, they can be used for many beeswax recipes and projects. Collecting honey from a beehive can be messy but it is a lot of fun.