How to Harvest Honey from Your Hive
Many beekeepers get into keeping honey bees for the simple purpose of producing honey. This means harvesting honey is sure to bring a lot of excitement and maybe just a bit of nerves. The key to success is learning how to harvest honey with a minimum of disturbance to the hive.
Well the moment has finally arrived, it’s time to learn how to collect your honey crop from your beehives.
Of course, we want to disrupt the honey bee colony as little as possible. Honestly, the bees will probably not be thrilled about giving up part of their food stores.
After months (or years) of anticipation, you can’t wait to taste that delicious golden sweetness. But before you start drooling too much, we have to get the honey away from the bees.
How Much Honey Can I Take?
The beekeeper should not take all the honey from the bees. Harvesting honey should only be done when the bees have surplus.
Learn about the natural nectar flow in your region. Will the bees have nectar producing plants throughout the season – or are they not likely to collect more nectar this season?
Some hives will not produce any excess honey after Spring is over. The bees need enough honey stored for Winter and they have to eat during the Summer as well.
Sometimes the hives suffer from a lack of natural nectar or dearth. Are the bees needing to dig into their Winter stores to survive during Summer.
Sometimes, beekeepers feed new or struggling colonies sugar syrup. That’s fine, it is being used as a supplement but it’s not honey.
Don’t pull all of the excess honey unless you are confident that you are not leaving your bees hungry.
Not Every Year is a Harvest Year
In my region, beekeepers do not normally get to harvest honey from new hives the first season.
There are exceptional colonies and exceptional nectar flow years-when the bees produce plenty of honey for themselves and the beekeeper.
But on average, it will be the second year before you can enjoy the golden goodness.
Even established colonies have bad years due to weather conditions, sickness etc. A large crop of honey is never guaranteed.
How Much Honey Should You Leave Your Bees?
Honey is stored to use as food during the cold days of Winter. Honey bees survive Winter by consuming honey and generating heat within the bee cluster.
Deciding how much honey to leave your bees will depend on where you live? Those of you in a climate with long Winter months will require more honey stores.
Also, some colonies keep a larger population over the Winter and require more honey.
Use your climate as a guide. Experienced beekeepers in your region will know how much honey you should leave on the hive.
They come in 3 different heights. A deep super is 9 5/8” high, a medium is 6 5/8” high and a shallow is 5 11/16” high.
In my area of upstate South Carolina, I leave each colony with a deep and a shallow.
In these 2 boxes the bees will live, store food and raise young. I want the shallow (that is left on the hive) to be full of honey before Winter arrives.
I could use a medium instead of the shallow if I wanted. But, I like having only 2 sizes of boxes to keep track of. I don’t need 2 deeps in my region and they are heavy to lift.
Each beekeeper decides on the standard configuration of their hives. Will you give your bees : 2 deeps, 3 mediums or 1 deep + 1 shallow, or 1 deep + 1 medium.
Depending on your climate, any of these will work in most cases. Honey stored in these boxes belongs to the bees.
Collecting Honey After the Flow
Some locations have several honey flows. Beekeepers in these regions may have several small harvests during the season.
Most of the honey in my area is made in the Spring. I do not have a true Fall flow where the bees make honey for me to harvest.
After the bees have filled their top hive box with honey (on my hives that is box #2), I can add additional boxes for me.
These “honey supers” are usually the shallow box size. As the bloom season progresses, bees gather nectar and continue to make honey .
When to Harvest Honey from Your Bees
When you harvest honey 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 of honey in late July. This will be Sourwood Honey.
Before a beekeeper can pull honey from the hive, it must be ripe. This means that the bees have finished converting the nectar to honey.
And, the moisture level in the honey is low enough to prevent spoilage. We want the moisture content to be below 18.6%.
I keep a refractometer on hand when preparing to extract honey. This is an instrument that measures the water content of honey.
Don’t have a refractometer? That’s okay. In most cases you can rely on the bees.
They cap the honeycomb cells when the honey is ripe. If 90% of the frame is capped, you can pull the honey.
Don’t worry about a small percentage of uncapped cells – they should not be a problem.
How to Get Bees Out of the Honey Supers
Ok, we have a super of honey 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 the honey supers. None of them involve using a smoker. Smoke causes bees to move away but they take honey with them.
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. They also require opening the hive twice and are not my favorite item.
Also, if you live in an area with Small Hive Beetles you risk them infesting the unguarded honey super.
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. And remember, we want to avoid using the smoker.
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 liquid is sprayed on the inside of a special top.
The bees move away from the scent, leaving the honey super almost bee free.
This is my way of harvesting. 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 this one – Bee Quick or Honey B Gone.
My Method of Pulling Honey Supers
Want to learn how to harvest honey the “Beekeeper Charlotte” way? My harvest begins during early morning.
Hopefully, most of the foragers are out working. And remember – no smoke.
My tools are a fume board, liquid and a bee brush. Using the special fume board, spray liquid on the inside of the top. You do not have to use very much.
Gently open the hive, 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 super to be harvested.
You will hear an increased buzzing. In a few minutes (8-10) the majority of the bees will leave the super. It works faster on a sunny day.
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.
Now, I take each frame out of the harvested box. I gently brush off the few bees remaining and place the honey frame in an extra empty super or tight box.
Close up the hive and 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
Next, we need to get the liquid honey out of the comb. Process your honey right away, especially if you live in an area with Small Hive Beetles.
Any beetle eggs in the comb can hatch and destroy your harvest. Do not leave honey sitting around for days.
How to Harvest Honey Without an Extractor
An extractor is a special piece of equipment used to process honey. Do you have to have one? No?
You may choose to use the “Crush and Strain Method” for processing your honey.
Have a pail or large bowl and place a nylon strainer bag inside. Cut the honeycomb out of the frames and place them in the strainer bag.
Use a potato masher or similar tool to crush the comb. This action breaks open the honeycomb cells.
Hang the bag full of crushed honeycomb from a sturdy anchor. It will be heavy!!! Let the honey drip into a clean bucket.
This is will take several days. You need a bee-proof warm space for this method.
How to Harvest Honey with An Extractor
Honey extractors come in many configurations and styles. The process involves removing the wax capping from each honeycomb cell.
This can be accomplished with a regular bread knife, capping scratcher or hot knife.
The uncapped honey frame is placed in the extractor. The extractor’s spinning action removes the liquid honey from the comb.
The beekeeper can reuse that empty honeycomb in the hive. This increases the beekeeper’s honey yield. The bees don’t have to produce beeswax to remake all the comb cells.
After extracting, the wet honey supers can be placed outside for the bees to clean. And they will! You will have a feeding frenzy.
Do not place them near your hive or your backdoor. After a few days, the bees will calm down.
Some beekeepers like to put the wet frames from the extractor back on the hive for a few days.
The bees will clean up every drop. This is a good plan as long as you give each hive a super. Otherwise, you may start robbing in your bee yard.
Don’t Waste Your Beeswax Cappings
The last part of learning how to harvest honey involves the beeswax cappings. They are valuable.
You can process the cappings and use them for many projects.
The honey harvesting process is messy but it is a lot of fun.