Enjoy Your First Honey Harvest
Did you begin beekeeping in order to produce your own honey? If so and its time for your honey harvest, you may be a bit nervous. Harvesting your honey is rather easy to do with proper preparation.
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.
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.
Is There Enough Honey to Harvest?
This may be a subjective topic but I do not favor taking all the honey from the bees. Harvesting honey from a beehive should only be done when the bees have surplus.
Do you have excess honey? 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.
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?
This is the first question to ask yourself. Honey is the very best food for your bees. Sometimes, beekeepers feed new or struggling colonies sugar syrup. That’s fine, it is being used as a supplement but it’s not honey.
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 this is not true.
But on average, it will be the second year before you can enjoy the golden goodness.
How Much Honey Should You Leave Your Bees?
Honey bees store honey to use as food during the cold days of Winter. By consuming honey, they are able to generate heat.
They don’t heat the whole interior of the hive but rather the bee cluster itself. Failing to leave enough stores for your bees could result in their starvation.
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.
I use standard Langstroth hives for my honey bee colonies. Boxes called “supers” are stacked to create 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 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.
How Do We Collect Honey?
Bees do not make large honey crops all summer long. There will be a time of the “honey flow” when excess nectar is available.
Some locations have several honey flows. 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 super with honey (on my hives that is box #2), I can add additional boxes for me.
We call these boxes “honey supers” and the shallow super is the most common size.
Bees will gather nectar and make honey to be stored in the super frames. When the honey is ripe, the bees will cap each cell with a beeswax cap.
Timing of Honey Harvest 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 harvests honey from a beehive, the honey 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.
I keep a refractometer on hand when preparing to extract honey. This is an instrument that measures the water content of honey. Generally, we want the moisture content to be below 18.6%.
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.
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.
It is vital to understand the using bee escapes for the honey harvest has some special considerations. This does not work in my area because the temps are hot at night and bees remain in the honey supers.
Also, if you live in an area with Small Hive Beetles you risk them infesting the unguarded honey.
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 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.
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.
My Method of Pulling Honey Supers
Want to learn how to harvest honey the “Beekeeper Charlotte” way?
I use a combination of the fume board and a brush. I apply the liquid (Bee Quick or Honey B Gone) on the fume board. I remove the outer cover and inner cover of the hive and place the fume board on top of the super to be harvested.
In a few minutes the majority of the bees will leave the super. Then, I remove the super from the hive and set it on a nearby stand.
Now, I take each frame out of the box. I gently brush off the few bees remaining and place the honey frame in an extra empty super.
A quick check of each frame to be sure it does not contain baby bees. Some beekeepers use queen excluders for this purpose. Opinions on their use are many. You can learn more: here.
How Do You Get the Honey Out of The Honeycomb?
Now it is time 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.
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 do not.
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.
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.
What to Do with Beeswax Cappings
The last part of learning how to harvest honey involves the beeswax cappings. You may not have a lot of them but they are valuable. You can process the cappings and have some fresh beeswax from your very own hives.
The honey harvesting process is messy but it is a lot of fun.