The thought of harvesting honey from your own beehives is the primary reason for many wishing to become a beekeeper. This 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. But, as learn how to harvest honey from bees, you will see that it too involves some hard work.
Once you have a few years of experience, you learn that keeping bees requires some effort all throughout the year. If you want healthy productive hives, you are going to have to invest some time 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. Hives in colder regions will need 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.
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. There is a big difference between nectar vs honey.
Once the conversion process is complete – the water content in honey is much less than that of raw nectar. The bees normally cap each cell with a thin wax covering. Ideally, we want to only harvest capped honey frames.
Bringing In the Honey Crop
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 heavy honey supers back to your honey house or secure “inside location” as quickly as possible.
I always take my beekeeper’s smoker to the bee yard with me. However, I do not use it while harvesting honey.
Because of the way smoke affects bees – I feel it is a hindrance instead of a help in moving bees out of the boxes – but it is a safety measure if needed.
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Methods to Remove Bees From Honey Supers
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. There are several ways to remove bees from honey supers:
- 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 that is placed in the hole of the inner cover. The bees leave the super and cannot return.
Perhaps useful for late season harvests in cool regions. But, 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 honey super and place it on a stand (or pickup tailgate).
The air from the blower removes the bees by blowing them off the comb. 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 with absorbent material.
The flannel or burlap material holds the liquid which emits an odor. The bees move away from the scent, leaving the top super almost bee free after a few minutes.
This is my favorite way of harvesting but you must have a bit of patience. Fume boards work well but it takes a few minutes and they work better on warm sunny days.
There are several approved liquids that can be used to remove the bees. One of the old formulas works very well but smells like dead things – I do not use it.
There are several almond/cherry scented products that smell good and works well. I would choose either – Bee Quick, Honey B Gone or other pleasant scented removal liquid.
Pulling Honey Supers from the Hive
Most beekeepers have a favorite 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 super box fits inside. A second outer cover (or piece of wood) sits on top of the empty box. This keeps visiting bees out as I place honey frames in there.
Step by Step
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.
Continue the process until you have removed all of the frames from the box. Then remove the empty box and 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.
What to do with Uncapped Honey Frames
Ideally, all the cells of your frames will be capped with only a few (or no) open cells – but in the real world that doesn’t always happen. Usually, uncapped honey frames should be left in the hive another week or two.
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%
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 and did not finish capping.
Incoming food is needed for bees to make the wax which is used to cap the cells. Most beekeepers keep a honey refractometer on hand to measure the moisture levels. Check a few cells of your uncapped frames.
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.
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.
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.
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 Your Harvest
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.
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.
- choose a method works with your style of beekeeping and physical ability.
- late season colonies are often strong and your bees may be more aggressive – 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 !
- Each box should be covered as it is removed (beehive tops, canvas clothes, etc.)
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.