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After a lot of hard work by the bees and the beekeeper, it is time to take your share of the honey crop. This is a wonderful and exciting time but it can be a bit frustrating too. Now, you must learn how to remove bees from honey supers. The goal is to take the boxes of honey intended for harvest while doing as little damage to the colony as possible.
As explained in my full guide on harvesting honey, it is almost impossible without some loss of bee life. With the weight of heavy honey supers and thousands of moving insects, someone will get squished. However, if you work with patience and forethought the loss can be greatly minimized.
When to Pull Honey Supers Off the Hive
When beekeepers talk about pulling honey supers off the hives, they are referring to boxes that do not stay on the hive all year.
Empty honey supers with frames containing foundation, or drawn comb (if you are lucky) are added to the productive hive just before the honey flow.
When they will be ready for harvest depends on many factors including your bees and where you live. Some beekeeper get to remove honey supers a couple of times per year – many only do so once – mid-late Summer.
Methods to Remove Bees From Supers
There are several ways to remove bees from supers. But, none of them involve using a bee smoker. It is always a good idea to take the smoker with you-just incase. However, because of the way smoke affects bees (they take honey with them). Removing 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 that is placed in the hold 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
This special tool is able to test the water content of honey. Check a few cells of your uncapped frames.
A Final Word
Here in the South, removing bees from honey supers and the supers from the hive is hot sweaty work. Yet, it is a labor of love. Review the various methods of getting the job done and choose the one that fits your beekeeping style and the size of your apiary. There are no wrong ways as long as you do so with respect for the bees.