By: Ross Conrad
When is the best time to harvest honey from the hive? . . . It’s a question that crosses the mind of most every beekeeper eventually. As with many beekeeping questions, the answer is “it depends.”
The honey bee is one of the only creatures on earth, other than humans, that will take more than they need from the environment around them. This is due to their powerful hoarding instinct. As long as there is room in the hive to store nectar and ripen it into honey, and there are nectar sources accessible due to favorable weather, a hive of bees will keep collecting nectar and storing it in the hive as honey even though they may already have far more honey stored than is necessary in order to survive a long cold Winter.
Beekeepers take advantage of this hoarding instinct by increasing the capacity of the hive to hold honey whenever the combs in the hive are close to being fully utilized by adding another honey super to our Langstroth hives or additional frames to the top bar hives. Some beekeepers have even designed top bar hives so that standard Langstroth style honey supers with frames can be added on top after all the top bars have been filled below (see photo).
There are numerous factors that go into the decision when to harvest honey from hives. To begin with, one must be patient. The bees must be given adequate time to collect nectar and process it into honey by reducing the moisture content of the nectar below about 18%. Rush the process and harvest before it is fully ripened by the bees and you may end up with fermented honey. Not the end of the world since it is still edible and makes great mead, but if high quality honey that stores well or is for sale is your goal, low moisture is what you want. A good rule of thumb is to not extract unless at least 75% of the cells in the honey combs are capped. By extracting one uncapped honey frame for every three capped frames of honey, the overall moisture content will tend to be below the level where fermentation will occur.
The other extreme is to wait until all the blossoming plants have finished blooming in order to maximize the honey crop by harvesting as late in the season as possible. Unfortunately, in the Northeast the last of the major nectar flows ends in late September when temperatures typically are getting quite chilly at night. The cold temperatures make honey in the combs thick and much more difficult to extract. Robbing pressure is also very strong at this time of year. With no other sources of nectar to forage on and Winter right around the corner, honey supers must be kept covered and protected from marauding bees as they are being taken off hives. The extra effort involved in defending your crop from robbing bees greatly reduces the joy of the honey harvest.
Another reason why it is not usually preferable to put off the honey harvest until late in the season is because some of the treatments used for pests and diseases are temperature sensitive. Wait too long and average daytime temperatures may not be favorable for effective treatments.
Since most pest and disease treatments should not be used when honey supers to be harvested are on the hive due to contamination concerns, all harvesting may need to be completed before any treatments can begin. Given the importance of “taking care of the bees that will raise the bees that will live through the Winter” (to paraphrase Bee Culture editor Kim Flottum) treatments for Varroa and disease must take place early enough to ensure healthy Winter bees. As a result, the temperature requirements of treatments may serve to dictate when the honey harvest should happen.
When a colony has stored far more honey than they can reasonably be expected to consume during a long Winter, I believe it is best to harvest the excess rather than leave it on the hive for the Winter. While some well-meaning beekeepers will wait to harvest their honey in Spring rather than Autumn in an effort to be sure the bees have enough honey for Winter, there are a number of reasons why I don’t believe this is a good idea.
Winter honey that does not get used and is still in the hive come Spring will often become crystallized (at least in the Northeast). Thus, each Spring the bees can be seen uncapping honey that was unused during the Winter and sucking up what little liquid remains of the honey, while the numerous sugar crystals will be found on the bottom board or on the ground as they are removed from the hive as debris by the bees. In addition, crystalized honey is hard to extract. This makes life for the beekeeper much more difficult both due to the longer time it takes to extract crystalized honey and the extra wear and tear on the extracting equipment. It also increases the potential for comb blowouts during the extracting process and additional energy will be required to run the extractor since the crystalized honey will require it to run for a longer period of time.
The combs holding the honey left over in Spring may also become moldy depending on weather conditions and the strength of the colony, and this may impact the quality of the honey harvested. In addition, leaving more space on the hive than necessary (in the form of extra honey supers that the bees don’t need), which must be maintained and patrolled by the colony is usually a bad idea during these days of weak hives, small hive beetles, wax moths, etc.
Perhaps the most important reason why I don’t like the idea of waiting to harvest honey from hives until Spring is because the bees may need any honey that is found left over in the hive in Spring to get themselves ready for the upcoming Winter. Life for the honey bee in the Northeast is primarily about reproducing and surviving Winter. Although colonies of bees may historically build up and store enough honey for Winter in your location, what if this is the year that a drought or some other weather abnormality prevents the bees from storing enough honey to survive the coming Winter? Any honey left over from the previous Winter and found in the hive in Spring may just be what is needed to ensure the colony will be well provisioned for next Winter. At minimum, it can help reduce the amount of feeding that may be required by the beekeeper during Winter preparations. Since I can’t predict the weather and know with any certainty what the season will be like, I prefer to only harvest all excess honey in late Summer here in Vermont. This is because this is the only time of year when I can be pretty sure just how much honey the colony is likely to have going into Winter and I am able to determine if the amount of honey in the hive is going to be enough for the colony to survive the cold season dearth.
There are a few exceptions to the general rule of a single late Summer harvest that must be acknowledged. For example, a beekeeper that wants to offer honey varietals in order to serve novelty markets or to compete with other beekeepers by specializing their product line will have to take the risk that the honey varietals that are harvested in Spring or early Summer will not be needed in order for the colony to get through Winter. Sure, such a situation may be remedied by feeding sugar syrup to the bees later in the season, but given the mounting evidence that indicates that bees are much healthier when raised and maintained on natural honey and pollen rather than substitutes, the wisdom of harvesting early and potentially leaving the hive short on naturally derived food stores becomes questionable.
Another potential reason a beekeeper may decide to harvest honey before late Summer or early Autumn in the Northeast is due to poor planning (or limited finances) that results in the beekeeper not having enough equipment to super hives in a timely manner and take advantage of the area’s major nectar flows. Full supers of honey can be harvested, quickly extracted and put back on hives to fill up again, making up for the lack of extra honey supers. Such a scenario is a lot more work than simply harvesting all at once at the end of the season, but on some occasions this may be the best that one can do. Whenever one chooses to harvest their honey, it is critical these days that the harvest is timed so that extracting can be done within two-to-three days of removing the bees from the frames of honey and taking the honey from the hive. The sooner extracting and processing takes place after harvesting the better in order to prevent wax moths, or small hive beetles from getting established on the unprotected combs and ruining all the hard work done by both bee and beekeeper.
Removing Old Comb
Although I have been keeping bees for over 20 years, I think the supreme importance of proper comb management on the overall health of the hive is really only just really sinking in. When I began beekeeping, beekeepers would brag about how long they had been reusing old combs. Claims of combs being 20 years old, or older, black as night and still in use, were not uncommon.
Why replace old comb regularly?
Since Colony Collapse Disorder reared its ugly head, volumes of research have consistently indicated that beeswax combs have the potential to attract, absorb and build up numerous chemical contaminants. Over time, beeswax comb can also potentially build up significant levels of viruses and other bee pathogens. Additional research has shown that the sub-lethal levels of pesticides that can be found on combs in a typical beehive can make a hive more susceptible to pathogens that may be present. The level of pathogens in a hive also impacts the ability of bees to tolerate Varroa mites. Among the vectors that may contribute to pesticide and pathogen build-up in the combs are foraging workers, drifting bees, pollen, and beekeepers themselves. The preponderance of scientific evidence has led to the general recommendation that beeswax combs in hives be replaced every three-to-five years.
Some approaches to comb replacement
Various techniques have been developed to achieve the goal of comb replacement in the hive. Each beekeeper must choose the one that fits into their beekeeping operation the best. Most methods require that frames be marked in some way so that the year that the comb was built by the bees can be tracked. To accomplish this some beekeepers will write on the top bar, others use thumb tacks pushed into the top-bar of each frame that are color coded for the year in much the same way that the age of marked queens is monitored. Some beekeepers may use the color of the comb as a way to judge its age. However, the color of the comb can be deceiving since combs used for honey storage will tend to darken much more slowly than combs used for brood rearing.
The most dramatic way to replace comb in a hive is all at once. This is hard on the bees since they must build up the hive’s comb supply in its entirety in time for Winter, and the comb-less period temporarily reduces the ability of the colony to raise young and expand the worker population. Since the creation of new comb is dependent upon the availability of copious amounts of carbohydrates (sugar in the form of nectar or syrup) rebuilding an entire hive worth of comb often takes a lot of money and time invested in feeding unless the bees are located in an especially rich and productive foraging area.
In order to temper the huge investment of time and resources required to create new comb most beekeepers will opt to replace a small portion of the colony’s comb at a time. A common recommendation is to replace two-to-three combs in each box each year. In this way all 10 frames of comb in the standard 10-frame hive body or super will be replaced within five years or less. One way to accomplish this task is to rotate the oldest combs in the hive to the outside positions in each box in Autumn. Then in early Spring, when the colony has a modest population and much of the comb in the hive is empty, the outside frames are removed and replaced with foundation.
The making of nucleus colonies with three to five frames of brood, honey, pollen and bees is another way to rotate old combs out of a hive. By the same token, it is a good practice to always include a couple frames of foundation when ever a nucleus colony is installed into an eight- or 10-frame hive body. It works well to place the foundation in positions #2 and #9 and allow the straight combs on either side of the foundation help guide the bees in building a straight comb within the frame.
Another approach is to utilize a three deep hive body system for each hive. Early in Spring, when the bees are primarily occupying the top hive bodies, the bottom hive body that is mostly empty can be completely removed and all the frames replaced. By replacing all the frames in a single deep box each year, frames in the three-hive body hive are never allowed to become older than three years. A modification of this approach is to use five medium boxes for each hive. By replacing all the old frames in the bottom box when reversing the hive each Spring, a five-year comb rotation will be achieved.
What to do with those old combs?
As I outlined in the July 2014 issue of Bee Culture, beeswax is an incredibly unique and valuable product from the hive. The old combs we cull from our hives on a yearly basis can become an important source of wax that can produce an additional income stream. Combs that still have eggs, larva or brood that has yet to hatch should not be culled from the hive. Ideally only old empty combs are removed and replaced. However, we all know that the “ideal” is often not the real-world situation we have to work with. Sometimes, old combs being culled from our hives will still have small amounts of honey or nectar in them. In such a case, it’s a good idea to not allow these carbohydrate resources to go to waste, and instead leave the frames out for the bees to rob out and take back to their hive. Just be sure to leave the frames to be robbed out at least 300 feet away from the beeyard if you have more than one hive, in order to prevent your hives from trying to rob each other.
Options for getting new comb started
Numerous options exist when it comes to providing the bees with the opportunity and incentive to build new combs. Each option has various pros and cons related to time and labor, durability, cost, honey bee acceptance, reliably straight worker comb, and the initial level of potential chemical contamination (a problem that is ubiquitous due to contamination of commercial beeswax used to manufacture foundation).
Beeswax coated plastic foundation is the most durable option available. While it tends to cost more than sheets of 100 percent beeswax foundation, it takes less time and labor to assemble, and the potential level of the initial chemical contamination is likely to be lower since the majority of the foundation is made of plastic rather than wax. The beeswax coating on plastic foundation is important because honey bees are unlikely to accept the plastic foundation without it. Plastic foundation becomes a problem when it comes to disposal, a problem that is not an issue with other options. When it comes to harvesting the beeswax, all other options allow the wax to be removed in a solar wax melter. Old frames of comb built on plastic foundation require a lot more labor in order to harvest the wax since the plastic will warp in the heat of a solar wax melter and so the wax must be scraped off each comb manually if the plastic foundation is to be preserved and reused.
Sheets of 100 percent beeswax foundation have stood the test of time for producing consistently straight combs of worker sized cells at a price that is typically less than that of plastic. Beeswax foundation is not as durable as plastic foundation even when wired and the time and labor required to produce frames of wired wax foundation can be significantly more than that required to assemble frames of plastic foundation. Since full sheets of foundation have the highest wax content of all the options available, the level of the initial chemical contamination has the potential to be the highest. Honey bee acceptance of beeswax foundation is not a problem and the entire comb can be rendered down with the exception of any metal supports such as wires or pins.
Starter strips of foundation deliver significant cost savings over the use of full sheets since the bees will build the majority of comb naturally without the benefit of foundation. Starter strips can be made of either 100 percent pure beeswax or beeswax coated plastic. In the case of starter strips made of plastic, disposal issues are reduced, though not eliminated. Time and labor association with starter strips of wax is about the same as for full sheets of foundation since the time saved by not having to support the foundation strip with wires or support pins is used by the time required to cut up the full sheets of foundation into strips. Potential initial contamination issues are greatly reduced since much less commercial beeswax is being used to begin with. Strips take more time and attention in order to produce consistently straight combs. While mostly natural comb built from starter strips may contain significant amounts of drone cells, science is starting to support the idea that a certain level of drone comb is important to maintain the health of a colony. Starter strips do not result in finished combs that are as durable as full sheets of beeswax foundation, however this weakness can be overcome with careful management and handling.
One hundred percent natural comb is the least expensive option and requires the least amount of time and labor since the bees are given no foundation at all, and instead are given frames or top bars that are shaped in such a way that simply encourages the bees to build their comb in place. Natural comb also has the potential to contain the least amount of chemical contamination since absolutely no commercial beeswax is utilized in the construction of the comb. As with starter strips, combs are likely to contain significant amounts of drone cells, and more time may be required to ensure that the combs are consistently built straight. In addition, greater care in handling and management is needed with frames of naturally built comb due to the lack of comb support typically provided by wires or pins.
Get those new combs drawn out
All new combs, whether they are built from full sheets of foundation, starter strips, or built naturally without foundation will require a honey flow. In order to get combs drawn out in a timely manner, it is best to time your comb rotation activities to coincide with the local honey flows whenever possible. If the timing is off or the honey flows don’t materialize, feeding an artificial diet rich in carbohydrates will be necessary.
Given what we know about the pesticide and pathogen laden environment that today’s honey bees have to navigate, the importance of comb management has never been greater. With the many options for comb rotation available, beekeepers have little excuse not to adopt a method that ensures hives are filled with comb that have relatively low levels of pesticides and pathogens year-round.
Ross Conrad is the author of Natural Beekeeping 2nd Edition published 2013 by Chelsea Green Publishers.
Ross Conrad manages his comb and his bees in Vermont.
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