Honey cells containing fully ripened honey are capped with snowy white wax. Frames with uncapped cells containing shiny, uncured nectar (like some of the cells in the lower part of the image) should not be harvested. Photo by Ruth O'Neill
What is the best time to harvest honey? Is there a danger to harvesting too early? Or too late?
Generally speaking there is a long window of time for harvesting honey, but there are a few common mistakes to avoid. Before we talk about how to extract honey, think about getting your timing right.
You can harvest ripe honey frames any time during the summer, although most beekeepers prefer to process the frames all at once toward the end of summer, for reasons of efficiency. As long as a frame contains only fully capped honey cells, the whole frame is completely ripe and ready for extraction. However, be careful not to pull frames that have any uncapped cells glistening with uncured nectar, or you may have problems with watery honey that is prone to spoiling.
Conversely, if you wait too long for harvest then you may run out of the hot days that make honey harvesting go smoothly. Ideally, you should pick a hot day in August or September to process your honey.
An additional problem with later harvests is that your honey is more likely to granulate, or “set” in the combs. Granulated honey is perfectly okay to eat, but it is impossible to free from the comb. Some flower species, such as alfalfa and dandelion, have nectar that is especially prone to granulation. Others, such as sage, take years to granulate and you don’t need to worry about harvesting promptly. Until you are ready to harvest, the best place for your honey frames is on the hive, where the workers will keep the honey clean and protect it from potential thieves.
How do you get the bees out of the honey supers?
Combs full of honey are usually covered with thousands of worker bees defending their cache. Some beekeepers just shake/brush them off or blow them off with a leafblower. Those methods work somewhat, but the bees will keep returning to the combs like metal shavings to a magnet.
Fume Board: Another way of clearing away the bees is to use a fume board. This is an outer cover with a felt lining that works best when the weather is warm. You apply a bee remover spray onto the cloth and place the fume board on top of the hive. Within a few minutes the fumes from the bee remover spray will drive the bees out of the first super. You will repeat this process for each super that you are going to extract honey. There are a variety of sprays on the market with a wide range of ingredients.
Bee Escape Board: To get the bees off without chemicals or sprays, use a bee escape board. These boards have a hole in the middle, and a little triangular maze covered with fine wire mesh on one side (there are other bee escapes manufactured out of plastic, but the principle is the same). The board is placed maze-side-down with the super(s) you want to harvest above it and whatever you want to leave for the bees below. Usually, just the brood chamber is left below, but sometimes there is another super if you have decided to leave some extra honey for the bees.
After corking up any auxiliary outside entrances you may have added to your supers, the bees will be trapped inside with the only way out via the maze on the underside. They can figure out how to get out of the maze, but not how to get back in. Over the course of about 48 hours the supers are almost completely emptied of bees, and you can remove them without disturbing the colony. Cover the supers you’ve just pulled with a board or a piece of tarp to keep any stray bees off, then remove the bee escape board from the hive and place the inner and outer lids back on top. Take a wheelbarrow or a yard cart with you – filled honey supers are notoriously heavy.
How do you get the honey from the frames to the jars?
First, pick a place to work, such as a screened porch, a shed, or a garage. The area must be enclosed or you will be annoyed by bees that are attracted to the area. Pick a hot day, when the honey will flow easily. Depending on the type of frames you are using (with or without foundations), your equipment needs will be either very simple or somewhat more involved. Either way, you need a bucket of soapy water and a dishtowel for cleaning your hands frequently, a table to work on, and a tarp if you want to keep propolis and wax off the floor. You’ll also need honey bottles.
For conventional frames (i.e., with frames with foundations) you need, at minimum, the following equipment:
(For top bars, which do not have foundations, you do not need a honey spinner or an uncapping knife. After cutting the comb from the top bar with an ordinary sharp kitchen knife, just chop the comb up in a strainer over a bottling bucket or any other type of container and let it sit for a day or two until all of the honey has filtered through, and then bottle it.)
NOTE: Don’t steal too much honey from your bees!
How much honey should you leave for the colony? You must leave 60 to 70 pounds of honey to carry your colony through the winter. For reference, one medium-sized frame filled to 100% capacity with capped honey will hold three to three-and-a-half pounds of honey, meaning there is about 30-35 lbs. per ten-frame super (excluding the weight of the woodenware). Ten deep frames hold about 70 lbs. of honey.
In warm weather, open up both brood chambers and estimate how much honey the bees have stored, compensating for partially-filled frames by adding more frames to your estimate. If their supply is light, compensate with extra honey frames in a super on top of the brood chamber. During the fall the bees should gradually consolidate their stored honey by moving it down into the brood chamber, as empty cells become available when brood-rearing winds down. The empty super can usually then be removed before winter hits, which will minimize the colony’s winter heating costs.
Written by Ruth O’Neill. Ruth is a Research Associate in the Wanner Extension Entomology Lab at Montana State University, who cooperates on a variety of projects related to insect pests of crops. She has experience as a hobbyist beekeeper, and has a special interest in honey bee health and protection.