How to Harvest Honey Ethically?

I do not favour taking all the honey from the bees. Harvesting honey from a beehive should only be done when the bees have surplus.

Beekeepers do not normally get a harvest of honey from new hives their first season, but there are exceptional colonies and exceptional nectar flow years when this is not true. Generally, it will be the second year before the bees produce enough of a surplus to be worthwhile harvesting.

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. 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 British National hives for my bee colonies. Boxes called “supers” are stacked on top of the brood box to create somewhere for the bees to store honey.

A busy hive with 3 supers on top of the brood box

I leave each colony with a brood box and a super for the winter. Usually, I will place the super under the brood box (a process called “Nadiring”), as the bees will then move the stored honey up to where they need it. The bees naturally move up through the boxes as they use the stored honey, and the then empty lower box will act as an additional buffer between the winter cluster and the cold. In these 2 boxes the bees will live, store food and raise young. I want the super to be full of honey before Winter arrives.

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. In the Spring, an early crop could be had from the abundant oil seed rape, with it’s brilliant yellow flowers, then there is the main summer flow, from the multitude of garden flowers, wild flowers, trees and grasses. For those lucky enough, there can also be an autumn flow from heather.

After the bees have filled ‘their’ super with honey, I can add additional boxes for me. We call these boxes “honey supers”.

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.

A frame of capped honey ready for extracting

When to Harvest Honey from Your Bees?

When you harvest honey depends on your climate. Oil seed rape is planted near where I live, but I do not move my hives to the fields, so get very little of it in my hives, therefore I do not have a Spring crop. My main crop comes at the end of the summer,  in late July. I might take some honey off earlier if I run out of supers, so that I can reuse them, and hopefully the bees will refill them.

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. In the UK, the water content of honey must be below 20%. Generally though, we want the moisture content to be below 18%. The lower the water content, the less chance of the honey being spoiled due to fermentation.

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. A simple field test is to shake the frame, and if no honey splashes out, you could probably extract it.

How to Get Bees Out of the Honey Supers

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.

Bee Escapes
Many beekeepers 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 how to harvest honey with bee escapes as there are special considerations. Some bee escapes, such as the Porter escape, need the springs adjusting to ensure the bees cannot go back through them into the supers. Porter escapes often get propolised by the bees, rendering them useless. If you leave any type of escape on too long, bees can find there way back into the supers.

A Porter bee escape showing the springs that must be set to the correct gap

Some (mainly commercial) 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 – not much finesse in this method…

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 (who likes smoke flavoured honey anyway?).

Clearer Board
The use of a clearer board is the most common method for small scale beekeepers. The board is placed between the brood box and the supers, allowing the bees to move down and leaving the honey super almost bee free after 24 hours or so.

My Method of Pulling Honey Supers

I use home made clearer boards, with cut down Rhombus bee escapes placed in opposite corners of the board. The lower part of the board is made deep enough to ensure that the bees can get out of the escape quickly, and to maintain correct bee space with the top of the frames below (British National hives are bottom bee space).

Clearer board made with cut down Rhombus escapes

I place these escapes between the supers and the brood box, late in the day. Usually, by next morning, the bees will have been emptied from the supers.

I remove the supers and take each frame out of the box. I gently brush off any stragglers remaining and place the honey frame in an extra empty super.

How Do You Get the Honey Out of The Honeycomb?

Extracting is best done on a warm day, so the honey flows well from the frames, and most definitely away from the bees – you will soon have a mass of bees on a feeding frenzy about you should you forget this important fact!

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? Maybe not. Many local beekeeping associations will have an extractor or two that members may borrow to extract their honey, or you could use the “Crush and Strain Method” for processing your honey.

Have a food safe bucket 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 food safe 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 fork or hot knife.

Uncapping honeycomb

The uncapped honey frame is placed in the extractor. I use an 8 frame radial extractor from E.H Thorne’s. 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 as the bees don’t have to produce beeswax to remake all the comb cells.

After extracting, the ‘wet’ honey supers can be placed back on the hive for the bees to clean, and possibly refill. This is a good plan as long as you give each hive a super, otherwise, you may start robbing in your apiary.

Do not place the ‘wet’ supers outside, as every flying insect in the vicinity will soon find them, and you will have clouds of bees, wasps etc on a feeding frenzy.

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, with which you can make beeswax candles, furniture polish and skin care products, among many other uses.

Washing honeycomb capping prior to rendering

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