It's nearing fall and your hive is full of beautiful combs. The number one question everyone wants to know:
The biggest reason to harvest in the spring, is that the bees need the honey as fuel and for thermal mass to regulate the nest temperatures. We will want to leave a full hive of honey for the bees to overwinter on. The bees will use these combs of honey as fuel to create thermal heat. The bees do this by consuming honey and flexing their wing muscles, this generates heat in cold temperatures.
The other important use for leaving all those combs is to allow the bees to have thermal mass. Those seven pound honey combs hold heat, like a storage tank and this helps the colony to regulate the ups and downs of their nests temperature during the winter.
Determine when you would need to harvest by your zone
Dark Green = Zone 4, Light Blues = Zone 5, Dark Blues = Zone 6
A fresh honey comb harvested from The Cathedral Hive!
To make an assessment of the developmental of the combs look through the window of your top bar hive.
There are still 3-4 empty bars at the back of the hive. This hive isn't quite ready to harvest honeycombs.
Longer Comb Attachments Indicate Honeycombs
Looking through your window you can see the attachments of comb the bees have made to hold the combs in place in the hive. Since the brood comb is much lighter than heavy honey combs, the brood combs have a smaller attachment on the window. You can see in this picture that the smaller attachments towards the front of the hive are brood combs and the combs with larger attachments at the back are honey combs. Ideally when you installed your bees they established the brood nest at the front of the hive and the combs in the back of the hive are honeycombs.
You can see that the last combs at the back are not fully developed. There is quite a bit of space left at the back. 5-6 empty bars and/or partial combs. So with this hive it would be best to let the bees continue to work for the remainder of the fall and pull the combs in the spring.
If you live in a place where the winters are not too harsh or if the nectar that your bees forage for crystallizes easily, like Rabbit Brush, you might want to harvest several combs at this point. Most honeys will crystallize at some point but some nectars like Chamisa (aka rabbit brush) will crystallize much faster. There is nothing wrong with crystallized honey and some folks prefer it's thickness. Crystallization has to do with the water and specific sugar content in the nectar.
The falseback (divider board) should be at the very back of the hive, use your hive tool to loosen the propolis seals the bees have created. Removing a spacer helps to remove attachment to the falseback. The combs at the back of the hive may be attached to the falseback. In this case you will want to pull out one of the spacers in front of the attached comb. This will give you more room to maneuver your hive tool to detach the comb attachments so you can remove the falseback.
Loosening the falseback with the hive tool
Lifting out the falseback (divider board)
You can see that the last combs at the back of the hive are not fully developed, this is a new comb filled with fresh nectar and uncapped.
Hive Tool to Detach Comb Attachments
Fully Capped Honey Comb This comb is fully capped honey and can be harvested. Capped honey cells are white in color and are flat and slightly indented.
Sweet reward, a fully capped comb of honey ready to be processed!
See our Article on the Single Comb Harvest- A Simple Harvest
It's super easy and fun!!! And there is no need for an extractor or uncapping tool.
Fully capped honeycomb
Fully capped honeycomb. A comb pulled in 2014 from our Eldorado apiary weighing in at 9 pounds from the Golden Mean Hive!!
Brood Comb -with Capped Honey only at the top of the comb
The lower half of the comb is capped brood. Worker brood cell cappings slightly protrude and are a bit of a darker yellow than most capped honey cells. The very top of the comb has white capped honey cells and in the middle there is a band of uncapped honey cells. You would not want to harvest this brood comb. Later in the fall these brood cells will have hatched out and the old brood cells will then be used again by those industrious little bees for honey storage.
Brood Comb - leave this one for the bees
Often the last couple of combs at the back of the hive, have a curve to them, the bees do this to aid air flow. If it looks too tricky, just remember, in the spring everything will be much easier, because the combs will be much more rigid and there will be a much smaller colony size to object to your bear like activities in late summer and fall. If you believe there may be some cross comb, it is helpful to pry out a few of the spacers. This will allow you to peer down into the hive to see how the comb crosses over onto the next bar. You will be able to track the “spine” of the comb and determine its curved nature. Looking closely, follow how the comb curves onto the next topbar. Then gently make a "back cut" through the space where the spacer was with the hive tool, releasing the comb from the adjacent bar, freeing up the comb you want to harvest. With a little practice, this cross combing will not seem so daunting.
Start at the back of the hive to 'file through' combs to harvest
See our DVD for harvesting combs. Our DVD fully illustrates filing through the combs in the hive in Chapter 9: Working with the Bees when Corwin carefully goes through the hive inspecting each comb.