It's nearing fall and your hive is full of beautiful combs. The number one question everyone wants to know:
How much honey do I harvest and when?
We have a very different idea about the needs of a colony during the winter months. Typically beekeepers harvest in the fall and often feed the bees back sugar water to replace the honey. Obviously the sugar water would have to be evaporated and all that moisture will chill the bees.
Honey comb harvested from The Cathedral Hive
Why harvest in the spring?
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.
Honeycombs as thermal mass
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.
This comb at the very back of the hive is not ready to harvest. File through the bars to find a harvest-able comb, 80% capped honeycomb.
Harvesting honey combs before fall
If your hive is in its first year and you lucked out in getting bees into the hive early in the spring, then you may be able to harvest a couple of combs before fall. During the fall there is not going to be much comb building, if any. The nectar flow is at a minimum as plants and flowers are at the end of their life cycle. The pollen that the bees collect that aids in the making of wax is sparse and the wax glands of the bees begin to become less active. The brood nest is slowly shrinking and the cells once used for brooding are now being filled in with the fall nectar flow. If the hive is full to the back and you are eager to try some of this years bounty, harvesting a couple of combs will not affect the colonies overwintering chances.
Labor Day, last day to harvest combs
After about Labor Day, (in hardiness zones 4, 5, & 6) it becomes not such a good idea to take combs, because the bees will have started in earnest fortifying the cracks and gaps in the hive with propolis. Propolis in Greek means “out skirts of the city” or “the gates of the city”, ie... it protects the colonies health. Remember, if you do decide to harvest a couple of combs from the back of the hive, the friendly, gentle bees of the summer, may have a change in behavior and get much more protective of their honey stores in late summer and early fall.
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!
Now let's get started harvesting combs!
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.
Time of Day to Harvest
This depends on the temperatures. If it is the middle of a hot day, the combs will be very soft and fragile, especially newly drawn out combs. Harvesting in mid-morning is ideal as there are a fair amount of foragers out and about (so less bees in the hive) and the comb has cooled down overnight and is not too soft in the morning. If there has been extended days of really hot temperatures you will most likely want to wait to harvest combs until the temps cool down just bit.
Going into the hive
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)
Harvesting Honey Comb - Looking for Capped Honey Comb
You are starting at the back of the hive and the goal is to find a comb to harvest that is about 80% capped honey comb. The combs at the very back of the hive may not be fully drawn out or they are uncapped. Continue forward through the hive, as if you are going through files in a filing cabinet, moving forward until you reach capped honey comb.
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
Use your Hive Tool to detach comb attachment from the sides of hive.
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!
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.
Encountering cross comb, doesn't have to be daunting if you use spacers
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.