The Honey Harvest.
Every beekeeper looks forward to it, but with it, comes so many questions.
When should we harvest?
How much should we harvest?
Should we harvest this year at all?
Are the bees going to survive the winter if we do?
You're not the only one asking these questions.
We know you're dying to taste that sweet nectar of the gods.
That's why we're here to ease your eagerness and give you some answers.
In this article, we've compiled our top 10 most frequently asked questions about when to harvest honey.
Table of Contents (Click to Skip Around)
- 1. Why Do Bees Make Honey?
- 2. How Is Honey Made?
- 3. Does Taking Honey from the Bees Hurt the Hive?
- 4. How Do I Know When to Add a Honey Super?
- 5. When Do You Harvest Honey?
- 6. How Do I Tell When a Frame or Super Is Ready to Harvest?
- 7. Can You Take Honey During Your Beehive's First Year?
- 8. How Much Honey Should I Take When I Harvest?
- 9. How Many Times a Year Can I Harvest?
- 10. How Do I Store My Honey Once I've Collected It?
- Related Articles
1. Why Do Bees Make Honey?
Honeybees use honey in many different ways.
Its most important purpose is to help the bees survive through the winter.
It takes a lot of energy to stay warm throughout the cold months. By storing honey within the cells, the bees can ensure that they'll have plenty of resources to replenish with.
A second purpose of honey is to help feed the larvae, forager bees, and drones.
The larvae feed on worker jelly to grow strong quickly. This worker jelly is made by nurse bees after combining honey and pollen.
The forager bees expend a lot of energy while hunting down pollen and nectar. When they make it back to the hive, they're in need of a quick energy boost. That's when they fill up on honey.
Drones, the males in the hive, simply live a life of leisure and choose to indulge themselves on the hive's bounty of honey.
A third purpose for honey is to store energy in case of an emergency.
Honey is the densest source of energy a hive has.
If a colony is about to swarm, they'll rapidly consume honey so that they can take an abundance of resources with them.
Doing so gives them a head start in creating their next hive if they have to abandon their current one.
This is the reason why you'll see them engorging themselves on honey when you use your smoker. The smoke leads the bees to believe that they may have to leave the hive because of a possible fire.
2. How Is Honey Made?
Honey is made from the nectar that honeybees collect. The nectar is combined with enzymes from their "honey stomach" and then placed in cells to dry out.
Bees buzz from flower to flower slurping up nectar and gathering it in this gut.
Once the bees return to the hive, they'll pass the nectar on to their sisters.
The nectar gets passed along from bee to bee until it has picked up enough enzymes (invertase) from inside each of their honey stomachs.
The invertase breaks down the nutritious nectar's sucrose into a more easily digestible fructose and glucose.
Once it's ready, the bees will fill a cell in the honeycomb with it.
Finally, the bees use their wings to dry this enzyme-enriched nectar until it can be called honey. This occurs when its moisture content is less than 19%.
Honeybees seal off these cells by capping them with beeswax.
3. Does Taking Honey from the Bees Hurt the Hive?
In short, no.
You might not have known this about honeybees, but they have the tendencies of both workaholics and hoarders.
They really don't know when to quit and they never take a day off.
While individual bees may be able to sleep, the hive itself doesn't. They can't afford to. A single larva will eat over 800 meals in 24 hours. This means that the nurse bees have to work tirelessly around the clock to feed them.
In their busy bee mindset, they fill every nook and cranny with propolis, wax, eggs, and even honey.
They'll continue to grow as long as there's pollen and nectar left in the season.
By the time the flow stops, they'll end up making way more honey than they could ever need to survive through winter, feed the hive, and use in case of an emergency.
The excess honey is what we are taking from them.
It won't hurt them a bit.
4. How Do I Know When to Add a Honey Super?
For the first couple of weeks after you buy your beehive, you'll only need to use a single deep brood box.
As the colony gets adjusted and starts to grows, you can begin to add boxes to the hive.
If you live in the Southern states (zones 3-6), you'll only need one brood box. This means that you can add on honey supers immediately after the first brood box.
If you live in the Northern states (zones 7-10), you may consider adding on a second deep brood box before collecting honey.
The timing on when you add honey supers can come down to a lot of different factors.
Many new beekeepers just follow the 60% rule: Once 60% of the frames in your top box are full, you can add your next box onto the hive.
Beekeepers that are a little more experienced will know when their heavy nectar flows are and will add supers based on that.
This will of course be more nuanced and unique for every state/year.
It may help if you talk to your local beekeeping association to find out when these flows are.
The timing to when you add these honey supers can be rather crucial.
It's far better to be too early than to be too late, but both have their issues.
Adding a super too early can cause your bees to end up with a lack of focus, slower productivity, gnawing away the beeswax on the foundations, and it can make them more vulnerable to predators or being robbed by other bees.
Adding a super too late can result in a swarm. A hive that is full of bees that doesn't have space to work will usually try to split into two.
If your hive does swarm, then it's likely you'll have lost too many bees this year to be able to collect honey at all.
5. When Do You Harvest Honey?
Harvesting honey has a lot of nuances that depend on the conditions your hive is in.
In some cases, the weather keeps your bees from collecting nectar during the flow.
This could be due to drought, flood, freeze, or a constant downpour that keeps your bees cooped up in the hive.
In a typical year with normal conditions, there will probably be a harvest sometime in early June and one around September.
Once the last honey is harvested, beekeepers go straight into helping the bees prep for winter.
Some beekeepers will time their harvest up with a certain local flower's nectar flow.
This results in monofloral honey with a varietal taste.
This is how beekeepers collect orange blossom honey, blueberry blossom honey, chestnut honey, basswood honey and so many other kinds of honey that each have a unique flavor.
If you're used to honey bought from a store, you'd be delightfully surprised at some of the unique tastes that are out there.
6. How Do I Tell When a Frame or Super Is Ready to Harvest?
Figuring out if a honey super is ready to harvest is easier than you might think.
You're simply looking for capped honey.
Bees cap their honey for long-term storage. It's the best way for them to keep the frames from picking up pollutants like dirt, dust, and debris from within the hive.
Once every frame is capped on each side you'll know that the honey super is ready to pull.
Some beekeepers will even take a frame if it's around 2/3rds of the way capped. The logic here is that the nectar is likely dried to the right moisture content, the bees just haven't capped it yet.
It takes a lot of energy to create beeswax caps, so taking the honey at this stage can save your bees some time.
7. Can You Take Honey During Your Beehive's First Year?
It is not recommended for first-year beehives to be harvested from.
But let's be honest, if this is your first and only hive, who can resist not taking at least a little bit?
That's why we'd say that if you can't help yourself, just take a single frame from the medium honey super and replace it as soon as you can.
Each medium frame holds about 4 to 6 pounds of honey. This should be more than enough honey for the average beekeeper to make it till June (after the spring nectar flow).
That being said, we don't recommend pulling from first-year hives because oftentimes bees spend a large majority of their first year drawing out comb. They just don't have the means to be able to create enough honey to be considered surplus.
After their first winter, once they've consumed the honey they've collected, they'll be able to refill this drawn comb rather quickly.
They can fill up drawn comb a lot faster than having to draw it out and fill it in the same season.
That's why beeswax is your honeybees' most valuable asset. It takes the most time and energy to create.
To put it into context, it takes 12 hours to produce 8 scales of beeswax. About 1,000 scales make a single gram of beeswax. There are about 68 grams of beeswax on a medium frame. That's about 102,000 bee-hours of work per frame.
Luckily you'll have over 40,000 bees to help split the workload. Even still though, it's easy to see why they're able to produce much more honey their second year than their first.
8. How Much Honey Should I Take When I Harvest?
Most beekeepers wouldn't waste their time harvesting just a frame or two.
It's simply not worth the effort of getting out the extractor, making a mess, and trying to bottle it all up for a gallon or two of honey.
A gallon of honey may sound like a big yield, but after you do it, you'll understand that it's far better to harvest more all at once.
Instead, beekeepers will wait till they can take at least a full medium super before harvesting. They may even wait till they have a box from each of their hives first.
Most medium supers you harvest will yield about 40 to 60 pounds of honey. This converts to 3 to 4 gallons of honey per box.
Make sure you have enough containers to bottle it up before starting the process. Otherwise, you'll attract many different pests & predators to your honey house, garage, or wherever your operation is at.
A word of advice: When you take honey from a hive, it's important to leave the brood boxes intact.
The honey they collect in these brood boxes is what you've given the bees to survive the winter. These 1 or 2 bee boxes are the bare bones of the hive.
9. How Many Times a Year Can I Harvest?
You can harvest your honey as many times as you have a full medium super.
Although, you should consider that the more often you harvest, the more often you have to clean off the equipment you use.
This is why most beekeepers shoot for 2 or sometimes 3 harvests a year.
It's common to take honey off in June from the spring flow.
Sometimes beekeepers will take the late summer flow in August. But, nine times out of ten, beekeepers will just leave the summer flow on the hive until they take the fall flow in September.
One reason a beekeeper may harvest 3 times instead of 2 is to keep the flavors separated.
Each season has a unique flavor that is dependent on the flowers that are available at that time.
When you harvest from multiple seasons in one session, the honey that you extract tends to mix together.
Mixing honey produces a single homogeneous flavor. Which, although it's still great honey, it will have lost a lot of its subtle nuances.
It'd be like mixing a few fine wines together into one glass: although still good, it could be better.
10. How Do I Store My Honey Once I've Collected It?
Choosing the right container for your honey is an important step to marketing your handiwork.
Once you've decided on which container best reflects your brand, there are a few guidelines for proper storage.
Having honey stay in its raw form (uncrystallized) can be difficult. To do so, you'll need to store your honey in a place that's dark, dry, and remains at room temperature after you've bottled it up.
For many beekeepers, this is a cabinet or cupboard in their house. Even when you do follow these guidelines, your honey will still turn to crystal eventually.
Because crystallized honey is the inevitable end result of bottled honey, some people get ahead of the crystal curve by creaming their honey.
By doing this, you can manipulate the texture of your honey to be smoother than it would naturally crystallize to.
If you hate crystallized honey, don't worry. You can always melt the crystals back down into their original thick flow. You could also ultra-filter or pasteurize your honey like the commercialized industry guys do.
You can learn about all of these steps and guidelines in our other article: Why Does Honey Crystallize?
Honey is the greatest natural sweetener in the world.
The floral flavors are fathomless and every hometown brings something unique to the table.
Given how popular this coveted confection is, it's unsurprising that beekeepers have so many questions about harvesting it.
The decision on when to add a honey super or when to remove it is a difficult one that has lasting repercussions.
With this article, I'm certain you can now confidently know the answers to these questions.
Continue Your Bee Journey!
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If you haven't yet purchased your first hive, we recommend one of our Starter Hive Kits. Each kit comes with all the essential parts of a beehive and the accessories you'll need for your first few years of beekeeping. We consider them "Nuc Ready" which means they come with 5 frames and are ready for the 5 that you buy when you purchase a 5-Frame Nuc of bees.