Harvesting Capped Honey Frames
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This year has turned out to be one of the best for honey flow since we started beekeeping in 2012. Of our 4 colonies, we've nick-named our eastern hive "The Beast"! This hive is very sassy, but incredibly successful. It just keeps growing and giving and the shear amount of bees in the colony is astounding! We were able to harvest 10 full medium frames in early July and we just took off another 14 medium frames. That's around 80-90 pounds of honey from one colony, in one season. The hive next to "The Beast" is also doing well. It's not quite as prolific as the eastern hive, but the honey flow is good there too. We took off 10 medium frames in early July and there's about 9 more medium frames ready to come off very soon.
Harvesting honey is a simple enough process, you just have to collect the honey frames, remove the wax caps and spin off that golden delicious sweet stuff right? This is how I imagined the process going 10 years ago when we decided to get bees. I forgot about the thousands of bees that would be on those honey frames. It never occurred to me that we'd have to "get them off", But now that I'm older and wiser and better looking? I realize that removing the bees from the super frames is in fact something that needs to be done if you want honey on your toast.
There's a few different ways to harvest honey frames from your colony.
Honeybee Relocator Oil
A lot of the large producers use a natural/chemical agent that gives off a scent that the bees don't like. It's often referred to as a Honeybee Relocator Oil. The oil is sprayed on a Fume Board and placed on top of the honey supers. It only takes a few minutes for the bees to start heading down into the brood chambers, and soon your super frames are cleared and ready for harvesting.
Bee Escape Board
Another technique is to use a Bee Escape Board. The board acts like a maze where the bees can leave the super area easily, but it is difficult for them to re-enter. These boards must be put on for 24-48 hours to ensure that all the bees have made their way down through the maze and into the brood boxes. To install, you have to open your hive and place it under your super (between the super and the brood box), wait 24-48 hours and then harvest your honey.
The way we do it involves us physically removing the bees from each frame with a bee brush. Which might sound tedious, but once you get a rhythm going it goes pretty fast. Since the most we do at a time is around 30 frames, its not too bad.
When to Harvest
We get a lot of questions as to when we harvest our honey. And it can be anywhere from early July to early October. You can even leave your supers on over winter and harvest in the Spring. We did that last year.
Rather than relying on a time of year to harvest, it's best to check the frames in your super often. If your bees have capped an entire frame, you can take it. If you want to harvest 2 frames a week, then go for it. We use an extractor which takes a bit of set up, so we like to have enough honey frames to justify lugging out all the honey extracting equipment.
Not all the honey on my frame is capped, can I harvest it?
Nectar becomes honey when the moisture content is between 16-18%. The bees fan the nectar with their wings to evaporate the moisture until there is a high enough sugar content to keep the honey shelf stable. Interestingly enough, this is similar to the sugar content needed to make maple syrup and many of our homemade jams shelf stable. Bacteria doesn't grow in high sugar atmospheres.
All that being said, if your frame has uncapped honey and you remove it, and try to store it, there's a good chance that it may begin to ferment. You can check it with a refractometer to look for that higher sugar content, but it's probably best to give the frame back to the bees until they're done doing their job.
To Harvest you will need:
A couple extra empty boxes
A flat lid (A migratory lid, an inner cover with the hole taped, or even a piece of plywood cut-to-size.)
A medium super full of honey frames weighs about 40 pounds. So depending on how far your bee yard is away from your house, you first need to figure out how your physically going to carry the honey. Our bee yard is about 1/4 mile from our house so we drive our Jeep back to the edge of the woods where our hives are. We lay down clean lids to a few Rubbermaid containers in the hatch back of the car to protect the Jeep carpet.
Stack your empty boxes no closer than 10-15 feet away from your beehives. These will be your holding boxes. You want that distance so that the bees don't immediately fly back on the frames that have just been brushed clean. It's a little more back-and-forth walking, but it helps. You also need to place the boxes on the ground or other flat surface so the bees can't fly up and under. Get the flat lid in place on the empty boxes. You will be taking this off and on as you place frames in the box. You can also use an inner cover with the hole taped over, or a dividing board.
We now suit up and get the smoker going.
After the bees have been puffed, it's time to use your hive tool to remove the frames one at a time. Give the frame a good shake/jolt over the hive to get most of the bees off. Then use the bee brush to remove the remaining bees.
Rather than sweeping the bees off, use a flicking motion. The sweeping tends to roll the bees under the bristles and they don't like that.
Check each frame to ensure that the honey is completely capped and that there is no brood.
Then quickly slide the empty box cover back, place the frame in, and replace the box cover. Repeat for each frame.
When the box is full it's time to bring all that delicious bee-free honey back to the house!