It’s hard to believe that only a few months ago we had our first colony of bees fall in our laps. Our apiary has grown from a single hive last December to now 7 colonies of honeybees! For the most part, our bees are doing very well. The hives are busy, active, and growing! While this year was full of apiary firsts, the one thing we didn’t expect in our first year of beekeeping was a honey harvest.
Honeybees are busy for a very good reason; they are busy working together to survive. Bees depend on the collection of nectar and pollen as a food source for themselves and their offspring. A single bee will only produce 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. Think about that for a second, 1/12 of a teaspoon, that means that it takes 12 bees their entire lifetime to make a single teaspoon of honey. The average bee colony has about 50,000 bees. It takes approximately 35 pounds of honey to provide enough energy for the bees in a small colony to survive the winter. A large colony might need over 100 pounds of honey in a year to survive! So as much as we enjoy honey, it’s important we leave enough honey in our colonies to ensure the survival of the bees.
Philip using a refractometer to test the honey’s moisture content.
How Do Bees Make Honey?
Bees harvest both nectar and pollen as they travel from flower to flower. The nectar is drawn out of the flowers using a proboscis, then it is stored in a second stomach called a honey stomach. It’s here in the honey stomach that the process of honey production, called inversion, begins. The nectar influences the smell and flavor of the honey. Here in Florida, orange blossom honey is a popular flavor of honey unique to the area. I have also tried honey from a more unusual source, palmetto honey. Palmettos are small palm trees more like bushes, that are abundant in our area. Most backyard honey producers, produce wildflower honey, which is a mixture of nectars available in the area.
While worker bees leave the hive and collect the nectar, they pass the nectar onto another bee when they arrive back at the hive. Throughout a bee’s life cycle, they will have different jobs. Young bees, also called house bees collect the nectar from the worker bees. The house bees have a part in processing the nectar as well. Adding enzymes and reducing the water content through a chewing process. The honey is then spread out in the honeycomb where it is left uncapped. The bees fan the honey with their wings, continuing to reduce the moisture content.
Once the honey reaches its optimum moisture level the bees will cap the honey. The honey cap is just additional beeswax applied to the top of the honeycomb. This preserves the honey at its peak moisture level until the bees need it. We used a refractometer to measure the moisture content of our honey. For the honey not to spoil it needs to be at 18% or below. We were thrilled that our honey was at the perfect moisture level for harvest.
When Do Bees Make Honey?
A bee’s job is always about survival, however certain times of the year are more fruitful to produce honey. In most places, spring and early summer are the busiest time of year when it comes to honey production. There is an abundance of flowers in bloom and the temperatures are appropriate for the bees. Once it gets hot, honey production will drop off.
In some areas, fall can also have limited honey production, however, places that are cooler in fall will see a drop off in bee activity. As the temperatures turn cooler, the bees begin to overwinter together in the hive to keep warm. Winter is the least productive of the honey season. The bees don’t function well as it gets colder. They will huddle together to survive.
It’s also important to note that not all flowers produce suitable nectar for the bees. When there is a shortage of nectar-producing flowers, this is called a dearth. In our area, the dearth begins in late July. A dearth might also be set off by environmental conditions. Possibly a drought that inhibits the production of nectar-producing flowers. Bees are the original preppers; they work to preserve honey in advance in case they might experience an unusual dearth season. It’s the excess honey that the bees produce that we can harvest.
Honey Supers: Where the Honey Harvest Happens
Beekeepers add honey supers to their hives for the bees to have adequate space to produce honey. These are additional boxes added to the top of the beehive. We use queen excluders to keep the queen away from these frames. A queen bee is larger than regular bees, so she is too big to fit through the queen excluder. The frames in the boxes below the queen excluders belong to the bees. There the queen can lay eggs and they can produce honey that will remain with the colony.
The frames above the queen excluders will be used solely for honey. Since the queen can’t access those frames, she can’t lay eggs in the honeycomb. These are the frames that we can pull from for honey for our own use. Still, beekeepers need to be mindful of the honey they pull, being sure that the bees have enough for themselves. This will be their sole food source in winter or severe dearth. Young colonies or small colonies don’t have the added honey supers, the queen can access the entire hive. Their primary job is to build the colony through reproduction.
Uncapping the Honey Harvest
To remove the honey from the honeycomb, beekeepers need to uncap the honey. Some beekeepers use a hot knife to remove the upper cap from the honeycomb. Some will even remove the honeycomb in sheets. As a teenager, one of my fondest memories of a family friend, Uncle Donald, was when he would open the hive and give us a piece of the honeycomb to chew on. You can purchase honeycomb in jars of honey as well, but it wasn’t nearly as good as I remember.
We used an alternate tool to uncap our honeycomb. An uncapping roller is used to puncture the caps of the honeycomb, not cut it off. This allows us to remove the honey but also preserve the honeycomb. Bees not only produce honey, but they also produce the beeswax that makes up the honeycomb.
We help the bees with honeycomb production in two ways. First, we feed them sugar water that they can use in the production of new honeycomb. We also preserve the honeycomb from the harvested frames. We can return the frames to the bees. They will do the necessary repairs to the honeycomb and get back to the business of honey production with less effort.
Now returning the frames with drawn comb is a part of hive management that needs to be done mindfully. The beeswax can absorb contaminants in the honeycomb over time, so the beekeeper will have to be mindful of the condition of the drawn frames they return to the bees. We put our drawn frames into the freezer after harvesting the honey for the time being. This will kill any beetles or moths that might be hiding where we can’t see before we return them to the hive. Most beekeepers will rotate out older frames, supplementing in some drawn-out frames to give the bees a boost and providing them with ample space to create new honeycomb of their own.
Harvesting the Honey
Since we pulled only two frames of honey, we allowed the honey to simply drip out of the honeycomb. We do have a honey extractor, but the process of cleaning the honey extractor was a lot more than we wanted to delve into for just two frames. This time we left the frames standing upright in a bucket for several days. We did cover the bucket with a large ziplock and wrapped it in a towel to keep out any unwanted guests.
Our honey is light-colored, mild honey, still sweet, but not overly so. I was amazed that from just two frames, we were able to harvest 3 pounds of honey! Think about that in the context of how much honey a bee produces, 1/12 of a teaspoon is produced by a single bee and we got 3 pounds in two small frames… we have 7 colonies!
I checked the local honey prices for raw, unfiltered honey and it sells for about $9 a pound! This little jar could sell for $27. My biggest takeaway is I need to learn how to better incorporate honey into our future sweetening needs! Next year’s honey harvest is bound to be abundant!
Here’s another first, check out our first swarm!
About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.
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