One of the best parts of beekeeping as a hobby is being able to harvest honey. You can keep all the delicious honey for yourself, give some to friends, or even sell it to complete strangers. It is entirely up to you. Having said all that, there are specific procedures for harvesting honey in such a way as to not harm your colonies or prevent bees from continuing to produce that liquid gold you love so much.
The details of honey harvesting vary from one region to the next. Therefore, it is really not possible for me to give a detailed guide that would be applicable to every beekeeper in every region of the world. What you read here is a general guide based on long-standing beekeeping principles. Note that you may have to make adjustments depending on where you live, your climate, and your experience as a beekeeper.
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Step 1: Examine the Hives
The first step is to open your hives and visually examine them. Understand that your desire for honey doesn’t necessarily mean now is an appropriate time for harvesting.
The general rule says that you shouldn’t harvest honey until your hives have reached about 80% cap .
What does that mean? Capping occurs when combs in the hive are plugged by the bees for storage purposes.
A hive at 80% cap is one in which at least 80% of the combs have been plugged. A hive that is less than 80% is not ready to be harvested. Note that if you harvest too early, you may end up stunting future honey production. The bees may simply stop producing.
How do you tell if a hive has reached 80% cap? A visual inspection is generally sufficient. If you want to be absolutely sure, you can always use a measuring tape to make a fairly accurate estimation. Just measure the amount of space that is already capped and compare it to uncapped space. A ratio of at least 4 to 1 means you’re good to go.
Step 2: Look at the Calendar
While first-year beekeepers tend to only get one harvest at the end of the summer, experienced beekeepers can get upwards of three harvests per year. Some northern hemisphere locations allow for harvesting in July, August, and September. I say all that to say this: you need to be mindful of the calendar.
By the time late September (late March in the southern hemisphere) rolls around, the beekeeping season is drawing to a close. Your bees are not producing as much. Furthermore, they are preparing for winter, so they need to have enough honey stored away to accommodate them until spring.
Again, let us talk about the general rule. In climates with colder weather it is fairly common to design beehives that allow bees to live in two deep frames. Both of those frames should be full of honey and capped to get through winter. Do not touch that honey. If there is any access above and beyond the two deeps, you’re free to harvest that excess. But again, make sure that the excess comes in at the 80% cap rate.
You might also be using supers placed on top of the two deep frames. The supers act as an extra collection space for honey. These are almost always available for harvesting as long as they meet the 80% cap rate.
Step 3: Clean Yourself Up
It is a good idea to make sure you are not wearing any perfume, cologne, or scented deodorant/antiperspirant before you begin the honey harvest. Why? Because these sorts of scents attract curious bees. Remember that you will be invading their hives. You do not want them being attracted to you by any scents that pique their curiosity. You want them to stay as far away as possible.
The best course of action is to either not put on any scents on the day of harvest or quickly jump in the shower before the harvest begins. Either way, get yourself cleaned up so that you’re not attracting bees.
Step 4: Don Your Protective Gear
Honeybees are generally non-aggressive creatures as long as they don’t feel threatened. But again, remember that you will be opening hives and removing honeycomb during the harvest. There is no point in taking a risk. I recommend donning protective gear just in case your bees get angry.
You may prefer to use a full beekeeping suit – which I recommend (indeed, read my review of beekeeping suites here). A full suit offers you head-to-toe protection with no worries. It is going to be a little warm while you work, but the extra protection is well worth it. In the absence of a full suit, you should at least wear the following:
- Long Sleeve Shirt – A long sleeve shirt made of denim or flannel is ideal. The thicker material will blunt any stings should your bees get excited.
- Long Trousers – Likewise, long trousers made of denim are your best bet in the absence of a bee suit. Use rope or tape to secure the cuffs so that bees cannot get in.
- Heavy Shoes – Choose footwear that completely covers your toes, feet, and ankles. A good pair of boots should do the trick.
- Long Gloves – A pair of long gloves to go up above the wrists will protect your hands and lower arms. You can use rope or tape to secure them the same way you do the cuffs of your trousers. I wrote a review on beekeeping gloves here, if you’re interested.
- Apiculture Hat – Finally, an apiculture hat protects your head and face. This is probably the most critical piece of clothing given that agitated bees will go for your head first. You can get a good apiculture hat anywhere you buy beekeeping supplies. Here is a review post I wrote on beekeeping veils.
Once you are properly clothed you are ready to begin the harvest. Make sure you have the right tools with you as well. You are going to need a tool to open the hives as well as an uncapping knife or fork.
Step 5: Open the Hive
The next three steps are applied to one hive at a time. Complete each hive before going on to the next one. Our starting point is opening the hive.
Choose your first hive and open it slowly and gently. As you work, be sure to use slow and gradual movements. Doing so reduces the risk of instigating bees that might otherwise assume you to be a threat. Note that honeybees are very sensitive to fast, jerky movements.
Step 6: Remove the Bees
Before you remove frames or supers, you want to get the bees out of the way so as not to injure them. There are couple of ways to do this. Whichever method you choose, be gentle. There is no need to agitate the bees or risk injury.
Some people use a smoker (here is a great selection on Amazon, if you’re interested – opens in a new tab). Despite common belief, smokers do not make bees sleepy. Rather, smoke signals to the bees that a forest fire might be burning, encouraging them to gorge with honey in case they have to escape. Engorged bees are slow, sluggish, and not likely to attack.
If you do not like the smoke method – and some people don’t because it reduces the quality of the honey – you can use a silky bee brush or electric blower. You’ll be ready to begin taking your frames and supers when most of the bees have cleared out. There may be a few stragglers, so don’t worry if there are.
Step 7: Remove Your Frames and Supers
Your next step is to begin removing the frames and supers. If you are only working on a single hive, you’re almost done. Otherwise, set the frames or supers aside until all your hives have been addressed. Don’t carry each frame or super inside separately if you’re working alone. Why? Because you want to get this process done as quickly as possible in order to minimize stress on your bees.
Assuming you are working alone on multiple hives, set your frames or supers about 50 feet away and cover them with a towel or blanket. This will prevent bees from returning after you’ve pulled them. Then close up the hive you’re working on and move to the next. Continue with this process until all your frames or supers have been retrieved.
Step 8: Uncap the Honeycombs
With all your frames/supers retrieved and taken inside, it’s time to uncap the honeycombs. This is what you’ll need the uncapping fork or knife for (here is a selection on Amazon). An uncapping fork is essentially a handle with a dozen or so tines attached to it. An uncapping knife is a long blade with a handle attached.
Use whichever tool you have to remove the caps on both sides of the honeycombs. From there, the open honeycombs go into your extractor. Be sure to uncap only as many honeycombs as can fit into your extractor and no more. Uncapping before you are ready to begin extracting is guaranteed to mean a loss of honey.
Step 9: Extract the Honey
A honey extractor is essentially a centrifuge. You put the open honeycombs in racks inside the tank, close the extractor, and either manually crank it or turn on the power. The tank will spin, utilizing centrifugal force to extract honey and deposit it in the bottom of the tank.
In the absence of a honey extractor, some new beekeepers extract their honey by laying the combs in a pan and applying direct pressure. This is not the most efficient way of doing things, but it works if you do not have the money for an extractor quite yet.
Step 10: Strain and Bottle the Honey
Your final step is to strain and bottle the honey. Run through several layers of cheese cloth to remove all foreign objects and debris. Once the honey has been filtered, you can either bottle it right away or let it sit for a few days in a settling tank.
The advantage of using a settling tank is that it allows any small debris that made it through the cheesecloth to rise to the top of the honey. You can then skim it off. Letting honey sit in a settling tank also allows any air trapped in the honey to escape. You end up with a better-quality product this way.
Whether you opt to use a settling tank or not, store your honey in glass jars with airtight lids. You can use plastic containers as well, but make sure they are virgin containers (never used for anything else). Otherwise your honey may be contaminated by residual flavors or odors.