Beekeeping is a wonderful hobby for people fascinated by honey bees. A lot of us who do it can cite any number of reasons explaining why. Among them is the ability to harvest honey. To a new beekeeper honey might even be viewed as the number one payoff. So how much honey does one hive produce?
Honey volume is variable based on conditions. Besides that, ask twenty different beekeepers and you are likely to get twenty different answers. One commercial beekeeper based in California states on their website that a single hive in the U.S. can produce between 10 and 200 pounds of honey annually. Meanwhile, the British Beekeepers Association says 60 pounds is the max. They say that 25 pounds is average for British hives.
Why such a difference? Because honey production is affected by many things:
- Colony size and health
- Hive location
- Available plant life
- Climate and seasonal conditions
- Competition and predation
- Parasites and disease.
As a beekeeper, trying to estimate how much honey one hive will produce is less important than doing your best to maintain conditions that encourage maximum production. Focus on the quality of life your bees enjoy and they will take care of the honey.
What is honey?
Honey is a sweet, viscous substance produced by several varieties of bees as a byproduct of foraging. The honey human beings are most familiar with is that produced by honey bees. Its sweetness makes it ideal as a condiment for toast, pancakes, and other foods. Some people use honey medicinally.
As for the bees, honey is a food source. What is not immediately fed to larvae is stored in a hive via the honeycomb structure. It is stored in anticipation of that time of year when little nectar is available. In other words, long-term honey storage is designed to keep a colony alive during the fall and winter months.
By building hives and controlling their locations, humans have managed to persuade bees to produce excess honey that we can harvest for ourselves. You could almost say that we have domesticated honey bees, though that’s not quite true if you stick to the strict dictionary definition of the term.
How is honey produced?
Creation has given honey bees a unique means of sustaining themselves through food production. Honey starts out as nectar and honeydew collected by bees as they forage. Both substances are ingested by bees and stored in what is known as the crop.
Not all of what is collected gets returned to the hive. Instead, a bee’s body actually uses some of the nectar to sustain itself during flight. Believe it or not, bees need an awful lot of nectar just to keep going. They have to, given how hard their muscles need to work in flight.
At any rate, the nectar and honeydew that is returned to the hive is regurgitated by the worker bees that deliver it. Other bees inside the hive ingest the nectar just long enough for their own bodies to process it a little further. Then it is regurgitated and ingested again. This process continues until almost all the water is removed. Meanwhile, each bee contributes enzymes. The result of all this is honey.
Just like the worker bees who gather nectar and honeydew, worker bees inside the hive utilize some of the ingested material as a food source. Every bee in the process lives off some of the nectar and honeydew but passes on the rest.
How much honey should beekeepers leave behind?
Bees produce honey because they do not hibernate during the fall and winter. They remain active inside their hives. As such, they need food. That is what honey is to them. It is a sustainable food source for when they overwinter.
It has been estimated that a well-managed colony can produce 2 to 3 times as much honey as will be needed for the winter. However, there is no hard and fast rule for this. It may take new beekeepers some time to figure out exactly how much honey to leave behind at harvest time. As a new beekeeper, it is better for you to err on the side of caution. Leave more behind than you think is necessary.
Also remember that climate influences how much honey bees need to keep. A single hive in a climate that prevents bees from venturing out from November through March could require up to 100 pounds of honey. In a warmer climate, where bees are only stuck in the hive during January and February, as little as 40 pounds could be enough.
In the event a beekeeper accidentally takes too much honey, sugar water or syrup can be offered to a colony as supplemental food. Some beekeepers even return some of the honey they take. The important thing is to make sure a colony has enough food to survive the winter.
Is all retail honey pure?
Thanks to the hard work bees put in every single day, we human beings have access to the extra honey they produce. But buyer beware – not all retail honey is pure. Honey producers and distributors alike are known to dilute raw honey or combine it with additives to enhance color, taste, and texture.
The best bet for finding pure honey is to go right to the beekeeper. A beekeeper who cares about the quality of their honey will not do anything to it other than spin the honeycomb and then filter out any resulting debris. What is left for bottling is pure honey in all its glory.
In closing, imagine 60 pounds of pure, golden honey. That much honey would fill an awful lot of bottles. If you are lucky to have hives producing 200 pounds per year, all the better. The main thing to remember is that a lot of factors influence how much honey a single hive produces. While the average in most places is about 60 pounds, your volume could be more or less.