This year, I kept two different styles of beehives: a top bar and a Langstroth. I did not collect any honey from the Langstroth this fall, but I did harvest some from the top bar. Harvesting honey from a top bar hive is quite different from a Langstroth, and I wanted to share my experience. You can read a bit about the general differences between the two styles of hives from last week’s post.
Last week, I wrote about how I lost my top bar hive. A few weeks before that, I did my honey harvest. Normally harvesting honey does not harm the hive, so don’t assume that if you do the same, you will end your hive- I just seemed to have bad luck, or at least I’m learning from my mistakes.
Honey Harvest from Langstroth vs. Top Bar
Harvesting honey from a Langstroth hive can be a bit of a production, and usually requires an extractor. This is a machine where the frames of honey comb are placed inside a barrel, and then spun really fast. The centrifugal force spins the honey out of the frames, and then it flows out of the machine, and is collected from a spout (think old-school washing machine). Owning such a machine for a home beekeeper can be expensive, but bee stores or bee associations usually rent them out. On a small scale, its can be a pain in the ass to rent, and then clean, an extractor for only a few frames of honey.
One of the benefits of keeping a top bar hive is the ease in honey harvest. You don’t need any fancy equipment, just tools from the kitchen. Remember that in a top bar hive, each comb is built off a single bar, and there is no foundation. To harvest the honey, you simply pull out the individual bar with the comb, brush off the bees, then use a knife to slice the comb off the bar.
I used my big stock pot with a lid, and set next to the hive. Once I’ve cut out the comb, I quickly put it my pot and cover with the lid. Then, I’d place the bar back on the hive. Once I was finished, I carried the pot back into the house. Sadly I don’t have any pictures of this process- my hands were sticky and I was juggling many things at once.
Processing Top Bar Honey
Because there is no plastic foundation in a top bar hive, I was left with only wax and honey in my stock pot. From there, I picked up each piece of honeycomb and placed in my pasta strainer, that was set over another pot. I used a potato masher to crush the comb, which releases the honey. I let this sit for a few days, giving it a stir and a smash whenever I walked by.
Then, I set the colander of broken comb, mostly free of honey, aside. I poured strained the honey from the pot though a finer sieve, into a bowl. You could also use cheesecloth if you don’t have a sieve with super fine mesh. Once strained, I poured into mason jars, and stored in the pantry. I got about 6 cups of raw honey from my harvest.
The comb that held the honey is known as ‘wet comb’, and there are still tiny bits of honey left. I placed this in a tray about 200 feet away from the hives, and let the bees clean it off. I suspect this is what caused the demise to my hive- the wet wax attracted yellow jackets and they traced the smell back to the hive. Another option would have been to put the wet comb at the bottom of my hive, at the back, and let the bees clean it out from INSIDE the hive. This would have probably been a smarter choice. I could have also forgone feeding it back to the bees completely, and just set aside to process into wax later.
Knowing when and how much honey to harvest
Lets take a second to talk about the diet of bees. In the spring and summer, when there are plentiful flowers blooming, bees will gather nectar and pollen from flowers and bring back to the hive. The pollen is processed and eaten throughout the year as a protein source. The nectar has a high water content, and first needs to be concentrated to become honey. The bees use enzymes in their stomachs and their wings to fan the nectar to evaporate it, and when its the correct concentration, they will cap the cell and it is now honey. They will then eat this throughout the year as a source of carbohydrates. When there are no flowers blooming, or drought causes there to be no nectar, it is known as a derth. During these times, the bees eat their stored honey.
Honey harvest is usually done in either the spring or the fall. In the fall, honey this is stored is eaten throughout the winter. If you take too much, they can starve. Once the weather starts to shift, and the nights are now getting cold, you can go in and take any extra honey. In the spring, there are flowers blooming and the bees are actively eating and making their own food. Any honey that is stored is left over from the winter, and you can harvest without fear of starvation.
If you harvest nectar instead of honey, it will ferment in the jar (and not in a good, look, I made mead! way). Make sure that your honey harvest doesn’t contain more than 10% of un-capped honey, to avoid this problem.
If it’s 57°F or warmer, the bees can fly and can gather food (providing there is bloom). If it is colder that than, they need to eat their stored honey. A hive will eat about a 1/2 pound of honey a day for every 24 hours where its below 57°F. In the Bay Area, that’s about 45 days or so, so you should be leaving about 21 pounds of honey. In a top bar hive, that’s 3 full combs, plus honey stored around the brood.