There is a lot to know about harvesting honey. Different hives can produce wildly different amounts of honey, depending on internal and external factors. Learning how to maximize production can help income levels and grow your colony.
In addition, knowing when to harvest is a critical aspect of beekeeping. If done incorrectly, the honey can go bad, or your bees can die over the winter. Knowing the timing of harvesting, how much to harvest, and what capped honey is can help you maximize your harvest and grow your bee colony.
Typically, an average beekeeper will harvest honey 2 or 3 times per year, but this can depend on the above factors.
How Much Honey Can One Hive Produce
Much of how beekeepers base their income is on how much honey they can produce. Therefore, it is to their advantage to harvest as much as possible. Because of this, even small beekeepers tend to have more than a handful of hives. Some even have dozens of hives while maintaining other jobs.
One healthy hive of honey bees can produce between 10-200 lbs of honey (the number varies wildly). Thus, a person with six hives can make somewhere between 60-1200 lbs of honey in a given year.
Factors for Harvesting Honey
What makes the amount of honey differ so tremendously is both environmental and internal factors. Some of the factors include:
- The concentration of flowers within 2 miles of your hive
- The amount of rainfall in your region. More rainfall = more nectar
- Whether or not your colony is healthy, free of pests, and free of parasites
- The storage space (supers) for honey
- The weather in your area throughout the blooming season. Bees prefer sunny, clear weather over rainfall.
- The amount of daylight. Since bees can’t see in the dark, the more light they have, the more honey production.
During the first season of beekeeping, your hive will also produce much less honey. Since the bees are focused on growing, much of their honey will go to themselves and their brood. First-year beekeepers are lucky if they obtain a small amount of honey (or one harvest) during their first season.
How to Maximize Harvest
Luckily, regardless of the environmental and internal factors, there are ways to maximize your hive’s honey production. Here are some ideas for doing so:
- Add more boxes (supers) to the hive.
- Place (or replace) the hive in a good location with lots of flowering plants.
- Place the hive around flowers with lots of nectar. Clover, buckwheat, and alfalfa are some of honeybee’s favorites.
- Ensure that your plants are either getting above-average rainfall or extra water.
- Get rid of any diseases within the hive. Common pests include mites, foulbrood, and small mammals.
What is Capped Honey?
One important aspect of harvesting honey is making sure that the honey is “capped.” A honey cap is a wax cover bees produce once they have fanned the harvested nectar down to a specific moisture level. Usually, that level is between 18-20 percent. This low moisture level allows honey to be shelf-stable, as the lack of moisture inhibits most microorganisms from surviving.
However, because bees are so busy, sometimes they will cap some combs and not others. To ensure the honey is safe to harvest, you can use a refractometer to test the moisture content of the honey. If the moisture level is above 20%, the honey should not be harvested as it may harbor yeast or other microorganisms.
How to Harvest Honey
In order to maximize your honey harvest and not hurt the bees, it’s essential to know how to harvest honey correctly.
Step 1: Open the Hive
Tools needed: a smoker, bee protection, and hive tool.
First, you’ll need to use your smoker to drive your bees into and lower into the hive. Depending on the amount of propolis made by your bees, you can either gently take off the lid of your hive with your hands or pry it off with a hive tool.
Step 2: Remove Bees
Tools needed: a tool to remove bees (bee brush, blower, or bee escape).
Using one of the tools mentioned above, you’ll want to brush your bees off the super and lower them into the hive. Once the super is bee-free, you can pull it out. It’s important to ensure that all the bees are off the super so that none get hurt or start attacking.
Step 3: Uncap the Honey
Tools needed: a tool to uncap honey (uncapping knife, fork, or scratcher)
Just barely scratching the surface of the comb, use your hive tool to take the capping off the honey. If the honey is not capped, follow the instructions above on how to move forward.
Step 4: Extract the Honey
Tools needed: While there are professional tools to extract honey, most small operations don’t need one. All you’ll need to remove and create strained honey is a potato masher, a bowl, a knife, cheesecloth (or a honey strainer), and a jar.
To extract this way, you’ll need to first cut the combs out of the super. From there, stick the combs in bowls and, using a potato masher, crush the comb. Make sure you crush all the comb so that no honey gets left behind.
From there, begin to strain the honey through the cheesecloth onto a large jar. If the jar is warm (not so hot that it melts the wax or pasteurizes the honey), it will strain faster. From there, either seal the jar up for use or pour it into smaller jars to sell.
How Much Should I Harvest Per Year?
Now down to the important part – how much should beekeepers harvest per year? While this number depends on a number of factors, an average beekeeper usually harvests only 2-3 times per year. The most important aspects of harvesting honey are the timing and amount of harvest.
Timing is a crucial aspect of harvesting honey, as incorrect timing can lead to inefficiencies and even dangerous conditions for your bees.
A harvesting timeline will depend on your region of the world, but harvesting usually takes place between mid-June to mid-September in the Northern Hemisphere. This timeline is due to the amount of nectar flow in the area resulting from blooming flowers.
If you harvest before this, you’ll likely limit the amount of honey you could’ve received. The combs should be full and capped, and supers should be relatively full as well.
If you harvest after this, you’re likely taking from crucial food storage that your bees will rely on to survive the winter. If they don’t have sufficient winter storage, you will have to provide supplemental feeding, or they will die.
When you harvest also depends on if you’ve administered any chemical treatments to your bees. Although pests may appear during the harvest season, it’s important to only administer treatments with no supers in the hive – or else the honey may be inedible. Of course, this may not be the case if your treatment is non-chemical based.
The amount of honey you take from your bees will also be really influential on the colony’s success. If you take too much, your hive will likely collapse. If you take too little, the honey will become granulated and unusable.
Make sure not to ever harvest from anywhere but the supers, as the honey in the hive is utilized for feeding the colony and new brood. Supers are relied on as an emergency food supply for the bees, which is why we extract from there.
If you are lucky enough to harvest three times a year, you’ll want to label this honey “varietal,” as the nectar sources will differ in each batch. It’s essential to label when each batch was harvested and what plants it was made from for taste preferences and allergies.
How many times per year a beekeeper harvests honey largely depends on factors outside their ability: daylight, weather, the health of the hive, and rainfall. However, it’s easy to say that a beekeeper typically harvests 2-3 times on an average year with good conditions. To maximize the harvest, a beekeeper will plant more flowers, plant better flowers, increase the number of supers in the hive, re-locate the hive to an ideal location, and rid the colony of any diseases.
There are also other guidelines for harvesting honey that beekeepers go by:
- They always make sure the honey is capped, or the moisture content is lower than 20%.
- They only harvest between mid-June to mid-September (in the Northern hemisphere).
- They always make sure that they are safely extracting the honey so that it doesn’t take too much from the bees and keeps the bees safe during the process.
Following the advice from this article will allow you to harvest the max amount of honey while keeping your bees safe and happy.