Some animal rights activists and environmentalists have begun to raise the alarm against harvesting honey. Although not inherently wrong, modern practices have started to prioritize profit over the health of the bees. Furthermore, honeybees are aggressively competing for resources with native, endangered bee species across the country.
This has led some beekeepers to stop harvesting their honey and leaving it for their bees. While this is certainly an option, it does take special steps to ensure your bees won’t evacuate the area.
Not harvesting honey can lead to honey being stolen by other insects, bees, or create issues with the colony out-growing their hive.
Read on to discover why harvesting honey isn’t bad for bees, how to harvest ethically, or how to opt-out altogether.
Is Harvesting Honey Bad for Bees?
While honey isn’t inherently bad for bees, it can definitely seem that way at first glance. Why isn’t it bad? Because beekeepers only harvest from combs that bees have created as extra food for winter storage.
However, because not all beekeepers are created equal, this is not always the case. In some cases, honey production can be harmful to the bees. For instance, many commercial honey facilities maltreat their bees. Since profit is their number one goal, the bees’ wellness is put last.
Some of the worst examples of this are when the wings of queen bees are cut off so she can’t leave the hive. Other examples include:
- The number of bees killed in commercial honey harvesting
- Bees being killed during a queen transplanting process
It’s important to note that most beekeeping is not this, though. Most beekeepers prioritize their bees’ health and wellness. In addition, many beekeepers today only start the hobby to help with the global colony collapse disorder problem.
What Happens To Honey When It Isn’t Harvested?
The question remains: what happens to honey when it isn’t harvested? While it doesn’t necessarily go bad, the most likely possibility is that other creatures will get into it.
Bees will Move It into Deeper Storage
When the honey isn’t properly harvested, bees will uncap it and move it to the hive body for easier access. While this isn’t inherently bad, it just makes later harvests trickier.
Other Insects Will Steal It
As honey is chock full of sugar, most creatures dream of eating it. As they inevitably start to smell the unharvested honey, more and more will begin to steal it from the hive over time.
Other Bees will Steal It
Although bees are known for working hard, they also know how to work smart. If they don’t have enough honey stored for winter, they begin to look in other hives for honey prospects. They will also start to do this if the smell of honey from the neighboring hive is strong enough.
While this is a perfect way for disease to spread, there are ways to avoid it. One way is to wrap a wet towel around the hive. While the local bees will still know how to get inside, robbers from other hives will be too confused to bother.
The Colony will Outgrow the Hive
The largest concern with not harvesting honey is swarming, which will leave you without any bees. When excess honey isn’t harvested, your bees will think that it’s okay to start creating more brood. However, there won’t be enough space for all the new bees. With the new, cramped headquarters, either half or all of your bees are likely to abandon the hive.
How to Know When Honey is Ready to Harvest
Now, after reading what happens to unharvested honey, you may have decided to start harvesting it. To do the least harm to your bees, you must determine when the honey is ready to harvest.
Is the Honey Capped?
Both for you and the bees, the first thing you need to know is if the honey is capped. Capping honey is where bees put a small coating of beeswax over fully developed honey.
This signals that the honey moisture content has been lowered below 20 percent, and it also signifies the honey is ready for storage.
Thus, bees will be done with this frame until they need it in the winter. So, if you want to harvest honey, it needs to be capped first.
Have the Bees Created Other Honey Storage?
While bees are unlikely to create honey supply in the supers before they fill up the hive body, it’s a good idea to check – especially if your main priority is the health of your bees. By doing regular hive inspections throughout the spring, you can ensure your colony has food for themselves and their brood before harvesting.
However, you need to be careful while performing hive inspections as this is the time when most bees are harmed.
Are All the Bees in the Hive?
That being said, there are times of the day optimal for harvesting honey.
The most significant consideration is the number of bees in the hive. Most bees will be in the hive during these times:
- Night, early morning, or sunset
- During inclement weather
- During extremely hot weather
- During winter
If you harvest honey during these times, both you and the bees will get hurt. You will likely get stung because the bees will likely be defensive or agitated during these times. They will probably get hurt because of the amount of moving bodies while you are moving hive parts.
The best time to harvest honey is when most forager bees are out of the hive for the day. That usually occurs during:
- spring to autumn, when temperatures are above 52F
- Mid-morning or early evening
- When there are little to no idling bees
If you harvest honey at these times, you are likely to do less damage to yourself and your colony.
Is the Frame Full of Honey?
While half-full frames aren’t bad, this is more of an efficiency problem. If you harvest honey from a half full-frame, you lower the amount of honey you harvest in the year. To maximize product and efficiency, you should ideally wait until the frame is full to harvest the honey.
More than efficiency, it also makes your time worth it. Harvesting honey as a small-time beekeeper isn’t as simple of a process, and it can take a lot of work, so most beekeepers want to wait until they have a big batch.
How Much Winter Storage Do Your Bees Have?
You don’t really have to consider your bees’ winter storage when you harvest in the late spring and early summer. However, when you begin to harvest late-summer, early autumn, thinking about winter storage is a must.
Bees need about 60-90 lbs of honey to survive an average winter. An excellent way to measure how many frames your bees will need during winter is to weigh your first harvested frame of the season. From there, you can easily estimate how many frames to leave in the autumn.
If you end up harvesting too much honey, it isn’t the end of the world. Many beekeepers provide supplemental feeding during the winter to ensure their bees are healthy.
Honey Harvesting Frequency
To be an ethical beekeeper, you must think about how much to harvest without harming your bees. While seasoned veteran beekeepers have gotten the practice down to a science, the beginning can seem quite daunting. However, harvesting honey is one of the most rewarding aspects of the hobby and can be quite fun.
If you want an in-depth guide to the frequency of harvesting honey, check out our guide here.
First Year is a No-Go
Unless you’re really lucky, harvesting honey in the first season is usually a no-go. Your new colony is doing a lot of work to build themselves up in the first season, and because of this, won’t produce enough surplus honey for harvest. They are growing the colony so much that they will need all of the surplus to survive the winter.
It Depends on Climate
While this can be said about multiple things in beekeeping, how much honey you get to harvest in a year really depends on your climate. If your bees are regularly experiencing nectar dearth in the summertime, you’re likely to harvest much less honey. If this happens, you may even have to supplement their feeding for the colony to survive.
Beekeepers will harvest honey 2-3 times a year with a healthy, strong hive. With a traditional setup, bees usually produce 30-60 lbs of harvestable honey in a year.
How to Keep Bees and Not Harvest Honey
If your main priority for keeping bees is preserving the species or enjoying their company, you’re not out of luck. There are ways to keep bees that allow you not to harvest the honey.
Add Boxes to Keep Up with Population Growth
Bees populations explode when there is surplus honey. Therefore, if you want to leave them with their honey and grow the hive, you must add additional hive bodies and supers to keep up with the demand.
Unfortunately, this is only a temporary solution, as one hive can only grow so big.
Split the Hive
Once the colony has outgrown one hive, it may be time to split them into two.
If you take some bees into a new hive with brood, they will likely start to create their own colony. However, this isn’t any less harmful to bees than harvesting honey.
Let them Swarm
You can also let them split themselves through swarming. Even better, If you have an empty, attractive hive close by, there’s a chance that the swarming bees will colonize it.
Look Into Other Bees
There are plenty of other bee species that you can raise without harvesting honey. Because of their endangered status and beneficial impact on the ecosystem, many people are beginning to raise native bees.
These bees include bumblebees, mason bees, leafcutter bees, and cuckoo bees – but you can find other varieties in your region.
Even more, native bees are more accessible to raise than honey bees as they are solitary and don’t need much maintenance. All you need to raise them are flowers, a beehouse, and native bee cocoons, and they take care of the rest!
Harvesting honey can be a rewarding, fun task if done ethically. Beekeepers should always prioritize their bee’s health over profit.
Easy ways to do this are to harvest at the right time and to harvest the right amount.
However, if a beekeeper wants to raise bees without the hassle of harvesting honey, there are plenty of ways to do so. Overall, the best way to raise bees without harvesting honey is to invest in native bee houses.