Honey Harvest: With Smoke and a Brush

August 2, 2015

It’s honey harvest time at the Bee America Apiary—something our family looks forward to with great anticipation. It’s really not until the hives are opened up and the frames carefully extracted that we get a sense as to whether the bees had a bountiful season. There’s nothing sweeter than tasting honey directly from the hive—knowing that one is afforded a special gift from nature. We’re big supporters of the farm-to-table movement and feel that our honey contributes to the network of locally produced food that is enjoyed by many in our neighborhood and surrounding communities.

While it may be obvious when a tomato is ready to be picked, knowing when to harvest honey takes a bit more finesse, but is ultimately a decision easy to make because beekeepers rely on the bees to tell us. When honey, which comes from flower nectar, is dried to a moisture content of 18% or less water, the bees seal each honey cell with wax. This process is called “capping” and is repeated cell-by-cell until the entire frame is capped. When the majority of a frame is capped, the honey is ready to harvest.

While it may be relatively straightforward to remove the honey frames from the hive, it certainly isn’t an easy proposition with 40,000 to 60,000 bees per hive jealously guarding their treasure. And, can you blame them? It’s our goal as beekeepers to do so in a safe and respectful manner with minimal disruption to the life of the hive. There are some basic strategies beekeepers use to separate the bees from their honey.

Opening the Hive and Calming the Bees

Every time I open up one of our hives, I use a beehive smoker, which produces cool puffs of non-toxic smoke. The smoke essentially disorients the bees and they move deeper into the hive. Having fewer bees surrounding the frames makes the whole process much smoother and efficient.

Gently Removing Bees from the Hive

After smoking the hive, I remove the honey frames one at a time and use a silky bee brush to gently detach any remaining bees. Some beekeepers may also use gas or electric-powered blowers to remove the bees, but I find that the noise of these blowers is counterproductive to keeping the bees as docile as possible.

I cannot say that I haven’t been tempted to harvest as much honey as possible from our hives, but I never do. That’s because honey is also the food that the bees need to keep their colony strong and thriving and to survive the upcoming winter. Given our more moderate climate in the Mid-Atlantic region, we leave about 60 pounds of honey per hive—enough for the bees to survive until spring. And if we’re very lucky...the cycle continues again.