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It’s the most exciting part of beekeeping – the honey harvest.  After all those months of caring for your bee colony you finally get to reap the rewards of your hard work.  If you are new to beekeeping you may not know much about harvesting honey, but that’s okay.  This article will go over how and when to harvest honey from beehives.

How Bees Make Honey

First, let’s have a quick review of how bees make honey. First of all, not all bees make honey.  Some bees collect and store pollen.  The honey bee however, collects pollen and nectar to create honey.  They store the honey to be eaten during the winter

Honey is the perfect food for bees because it provides them with all the necessary vitamins and sugars they need to survive.  Bees flap their wings over 11,000 times a minute, so they need a lot of energy to fuel their bodies.  They get that energy from consuming honey.  

Nectar

For a bee, the honey make process starts with nectar.  Forager bees travel as much as 2 miles away from their hives in search of flowers to collect nectar from.  It’s amazing how bees can travel so far away and still find their way back home.  

The flowers bees like best have lots of sweet nectar and protein packed pollen. Dandelions, lavender, and goldenrod are favorites on honey bees.  To collect nectar, the bee will use it’s proboscis, a straw-like tongue to suck up the nectar.  The nectar is then stored in it’s honey stomach.  The honey stomach does not digest food and is used for holding nectar and water.  

It does, however, have enzymes.  When nectar mixes with those enzymes the honey making process begins as water starts to get removed from the nectar.  

Moisture Content

Back at the hive, the nectar is transferred to a house bee.  The house bee chews and adds more enzymes to the nectar to further break it down. She then places the nectar into honeycomb. 

There, water will continue to evaporate from the nectar.  Bees will also help this process by fanning their wings over the nectar to reduce its water content. Once the honey’s moisture content is at or below 18% the bees cap it with a layer of beeswax.  

Honey must have the proper moisture content of 17-18%. If honey has high moisture levels it will ferment.

When to Harvest Honey From Beehives

You can tell that the honey is ready when it is capped with beeswax.  But just because you see capped honeycomb cells doesn’t mean you can start harvesting honey. So how do you know when to harvest honey from beehives?

There are a few indicators that will let you know that it’s time to harvest honey.  It must be noted that first year beekeepers may likely not harvest honey at all.  That’s because bees need a full season to grow their population and create enough honey to be harvested.  

Honey is usually harvested in the summer, so during the summer it is a good idea to check on your hive every 2 weeks. During this time make note of how many frames contain capped honey.  

By the end of summer the frames should have at least 80% capped honeycomb. At this point you can either extract the honey or allow the bees to cap the rest of the honeycomb.  If you choose to wait, wait until the last major nectar flow passes to harvest honey.  

A rule of when to harvest honey from beehives is that you should not extract honey if less than 75% of the cells are capped.  That is because the uncapped honey will alter the moisture content of the honey which could cause spoilage.  

It’s important to get the timing of the honey harvest right.  If you remove the supers too early, the bees might stop making honey for the season.  But if you leave the supers on too late, the bees will start to consume the honey and you won’t be able to harvest it.  

For that reason, you should harvest honey before mid September.  Depending on the climate in your area, the best months to harvest honey are late July and August.

The best months to harvest honey are late July and August. Frames should have at least 80% capped honeycomb.

How Much Honey to Harvest

Aside from knowing when to harvest honey from beehives you must also know how much honey to harvest.  Taking too much honey can cause the colony to starve.  

Bees are experts at storing honey.  Wild bee colonies have been found with enough honey stored up to last them years!  The reason bees store honey is so they have something to eat through the winter.  Therefore, honey bees need to store honey to survive. 

Luckily, a strong colony of bees will store much more honey than they need.  Beekeepers must be careful to leave enough honey for the colony and only take what’s extra.  So, how much honey do bees need for the winter?

In general, a beehive will need 60 – 80 pounds of honey to survive winter.  That amount could change based on your climate and location.  For example, if winter is longer in your area, your colony will require more honey.  Bees in warm areas with mild winters could survive on as little as 40 pounds of honey. 

In general, a beehive will need 60 – 80 pounds of honey to survive winter.

The amount of honey on a frame depends on the size or your super.  1 deep frame holds about 8 pounds of honey.  1 medium frame holds about 6 pounds of honey.  

It’s important to leave enough honey for the bees, because without it, the colony will perish.  Since it’s hard to know exactly how much honey the bees will need it’s always best to leave some extra.  

The ideal set up for winter would have brood in the center of the lowest box, with frames of pollen and honey around them. And on top, a second deep with 10 full frames of honey. This would give the bees 12 deep frames full of honey.  The beekeeper could then harvest honey from all other supers. 

However, it doesn’t always work out that way so it’s important for beekeepers to check that the deeps have honey before harvesting from the supers.  

How to Extract Honey 

The two main methods of honey extraction are to use a honey extractor and the crush and strain method. 

Honey Extractor

A honey extractor is a mechanical device used to harvest honey from honeycomb. Frames are held in a drum that is spun to fling the honey out.  It works using centrifugal force.  A positive aspect of using a honey extractor is that the wax comb remains intact after the extraction process.  

Honey extractors come in different sizes.  Smaller ones hold just a few frames at a time, while commercial honey extractors can hold 60 frames.  Smaller honey extractors can be powered manually with a hand crank.  Larger extractors run on electricity.  

Crush and Strain 

An alternative to using a honey extractor is the crush and strain method.  This method does not require much equipment. First you cut the comb out of the frame and place it in a container.  Then crush the comb and strain it using cheesecloth or a honey strainer.  

Summary

It is important to know when to harvest honey from beehives. Honey is usually harvested at the end of summer.  Frames should have at least 80% capped honey before harvesting. A beehive will need 60 – 80 pounds of honey to survive winter.  The rest can be harvested by the beekeeper.  

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