When should I remove honey from my hives?

As I expected, it has gotten very dry here in central Kentucky, bone dry, crunchy dry, no mowing grass dry, brown dry, dry! These conditions have brought an end to the nectar flow here and likely, in surrounding parts of the country. Many beekeepers are now extracting honey and many new beekeepers are contemplating removing their first honey crops. This post will commence several on removing, processing and bottling honey. In addition, as the nectar flow ends things are different in our hives. Our bees go from collecting and storing honey to eating honey, egg laying and brood production decreases, and problems with robbing increases. These changes present new challenges for our bees and management issues for beekeepers. I’ll write in detail about these issues in upcoming posts.

This has been a good nectar flow and honey season for many of my neighboring beekeepers. In fact, it has been one of those years in which many new beekeepers have made honey from first year hives. I normally tell prospective beekeepers in Kentucky not to expect honey the first year from new hives, but it is possible. It is possible under the following conditions, that you start your new hive early (April here in Kentucky), that your hive builds up well without any problems (the most likely being queen issues), that you continue to feed your colony though the spring and add additional hive bodies at the right time, plus there is a good nectar flow in your area. The beekeeper has control of the first of these actions on my list, but no control over the nectar flow. This year has been one in which Mother Nature has cooperated and many new beekeepers this year have found themselves with a full honey super or two. And they are asking me questions….

A common first question I receive from newer beekeepers who are observing their bees filling honey supers with nectar is, when do I remove the honey? There are several considerations in this answer, the first and most important being the moisture content of the honey. One of the marvelous things about honey is its shelf life and its ability to resist spoilage.  As honey is transformed from raw nectar into honey, its moisture content is reduced. Honey that is properly ripened has moisture content about or lower than 18 percent.  Honey harvested above 18 percent is in danger of fermenting, so we need to ascertain if the honey has a low enough moisture content. The simplest, most economical method to determine this is to let the bees tell you. Honey bees know when the honey is ripe and this is when they add the protective wax capping to the honey. Most beekeepers use this observation to decide when the honey is ready to harvest. You can purchase an instrument called a refractometer to measure moisture content, but these instruments are not cheap, most new beekeepers and beekeepers with smaller numbers of hives do not own one and are content to let the bees tell them the honey is ready. When you look at your new frames of honey you may observe that most of the honey is capped, but a small percentage of cells remain uncapped. Beekeepers will commonly safely harvest honey from supers that contain between 10 to 20 percent uncapped cells. I prefer the 10% cutoff and I will remove an occasional completely uncapped frame if most of the frames are fully capped (again observing that 10% limit).

In addition to moisture, practical considerations should be considered in deciding when to process your of honey.  Most new beekeepers and beekeepers with only a few hives do not have a location dedicated to extracting honey (a honey house), but will temporally utilize space in their kitchen or another room in their home. This requires preparing that location and subsequent cleanup. For this reason many beekeepers prefer to harvest all their honey at one time, which means after the nectar flow is over, this time is here or approaching for most of those reading this post. If you have a location that you can leave your honey processing equipment in place throughout the honey season, you can as I do, remove and process supers as they are capped and then return the supers immediately to the hives to be refilled again by the bees.

For those of you with honey ready to remove, watch for my next post on “How to remove supers from the hive” or “How to separate the honey from the bees”.

One response to “When should I remove honey from my hives?

  1. Margie A Biedenbender

    Thanks for the information, Phil. I live in northern Ky. I have not looked into my hives for a few weeks. At that time there were several frames that were partially empty in my top supers. We caught one swarm on April 12th and it is doing fantastic. Started bee-keeping on July 10th last year. Love it!