Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture

Note: The following article on harvesting early summer honey from your hives is meant for beekeepers with hives that have already made it through one winter. If you just got new bees this year, don't try to take any honey from them this spring. (And don’t count on harvesting any supers full of honey until at least next year.) 

Around Greenwich, NY where Betterbee's hives are located, the nectar flow has been going strong since maples and dandelions were raising our spirits. That seems like a long time ago now, even though it's only been a few weeks. Some hives swarmed and got set back, but some are on their way to having capped honey in the supers! 

If you're in the same boat, why not harvest some early honey? This can give you different flavors and colors to offer your customers. Earlier honey in our neck of the woods also tends to be thinner than later honey, due to the particular sugars in the nectar of different flowers. Usually (at least around here), early season honey is lighter in color and milder in flavor than later honey. If you wait and only do one harvest, those flavors and colors will be mixed, for a blended taste, and a color similar to late honey. That’s certainly fine, too! Late honey for us consists of various goldenrod species, Japanese knotweed, and some clovers. 

What types of plant nectar may be in early honey?

Earlier harvests may be a mix of tree blossoms like locust and basswood, plus many clovers, staghorn sumac, raspberries, and dozens of wildflowers. Some years locust trees have a harvest all their own, but this year we've passed the usual locust bloom time and the trees never really bloomed in our area, so there was no locust honey to speak of. The plants contributing to your honey will always be a mixture unless you have only one kind of plant for miles and miles around you. If you can't claim a specific floral source for your honey, you can always give your varietal honey interesting names. How about something as simple as "Early Harvest" and "Late Harvest," "Woods and Fields," "August Abundance," or something equally clever? You might add in the name of your town, like "Greenwich Witches Brew.”

How to tell if a frame of honey is ready for extraction

In August or September, we can sometimes get away with harvesting frames that are only about 80% capped and the honey is still thick enough to prevent fermentation. Honey harvested earlier in the year really should be 100% capped before you consider extracting it, or else you may face fermentation and spoilage. Honey that the bees haven't capped with wax isn't ready yet. It has a lot of moisture in it, and the bees are not satisfied with its metamorphosis from nectar (very watery stuff) to honey (less than 18% water content). They will keep fanning and testing it. Follow the guidance of the bees. Wait for it to be capped and then harvest. A good thing to do is take a look throughout your hive and group all finished (capped) combs in an upper super, putting less finished ones in a lower super where they will get the most attention from the bees. 

Capped honey along with uncapped honey

The shining cells of nectar below the capped honey show that this frame is not suitable for extracting.
Photo by Arthur Sproat

Water-filled nectar takes up a lot more space than thickened honey, so don't be surprised to find fewer combs full of capped honey than you counted full of nectar. Bees sip nectar up over and over and redeposit it elsewhere as part of the curing process. As the honey cures, it loses water and loses volume. This will compact frames and frames of nectar down to just a few frames of honey. Another advantage of harvesting a bit of spring honey from your strong colonies is that you will clear space in the supers for the bees to fill up with nectar later in the season. This will reduce the number of supers you need to maintain while still providing your bees plenty of space to store the next incoming flow of nectar. 

What to do with crystallized honey frames

Interestingly, they can also remove crystallized honey at the end of the winter from combs that still have stored food. The bees reliquefy the crystallized sugar and move it to other cells, then fan it to thicken it again. Ta-da, the crystals are gone! This is lucky for us because we can't spin out crystallized honey with the extractor. If you still have a lot of frames from last year with crystallized honey, you have a few options to choose from. You can put them into the hives a few at a time, for instance, against the walls, and keep track of which frames they are. In a few weeks, the honey may be reconditioned. Another use for these pesky combs of crystallized honey is to give them to a new swarm to keep them fed as they grow. If you don't want to give crystallized honey to your bees just yet, you can also put them a few at a time into your freezer, and cycle them out again. This will protect them from wax moth eggs that may be lingering in the wax, and then you can store them all summer to give back to your hives in the fall. 

Be careful not to extract brood with your honey

If you don't use a queen excluder between the brood chamber and the supers, there may be brood in the supers. As you pick frames to extract, leave the ones with brood in the hive. Even with a queen excluder I occasionally find brood "upstairs" even with a queen excluder. Perhaps the queen excluder was faulty, or maybe a swarm occurred and then the new queen reentered the hive through the upper entrance. If you use a triangle escape board to get the bees out of your supers and find bees are still there after 24 hours, there must be brood up there - and maybe our queen, so be careful! We like using the triangle escape board to harvest from up to 5 hives, but for more than that, we use fume boards. They only need to be on for about 5 minutes on a warm day to drive the bees down into the brood chamber, out of the supers.

Have your extracting equipment ready before pulling honey frames, or have a reliable storage plan

Be ready with your extracting equipment before taking the supers from the bees. After honey is away from the constant vigilance of your bees it can easily fall prey to small hive beetles or wax moths. After pulling supers from hives, extract the honey within one week and strain it, just in case any of these insects or their larvae were in the combs. For comb honey, put the sections or the whole supers in plastic bags and freeze for 3 days. This ensures any minuscule larvae are killed, and won't grow and appear in the pretty comb package after you seal it. Thaw inside the bag to prevent condensation forming on your comb honey as it warms back up. As long as your honey doesn't sit unprotected by either you or your bees for days and days, you should be able to secure a beautiful harvest of golden spring honey without any headaches.

Of course, only harvest from the honey supers, not the brood chamber. If you're just getting started with bees, it's wise to ask your mentor or other bee club members how the season normally goes, and when fall's frost will probably kill the flowers and end all nectar collection. In our area near Saratoga Springs, we have a few weeks of minor dearth between the May-June flow and the arrival of goldenrod in August. If you see colonies throwing out drone pupae, it means they are starving. (The drones don’t help forage, so they get the heave-ho first when times get tough.) Our local flowers are really declining in late September, and are virtually gone by mid-October. Be cautious of taking too much honey when you harvest in late summer: Your bees need winter food, and that late-summer honey may have been needed by your bees! If harvesting is done in late August and the "Fall Flow" (which actually comes way before what we normally think of as "fall," when the leaves change) doesn't take place due to rain or drought, you may have to feed your bees thick sugar syrup as a replacement. Usually, this is not the case, though. Harvesting one super per hive in late June or early July should not harm the colony, and you likely will get another super later on without interfering with the bees' ability to stock up for winter!