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The question people ask most frequently by folks who learn I’m a beekeeper is: “Do you harvest and sell your honey?” I don’t blame them. Humans have been preoccupied with the sweet stuff since our ancestors discovered we could steal from wild colonies, eventually putting the bees in our own designed hives to manage (and harvest honey) more easily.
But the answer to that question in general depends largely on the beekeeper being asked. Commercial honey producers and small-scale apiaries will usually respond with a resounding, “Yes!” Small hobby apiaries or homesteaders with just a few hives might respond one of several ways. Some beekeepers harvest regularly several times per year. Others watch the hives for signs of readiness and harvest honey only when they know they can do so safely. So how do you know? What are the signs of readiness to harvest honey?
Here are a few tips to help you know when to harvest honey from your hives, mindfully and respectfully.
1. Know Your Region
Before you can harvest honey, it’s important to know when the expected “honey flows” (or nectar flow) will occur in your area. When the flow is “on,” you can plan to add supers in rapid succession, allowing the bees to store as much as the flow will allow. This is most important because if you take too much honey from one harvest, you need to have a backup nectar flow before winter to help replace the stores.
2. Know Your Window
There’s a window of time in the year to harvest honey. It’s different for everyone because it depends so greatly on your region (and is another great reason to know and understand the botanical habits of your area). Harvesting too early means you don’t capitalize on the full amount of honey available in a given year. Harvesting too late risks running into cold or freezing temperatures, as well as possibly taking too much and not leaving enough for the colony for winter. It also runs into the season of chemical treatment (if that’s something you do), and chemicals and honey definitely don’t mix. Of the two, it is always preferable to err on the side of harvesting too early.
3. Know Your Honey
The process of turning raw nectar into honey requires several ingredients: digestive enzymes from the bees, their efforts at storing and fanning it, and time. When the workers have completed the transformation from nectar to honey, the comb’s cells will be capped over with beautiful, fresh, pale wax. The bees do this only when they’ve fanned the nectar down to the 18 percent moisture level and fully turned it into honey. The capping process signals that the honey is ready for harvest.
4. Know Your Bees
Become intimate with your hives and their needs. Never take more honey than you need, or more honey than they can spare. The general rule of thumb is leave 40 to 60 pounds of honey on the hive to get the bees through winter—more for colder regions with longer winters; less for warmer regions with shorter winters.
Knowing when to harvest honey is about paying attention to the signs. Beekeepers must be observant and action oriented, if nothing else. Then, if you act with your bees’ best interest in mind, first and foremost, you can’t go wrong.