Have you ever wondered or worried about how much honey you can harvest without harming your bees? What if you take too much! This is a very tricky question to answer. But I’ll do my best to make this as clear as possible.
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A Sustainable honey harvest means harvesting without putting our hives at risk of starvation and without creating the need to supplement them with sugar syrup. With that in mind let’s get started!
The 4 keys to a Sustainable honey harvest
The following four keys are always applicable to knowing how much honey you can harvest. However, each of the following Keys will vary depending upon where you and your hives are located.
Key #1- What time of the year is it?
The time of the year is crucial when it comes to the honey harvest. If it’s spring then you can expect a harvest. But if it’s fall when the bees are building up their food stores for winter, harvesting could hurt.
Here’s an example of why the time of year matters:
In Florida where it’s virtually warm year round, beekeepers in the south can expect up to three honey harvests between spring and fall.
However in Maine, by the time the temperature is high enough for bees to forage and make a crop, summer doesn’t last very long and before you know it it’s getting cold again.
Now I personally have no beekeeping experience in the state of Maine, I can’t imagine that there are more than two harvests, perhaps only one.
Living in the Southern Appalachians, I am able to harvest a spring honey crop at the end of May, and a summer crop at the end of July.
However, the fall crop of Goldenrod and Aster usually last more than a month. And if I plan on wintering my hives in single deep hive bodies, then there’s a chance I can harvest any extra without hurting my bees for food.
Key #2- What’s blooming/incoming?
So plants pretty much bloom from spring through fall with respect to location. But there’s a difference between a honey/nectar flow and flowers blooming.
A honey/nectar flow means that a species of plant is producing abundant nectar and is also plentiful in number. In my area, Blackberry and Tulip Poplar not only produce large quantities of nectar but the plants themselves are widely dispersed.
However, after the honey/nectar flow is over there are lots of other flowers blooming for quite some time. And although they’re plentiful and growing everywhere, they are simply not heavy nectar producers.
That being said, they still offer what is termed, ‘incoming nectar.’ Incoming nectar outside of a honey flow is enough to feed colonies without them having to touch their honey stores.
This is definitely a very good thing. However many beekeepers, even experienced ones, do not take the time to learn what these plants are.
One of the defining elements of an excellent beekeeper is one who takes it upon themselves to learn what plants offer incoming nectar in between honey/nectar flows.
Watching these plants is very helpful to beekeepers just like reading stocks is important to Wall Street or reading the sky to meteorologists. Plants are a beekeepers newspaper, calendar and clock.
Key #3- When is the honey dearth?
Honey dearths happen just about anywhere you can keep bees. A honey dearth is when there is virtually no incoming nectar.
Take it upon yourself to learn when the honey dearth takes place in your area.
The honey dearth in my area of north Georgia happens as soon as Sourwood, our summer honey flow, has finished blooming.
From past experience I know that this honey dearth lasts about a month until late summer/early fall wildflowers begin to bloom.
The reason this is so important to know is because honey bees get ‘robby’ when there’s a honey dearth.
And when bees start robbing on one another it’s difficult if not impossible to stop them. So right before the honey dearth, I like to place entrance reducers over each of the hive entrances so that it becomes more difficult for bees to rob on each other.
Entrance reducers also help to facilitate each beehive to guard their reduced entrance. Last year, not one of my hives was robbed out by another thanks to knowing what to do and when to do it.
Needless to say, a honey dearth is no time to be harvesting any honey.
Key #4- What is the strength of the hive?
I must say that hive strength is definitely one of the greater factors in deciding how much honey to harvest.
Gauging hive strength will take time and practice. For the sake of this post I will convey hive strength not by weight nor by number of honey bees per se.
To determine hive strength we will use ‘number of frames of bees.’ If you have a 10-frame Langstroth and there are bees on 7-10 of those frames, that’s a strong hive.
Anything less than 7 frames is not considered weak but is considered growing. And growing hives need to keep the honey they forage.
When it comes to a honey/nectar flow there are two types of beehives:
1) Honey producers and
2) hives that grow during the honey flow.
One hive will make you honey and the other will use the flow to grow. I don’t harvest honey from my ‘growers.’ But they usually have honey to harvest at the next harvest.
So here’s one thing to help you know for sure whether or not you should harvest:
If your colony is in a single hive body, let them keep the honey. Anything more such as double hive bodies or honey supers can be harvested.
And if you’re still not sure even then, then harvest the honey on top but never harvest from the brood nest below. This will ensure they have something to live on.
There’s one thing I have intentionally left out. I have not relayed to you how much honey to harvest or leave by weight because most of us do not have our hives on scales.
But we can all understand hive bodies and honey supers. I personally use deep hive bodies as brood chambers and honey supers. This is simply because I like uniformity and universal equipment.
It has taken me three years of beekeeping in north Georgia to know that I can actually harvest more honey than I have the previous two years without hurting my hives or supplementing them with syrup.
So to recap
Take the time of year into consideration. What season is it and which season comes next? Another element to being an excellent beekeeper is to anticipate the bees’ needs a season ahead of time and to act on those needs now.
What’s blooming/incoming? Are you currently in a honey flow? What forage is available? Is it a honey/nectar flow or is it simply incoming nectar (enough to feed your bees but not to harvest)?
When is the honey dearth? Wildflowers and trees will eventually stop blooming for a period of time, offering very little incoming nectar for your bees. Make sure that you learn when this is.
You can do this by talking to other beekeepers in your area and by experience and observation.
What is the hive strength? How many frames of bees are there? Is this a growing hive or a honey producer? It is important to allow growing hives to keep what they gather while you harvest from the larger colonies.
Taking these 4 Keys to a Sustainable honey harvest and applying them to your location will help you understand for yourself how much honey you can harvest and how much you should not.
With all of this in mind, I urge you to get a copy of a book that educated me about the forage availability in my area. I now know the difference between which plants offer a honey/nectar flow and the ones that offer incoming nectar.
Harvesting honey should be something enjoyable, fun and not stressful. Take these 4 Keys to a Sustainable harvest and apply them to your situation and relax…you can do this.
Get American Honey Plants for yourself and you’ll have the best ‘sidekick’ a beekeeper can have. This book will help you know what blooms where you live and when.
In the meantime, if you haven’t got your own copy of my new book, Weeds are Wildflowers, let them Bee! then you’re missing out. Don’t have any kids? Read it to yourself as a bedtime story…I won’t tell anyone 😉
Until next time remember,
~Weeds are Wildflowers, let them Bee!~
Jonathan Hargus/Beekeeper Extraordinaire
5 Comments Add yours
This is ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT!! I love how you draw attention to good beekeeping being about knowing your forage. And the difference with food for the colony to eat and food for the colony to store.
Aw! Thank you so much Jen 🙂 That means a lot. I am discovering that most beekeepers are really unaware when it comes to bee forage and it surprises me. But I also feel it is vital to better beekeeping. Thank you so much for your comment!
So agree with you about the focus on commercial beekeepers.
Thanks, it’s good to know others feel the same way. 😁