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Harvesting honey: Let me count the ways!

April 2017 399
People have been taking honey from
the bees for so long now, that no-
body knows when it started. Some of
the earliest techniques are still in use; new
methods have been devised by each gen-
eration of beekeepers. In the good old days,
honey was a matter of life and death: usually
the bees were killed in the process. Eventu-
ally, people gured out that they could get
more honey in the long run if the bees were
allowed to survive, and we moved from bee
hunting to beekeeping.
When to Harvest
A lot of new beekeepers ask, how do
you know when it’s time to harvest. Colu-
mella, the great Roman writer from Italy in
the rst century AD, wrote about this. In
those days, most evaluation was done from
the outside of the hive. He tells us that the
honey is ripe when the hive begins to expel
the drone bees. He correctly observes that
when the combs are sealed – “just as if they
had lids over them” – the honey is ripe and
ready for harvest. The ancient writer Varro
refers to the constellation Pleiades; he says
honey may be harvested when it reappears
in spring, around the 22nd of April. There
should be a crop in midsummer and a nal
one when Pleiades sets in October.
Columella describes the ancient tech-
nique of using smoke to subdue and move
bees away from the honey. The hives in
question were no doubt similar to hives in
use today in some parts of the world, which
are opened from the back. This makes sense,
since the bees guard their entrance in the
front. Columella refers to the use of dried
dung, and a plant he calls “galbanum.” This
is probably Ferula, also known as asafetida.
They used clay pots, placing the combus-
tible materials onto hot coals. The stinking
smoke would then be blown by the keeper
into the hive, which generally subdued the
bees and moved them toward the entrance,
and o the honey. The honey would then be
cut out, a very messy process.
The use of smoke on bees predates re-
corded history. Smoke has very similar
eects on other insects, including wasps.
It appears to dim their awareness, leading
to their reduced vigilance and inability to
defend themselves in the usual fashion.
However, as a method of driving bees from
the honey, it is not eective. Upon being
smoked, a lot of the bees may move, and
more smoke moves more of them. But ex-
cessive smoke stupees the colony, and can
spoil the honey at the same time.
Foresters learned early on that the con-
stant pounding of the axe on the side of a
tree can also render the bees completely
passive and this same technique can be used
to drive bees. In the days of log hives, honey
bees could be completely driven out of a log
by rhythmic pounding. This technique was
not in wide use, probably because it’s time
consuming. Even so, some beekeepers had
enough time on their hands to use the tech-
nique to drive bees o the honey combs and
even to induce them to move into new hives,
enabling the beekeeper to divide his colo-
nies in two. Most of the bees and the queen
could be driven into an empty hive, leaving
enough bees and brood remaining for the
colony to recover by raising a new queen.
Early Box Hives
In the 1700s and 1800s elaborate box
hives came into use. Inventive beekeepers
developed what they referred to as the “sto-
rifying system.” Robert Huish describes it
in detail in his 1844 book on bee manage-
ment. Initially, boxes were added below
existing box hives, or straw skeps. The
bees would build down into them and the
top portion could be removed when heavy
with honey. Eventually, the beekeepers re-
alized that bees would move upward more
readily than down. A hole would be drilled
in the top of a wooden box hive, and an-
Prehistoric rock painng of person smoking bees to obtain the honey
American Bee Journal400
other box placed over it. The colony would
use the upper story for honey storage and
generally continue to use the lower combs
for brood rearing. This would result in a
wood box lled with beautiful new honey
comb, free from brood and the tough dark
brood comb.
The basic technique for ridding the honey
box of bees was to simply set it o. Soon
the bees become aware that they are sepa-
rated from their brood and queen. A sense
of restlessness and unease sets in and they
abandon the honey box to return to the nest.
Some people still use this technique. How-
ever, it only works if there is a strong nectar
ow going on. If honey is scarce, other bees
become aware of the undefended combs and
proceed to steal the honey. Beekeepers call
this robbing, but in reality it is more like
looting or pillaging, and can get ugly very
fast. The bees become crazed, stinging each
other and anything else that moves. Clever
beekeepers realized they could achieve
similar results by moving the honey box
indoors, and placing it near a window. The
bees would gradually abandon the box for
the window, be released and return home.
Brushing and Shaking
When the modern bee hive with move-
able frames was invented, beekeepers used
the simple technique of brushing and shak-
ing the bees o of the honey-lled frames.
This method is still practical and appropri-
ate for beekeepers with small numbers of
hives. The best plan is to have handy sev-
eral supers with no frames in them. The
full frames are removed and placed in the
spare boxes, taking care to cover them up
if there is reason to anticipate robbing. As
the frames are removed from the hives, ad-
ditional empty boxes become available, and
the harvest progresses in ne fashion.
Near where I live, in the town of Groton,
New York, lived the legendary Coggshall
family. Their harvesting technique was
often described in the bee journals of the
late 1800s. They harvested tons of honey
using the brushing and shaking method.
They had sti whisk brooms they used to
swiftly brush the bees o the combs, but
evidently little smoke was used.
The basic plan was to work as fast as
possible, and from the look of the heavy
gloves and gauntlets they wore, the bees
were not too happy with this method. Usu-
ally, the honey was extracted in a building
right in the bee yard; each bee yard had a
small shed. The frames would be handed
through a window, where a teenager would
be waiting to spin them with a hand cranked
honey extractor. Empties would be handed
back out and returned to the hive to be re-
lled. When they left at the end of the day,
they would have wood barrels lled with
extracted honey.
Henry Knorr, of Del Mar, California, told
me that bee-yard extraction was still com-
mon in southern California in the 1920s,
when he was a boy. He learned to hate
beekeeping that way -- stuck in a hot shed
extracting honey all day in summer -- and
went on to become a machinist, taking over
his father’s candle making business.
Beekeepers are inventive and pretty soon
they came up with other, better ways of
separating the honey from the bees. Writ-
ing in England in 1905, Paul Hasluck said
that removing honey was “the one operation
dreaded by bee keepers” and described a
new American invention that could allow the
beekeeper to remove honey quickly, without
disturbing the bees, and without receiving a
single sting “if ordinary care be taken.”
The device was called the super-clearer.
There are many dierent designs but they
all employ the principle of a passage that
allows bees to move out but not back in.
Some of the early ones simply had a small
opening in the hive cover. The super would
be set o, a solid board placed on the hive
and the super placed back on it. The bees
would escape out the hole. It was found that
it worked better if the “bee escape” was
placed in the board between the hive and
the super, because the bees can pass down
from the honey back to where the queen and
brood is.
The so-called Porter bee escape consists
of two thin strips of spring metal, through
which exiting bees exit but cannot return in
the opposite direction, like a turnstile. These
are still available to purchase and generally
work well enough. They have the draw-
backs of being slow and occasionally a bee
will get stuck in it. If the bees are trapped in
a honey super on a hot day, they can quickly
Ingenious beekeepers have gone on to
devise many types of super-clearers which
all seek to avoid the problems of trapped
bees, slow clearance, and overheating.
Triangular passageways, often made with
window screen, are placed in the corners of
the wooden boards, allowing bees to herd
through the passages. Any passage that fun-
nels bees is generally eective because it
is so much easier to go out than to return
through the small opening. And generally
the bees have very little incentive to return
to the super.
The employment of the super-cleared in-
volves two trips to the hives. The honey su-
pers must be taken o the hives, the boards
put in place and the supers returned. Then,
the following day, the supers should be re-
moved; that is, as soon as the bees have left
them. If they have, then honey harvesting
can take place very quickly and even fairly
late in the day when few bees are ying.
The chief drawback of super-clearers is
this: the hives have to be equipped with
queen excluders, so that there is no brood
nor the queen in the honey supers. For
beekeepers who already employ queen
excluders, which conned the brood area
and prevent brood in the honey, this is no
problem. However, many beekeepers do not
use them. They are an additional expense,
an extra piece of equipment, and some bee-
keepers feel they impede the growth and ex-
pansion of the colony. Also, the supers have
Rhombus bee escape board
Triangular bee escape
Round bee escape board
Conical bee escape
Tradional Porter bee escape Conical bee escape board
April 2017 401
to be “bee-tight” or the robber bees will nd
a way in.
Fume Boards or Pads
The discovery of the eect of carbolic
acid on honey bees dates back at least to
1877, when Alfred Neighbor described it
in his book. People were looking for some-
thing a bit stronger than smoke to subdue
the hives. The modern smoker had not been
quite perfected, and they found that a few
drops of carbolic acid (phenol) would have
a dramatic eect on bees. He mentions its
potential for moving swarms from one hive
to another, and as a repellent against rob-
ber bees. I should mention at this point that
phenol is a very dangerous acid and should
not be sprinkled about!
I remember Henry Knorr telling me about
a couple of beekeepers to whom he intro-
duced the idea of fume boards. It was the
1960s and they had several hundred hives
in Olivenhain, California. They had been
brushing and shaking the frames and when
they found out how easy it was to use fume
boards, they never went back.
Charlie Mraz wrote about fumes boards
in the 1930s; beekeeping pretty much en-
tered the modern era at that time. A fume
board is much like a hive cover with cloth
on the inside. This cloth is soaked with a
repellent chemical, and the board is placed
on top of the hive. They work best in warm
or hot weather. The fumes drive the bees
down and the supers are taken. Care must
be taken not to drive the bees right out of
the hive.
I have worked with commercial beekeep-
ers using fume boards and it is amazing at
how quick the process is, when done cor-
rectly. Typically, the bee yards are set up
so that all of the hives are close to the truck
bed. The arrangement is often three rows on
either side of the roadway. If there are many
hives, the truck is simply moved forward as
the work progresses; the beekeeper never
has more than two hives between him and
the truck.
Usually about 20 or more fume boards
are placed on the hives. By the time all the
boards are in place, the rst supers are ready
to take o. These are simply pried loose and
stacked on “drip boards” waiting on the
truck bed. Don’t get me wrong: while this
looks easy enough, you have to have bee-
keepers built like linebackers to get the job
done well.
In the ensuing years it was found that
carbolic acid (a bee repellent) could “taint”
the honey and its use is no longer approved.
Subsequently, other repellents were devel-
oped. These include benzaldehyde (almond
oil), butyric anhydride (smells like very
strong cheese, or vomit), and other formu-
lae. But the principle is the same: move the
bees out – take the supers.
Again, the presence of brood in the supers
can act as a deterrent; the bees really want
to take care of that brood. But typically, if
supers are added at the right time during a
strong nectar ow, the inux of fresh honey
will deter the queen from entering them and
expanding her brood nest. Generally a quick
glance into the super can tell you if there is
brood in the frames. In that case, the brood
can be left on the hive. Some beekeepers
keep a hive or two at the honey house and if
the occasional brood frame is encountered
in a super, it can be donated to these colo-
nies. Extracting honey from frames with live
brood is unappealing at best.
Bee Blowers
The last type of honey harvesting de-
vice I have in mind is the bee blower. I was
surprised to nd out how old this idea is!
Arthur Hodgson, writing in the magazine
“Gleanings in Bee Culture” says he rst
experimented with a device for blowing
the bees from the combs, in 1908. By 1914,
when he informed the beekeeping public
of it, he had already soured on the idea. He
clearly prefers his customary “screen-cloth
escape-board.” Perhaps we should not be
surprised of his discouragement when we
learn that his invention was hand powered.
However, his chief objection appeared to be
the “violent treatment” of the bees, as com-
pared to the more peaceful technique of the
Like so many ideas, this one laid dormant
for decades, only to resurface. There’s a
great article on the bee blower in the July
1966 issue of the American Bee Journal.
The author “Bud” Diehelt muses: “That
darn chemical, why didn’t it work? Boy,
we need something that will work all of the
time, and every time.”
He says he gave up on fume boards in
1963, experimented with an electric vacuum
cleaner, the hose attached to the outtake vent.
Dissatised with the volume and speed, he
switched to a gas engine. He adapted a 5
Honey-B-Gone bee repellent
Black fume pad for use with bee
Modern Dadant bee blower with bee
return chute
Early bee blower
Using an early bee blower
American Bee Journal402
horsepower, 2 cycle chain saw engine --
mounted in a stand and tted with a piece of
hose. He boasts of removing his entire crop of
honey, 275,000 pounds, with the bee blower.
Some of the interesting features of his
design include a chute. The honey super is
placed on the stand above the blower and
the bees are blown down the chute which is
slanted at a 45 degree angle just above the
motor. This redirects the bees right to the
front of the hive and if the queen is among
them, she can walk right in with the rest of
them. Additional facts: time to clear a me-
dium super = 10 to 12 seconds; minimum
temperature for use = 40° F.
Experienced beekeepers seldom use ten
frames in ten-frame hives. Most of their
boxes have 9 frames in them; a lot of them
use only 8 in the honey supers. The wider
spacing allows the bees to fatten the combs,
making them much easier to uncap for ex-
traction. However, whether there are 8, 9, or
ten frames, sometimes it’s hard to blow the
bees from between the frames. In that case,
it helps to pull out one frame and spread the
others apart, allowing the air to push the
bees down and out.
Final Words on Honey Harvesting
Remember, honey is not some cheap
sweetener to sit on the shelf next to pan-
cake syrup and molasses. If you have honey
bees in a location where there are good
and abundant honey plants like basswood,
sage, alfalfa, or mixed wildowers, you can
produce honey that is as good as any in the
world. I collect honey from other countries,
too. There are some wonderful ones, like
heather, rosemary, chestnut and orange.
Each region has distinct and precious hon-
eys; there are very few that are downright
nasty. (see “Mad Honey Poisoning”)
It makes sense to treat honey as a valu-
able product from start to nish. Don’t take
honey that is unripe; the frames should be
mostly capped over. This is less a problem
in arid regions than in those with high hu-
midity. Avoid exposing the honey to exces-
sive smoke, dust or other impurities. Avoid
getting dirt in it; if you travel dusty roads
with the supers, best cover them up. Same
goes for rain; the honey can be ruined if the
supers get rained on. Don’t use too much
heat in the processing of honey. Honey
caramelizes easily and while most people
like the taste of caramel, top quality honey
should not be over heated. Last but not least,
sell it for a fair price. Don’t over-charge.
Honey isn’t caviar.
Bevan, Edward. (1843). The Honey Bee:
Its Natural History, Physiology, and Man-
Crittenden, A. N. (2011). The importance
of honey consumption in human evolu-
tion. Food and Foodways, 19(4), 257-273.
Forster, E.S. and Edward H. Hener,
translators. (1854). Columella on Agri-
Gunduz, A., Turedi, S., Uzun, H., &
Topbas, M. (2006). Mad honey poison-
ing. The American journal of emergency
medicine, 24(5), 595-598.
Hasluck, Paul N. (1905). Bee hives and Bee-
keepers’ Appliances. Cassell, London.
Mraz, C. (1931). Driving Bees from Su-
pers: Improved Method of Using Carbolic
Acid for this Purpose. Glean. Bee Cult.
59(7): 437-8
Neighbour, Alfred. (1877) The Apiary: or,
Bees, BeehIves, and Bee Culture
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