Honey Harvesting 101: Smoke, Stink, Blow, Brush

I am so loving the “farm to table” movement that is helping us all better understand where our food comes from. Everyone knows that farmers grow food, but there is a lot more to the story about how that food gets to our tables. Taking that concept one step further, everyone know that honeybees make honey, but how does the honey actually get inside those bear-shaped containers?

Crops, we all know, are harvested whenever the vegetables, fruits, and grains are ripe. It is no different for honey. But since bees make the honey, how do we know when it is "ripe" and ready to harvest? Easy. The bees decide when it’s ready, and they seal the ripe honey cell with wax. They do this cell-by-cell until the entire frame is capped.

For a frame to be ready to harvest, it must be at least 90 percent capped. If that much honey is not capped, it’s not ready to harvest. To make honey, the bees collect nectar and deposit it into the honeycomb cells, then by vibrating their wings they dehydrate it to a moisture content of 18 percent or less. When the honey reaches this level, the bees cap the cell. Uncapped honey has higher moisture content and if harvested, it will not have a long shelf life and will eventually ferment. It is still safe to eat, and can even be used for mead, but it shouldn’t be bottled and set on a shelf for a long period of time or there will be an unpleasant mess. Something that only Bear Grylls, star of “Man vs. Wild,” would dare eat.

When the honey is ripe, it’s ready to be removed from the hives. While pulling the honey frames out of the hives is easy to do, removing the bees from the frames is a different story. In late summer when the harvest season is at its peak, so is the population of a typical honeybee hive. By now, each hive has anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 bees, and even though bees are small, they are very good team players. They don’t like it when you rip off the roof of their house, steal the food from their pantry, and disturb all of the kids in the nursery. Can you blame them? If I had a stinger, I'm sure I would use it in a similar situation.

As a beekeeper, my goal is to remove the honey from the hives and minimize the disruption of the bees -- and keep the number of stings to a minimum. So here are some of the techniques that beekeepers use to separate the bees from the honey.

Smoking – A smoker is used every time a hive is opened up. A puff of cool smoke disorients the bees, and to calm themselves they go deeper into the hive and find some honey to eat. Honey supers – the boxes containing the frames of honey to be harvested – are on the top of a hive. Puffing a good dose of smoke down from the top will chase the bees lower into the hive so there will be fewer bees left on the honey super frames.

Fume boards – This is a simple contraption, a wooden board lined with a layer of felt. This device is used in tandem with a liquid that contains odors that are repulsive to bees. After smoking the hive, add a couple of drops of this smelly liquid, place it on the top of the hive and the bees go running deep into the hive, pinching their noses yelling “Pew! Pew!” Well, maybe they don’t really yell, but it would be the equivalent of someone throwing a stink bomb into your house. You’d pinch your nose and run too.

Blowing – After smoking and fume boards, there are still a number of stubborn bees clinging to the honey. One fast technique is to place the entire honey super box with all of the frames inside onto a stand. Then using either a leaf blower or a reverse-blowing shop vac, blow the remaining bees off the frames. The bees will fall to the ground and pile up on each other, but it does not kill the bees. They are dizzy and disoriented; a sensation much like after stepping off the Tilt-A-Whirl at the amusement park, but they will recover and fly home to their hives.

Brushing – This is the method I use, even though it is by far the most time consuming. After smoking the hive, I will remove each frame one at a time and use a bee brush to gently flick off the remaining bees. One by one, each frame is placed into an empty box that is tightly covered to keep the rest of the bees in the apiary off the honey frames. I prefer this method because it gives me the opportunity to harvest only the frames that are ripe and 90 percent capped, which leaves the unripe frames on the hives for the bees to finish. (I also have a small operation of only 19 hives, so this method is manageable for me.)

It’s always tempting to take as much honey as possible from each of the hives. But honey is also food for the bees, and they are going to need plenty of it for the winter ahead. In northern climates, beekeepers need to leave at least 80 to 100 pounds of honey per hive so they have enough to survive until spring. Believe it or not, honeybees stay right here in Minnesota during the winter. If I want to keep my hives happy, healthy and strong, I need to leave plenty of honey for them.

Harvesting honey from the hives is a lot of hard work. Lifting the heavy honey super boxes is hard on my back, and it’s no fun getting stung. But it takes only a couple of ibuprofen to relieve the minor aches and pains, while the rewards of beekeeping, interacting with these incredible creatures, and enjoying their bounty are worth the effort.

Photos by Sheldon Rosburg



Debbie Morrison is a frequent contributor to Simple, Good and Tasty. She and her husband Jim own and operate Sapsucker Farms, where their certified organic crops include maple syrup, honey, apples, plums and vegetables. Debbie's last post for Simple, Good and Tasty was 5 New Ways to Use Local Honey to Sweeten Your Life.