Ron Miksha writing about beekeeping…
If you are new at keeping bees, you may be surprised to learn that honey is harvested during just a few weeks each year. You need to tend your little workers year ‘round, but excess honey is only available after the main nectar flows.
Harvest time varies quite a lot across the country and from year to year. Early springs, dry summers, or cool wet autumns may change the dates when key flowers bloom. This in turn affects the bees’ nectar supply. You can’t depend on a calendar to know when you’ll be harvesting. You will have to assess the weather and your bees.
Since there is so much regional variation, your best advice will come from experienced local beekeepers. Every successful beekeeper has benefited from the suggestions of old timers. Although beekeeping principles are universal, beekeeping management is local. If a new beekeeper is looking for one single idea that will make him or her successful, this is it: Get friendly with other beekeepers in your community. Visit them, watch them, help them. Most beekeepers enjoy sharing what they know. This is your cheapest and most direct ticket to success.
To give you a rough idea of the variation of seasons for honey-gathering, consider the following. Citrus trees blossom in central Florida in February and March. Honey there is harvested in late March or early April.
In the Midwest, clovers and alfalfa come into blossom in late June, July, and early August. Beekeepers may start their harvest in July and remove honey a few times until late August.
In parts of the Northeast, goldenrod and aster are important nectar sources. These bloom in September and October, with honey ready for harvest in late October.
In the desert southwest, honey is often produced following the rush of flowers that open after unusually heavy rains. There are also unusual nectar sources (tupelo, black locust, sourwood, buckwheat) which bloom for brief periods (during April, May, June, and August, respectively) in geographically limited areas.
Let’s assume that you have a good (populous and healthy) colony of bees housed in equipment (bee hives) suitable for your climate. You’ve taken good care of your little workers and you’ve added extra honey-holding boxes (supers) at the right time. Flowers have blossomed and (you hope) bees have been busy collecting nectar.
When bees are gathering excess honey, beekeepers say that the “honey flow” is on. It’s actually nectar that’s ‘flowing’ into the hive, not honey. This might sound like a picky distinction, but the difference between nectar and honey is huge. If you harvest nectar from your hives, it will have too much moisture and not enough enzymatic activity, resulting in a liquid that will spoil by souring and fermenting.
In most cases, bees seal their finished honey under a coating of new beeswax which keeps dust and moisture out of the honey. Bees store excess honey as their reserve food supply for periods of cold, severe drought, or seasonal nectar dearths which may last for months.
Bees do a good job of protecting the honey for long-term storage. They convert nectar (gathered from flowers) into honey by fanning their wings to remove excess moisture and by adding enzymes which convert plant sugar (sucrose) into simpler sugars (mostly fructose and glucose). Removing moisture is a bit of work, but it’s necessary. Nectar may be 90% water when its released by flowers but honey must have less than 18.6% water content or it will become sour. Bees instinctively know this. They don’t seal honey for long term storage unless the moisture level is low enough.
The Wisdom of Bees
Pay attention to the bees’ collective wisdom. Only take honey that the bees have properly cured and sealed.
Occasionally, honey isn’t sealed by the bees, even if it is low moisture and fully converted. It may simply mean that the bees intend to use it soon, so why bother sealing it? Therefore, absence of wax cappings does not necessarily mean the honey will be subject to spoiling. If about three-quarters of the cells of honey have wax seals and one-quarter is still not capped, it is usually safe for the beekeeper to remove those combs.
If in doubt, you can test honey moisture with a device called a refractometer.
This will give you the confidence you may need to be sure the honey is low in moisture and stable for long-term storage in your pantry.
Although you don’t want to harvest honey that the bees haven’t fully ripened, you also want to avoid waiting too long. If you wait too long, the honey in the comb may begin to crystalize, or granulate. It can harden as tough as concrete and stay in the bees’ wax combs forever.
There is a lot to know when it comes to taking honey off the hives at the right time. New beekeepers might watch neighboring beekeepers’ habits, then adapt to their own situation as needed. In addition to all of this, there are often differences in harvest time between hives located just a dozen or so miles apart – ultimately, it’s up to you to know your locale and pick your best harvest day.
Editor’s note: Ron Miksha has kept beehives in various parts of the U.S. and writes at badbeekeepingblog.com
P.S. Discover how you can enjoy a more laidback, authentic, independent way of life in Truth & Plenty. Sign up below to have it delivered – free of charge – to your email inbox.
Get Your Free Homesteading Report Here
Sign up here for our free Truth & Plenty e-letter and we’ll immediately send you a FREE research report on Homesteading: Find Out How to Start ‘Homesteading’ and Live Off the Land.
Five times weekly you’ll receive our very best ideas on how to become financially, geographically and intellectually independent.