Comb Honey Corner
by Ray Nabors
Comb Honey harvest is a particularly interesting subject when you consider the origins of beekeepers, beekeeping and honey production. One of the most delightful books I have ever read is “The Archeology of Beekeeping” by Eva Crane. If you are a comb honey beekeeper, you have a connection that dates back in time at least 5,000 years. We do indeed have records of comb honey production in Egypt from 2,400 BC. At the time comb honey production was well established in Ancient Egyptian society.
Bees are pictured in Egyptian hieroglyphs throughout Egypt in tombs, temples and monuments. There are even clay pottery objects depicting bees and made in the form of honey production techniques. As far as we know, Egypt is the cradle of commercial honey production. It was in Egypt that beekeeping began and replaced robbing wild colonies. Most of the honey harvested would have been honey comb.
You might assume they cut out square or random shaped sections of honey comb from a skep, hollow log or hives made of boards and pots. This is not the case. The first commercial colonies of bees were probably made of Nile River mud, dried in the sun and were in the shape of a round pipe or culvert. These were approximately 4’ long and 6” in diameter. They are typically staked up like wooden logs in a pile with more mud chinked between the little mud tube hives. If the hives sat on the ground, then the cool earth temperatures helped the bees survive in a very hot climate. It was not uncommon to have 300 or even 500 of these mud tube hives in a trapezoidal stack 5’ tall and 200’ long.
Not only did the Egyptians invent beekeeping, they also invented migratory beekeeping. A stack of 300 mud tube hives could be built upon a boat. These would catch the honey flow in Upper Egypt around Luxor and then follow the honey flow floating down the Nile to Cairo where the honey would be sold. The price may have equaled that of gold during ancient times. I have now digressed enough to tell you why, as you may have guessed by now, that the oldest form of production comb honey is the round section. Round comb sections were not invented by any modern person.
The mud tube hive was fitted in the front with a mud disk that had a small circular opening about the diameter of a quarter coin. The back had a cloth or round wooden plug easily removed. The beekeeper often removed two or three round sections of brood comb from the front of one mud tube hive to start a colony in another. These colonies were fed from the back in front of the plug. The bees will naturally place honey toward the back of the tube as the colony grows. The beekeeper could then open up the plug in the back where the docile house bees built honey combs and cut out those little round sections protected by the stack of mud tube hives 5’ tall. They did smoke the bees even then, but so do honey robbing people today use smoke. Smoking to disorient bees predates beekeepers. The round comb sections were placed between two round bowls, one upside down upon the other and sealed with Nile mud and sold.
The Ross round comb honey section is a little bit easier to harvest than cut comb sections. The round sections pop right out of the frames and are then fitted with clear covers front and back. The round section is then sealed with a tape label around the circumference of the circular section. It is an attractive package, one of the best beekeepers have to offer. However, these round sections produce less product per super, taking more time to fill. It is more economical to have square sections coming out of a square box hive of bees.
The Hogg Half Comb Cassette has recently been reintroduced by Betterbee. These are the most easily harvested form of comb honey. The cassette is the package. The only drawback I have found with this form of comb honey production, other than cost, is manipulating the cassettes in the super. It is difficult to take the cassettes apart, putting the outside ones to the inside so that the bees fill them more efficiently. The super can easily be rotated for proper filling front to back. The cassettes are the package when removed. The lid fits tight and the label goes on quickly making an attractive product. As far as I can tell, the bees fill this cassette about as quickly as they fill wooden frames. The total production may be slightly less if outside cassettes are not completely filled. I intend to try some more of these when they become available.
Cut comb honey harvesting is not so difficult either. I produce “cut comb” in two sizes. One size is 4” x 4” to fit the hard plastic cut comb boxes. I use a stainless steel comb cutter to mark the cut comb sections. Then a sharp knife will cut the comb more cleanly than the comb cutter. The comb sections are picked up with a stainless steel spatula, placed upon a drip rack for a period of time and then placed into the hard plastic cut comb boxes.
I use a 10% solution of sodium hypochlorite in distilled water to sterilize my stainless steel tools used to manipulate the comb honey sections. Dry your tools and ....
by Ray Nabors
I will start this month by paraphrasing a statement made by the late Roger A. Morse, professor, beekeeper, friend and author: “The person who produces comb honey successfully year after year may be the best manager of bees. To successfully produce comb honey is both art and science.” Adding and manipulating supers is a large part of the art. The comb honey producer is better equipped if the science is known at the start.
Proper honey super placement will help with swarm control. After the 2-story overwintered colony is split into one-story production colonies (the subject of last month’s column), it is the ideal time to place new foundation into the brood nest. This is best done about a week before adding the first super. Only you will know when your honey flow begins. If you do not place supers on your hives in time for the flow, the bees will begin to build on the top bars. Knowing when the honey flow will start is important.
Damaged and old brood frames that need repair or replacement should have been moved to the outside in the fall or spring when splits were made. Bees do not put brood into frames 1 and 10 (those two frames next to the wooden sides of the brood box). These 2 outside frames of comb, if replaced each year, will result in complete comb replacement in each hive body every 5 years. Planned comb replacement is a good practice for any beekeeping operation.
When the two outside frames (1 & 10) are removed, the new frames of foundation should be put into the center of the brood nest. To help the bees keep the brood warm, do not put more than one frame of foundation together in the brood nest. Leave one, two or three frames of brood in the middle of the hive body and put the new foundation within the brood nest separated with frames of brood. This will help your bees cope with keeping the cluster around the brood for warmth.
Placing new foundation into the brood nest will give the bees a sense of ample space and help reduce the urge to swarm. It is also helpful to go into each brood nest once each week, starting after the spring splits are made. Remove any queen cells that are started. If the beekeeper postpones this activity until queen cells are capped, it is best to let the bees raise a new queen. Raising a new queen has disadvantages: The new queen may produce ornery offspring; she will not be marked and therefore difficult to locate and she may not mate with enough drones to keep from laying more drone brood. However, she will be vastly better than a colony without a queen.
Swarm prevention measures are important. It is the best way to maximize production of comb honey. Never add too many supers at one time. Always put on only one comb honey super when anticipating the honey flow. If too many supers are added, the bees will be spread thin and partially fill more supers than they can complete. This will become food for bees or extracted honey if properly ripened. If the bees do not have enough supers, they become crowded into the brood nest and begin swarming again. Check your bees every week or even twice a week to see if the honey flow has gotten strong enough to induce wax building in the first super.
Once the first super is one-third to one half full and the comb is no more than half complete, add the second super. For comb honey production, bottom supering is always preferred. That is, the second super is placed over the brood nest and the original super is then placed on top of that second super. A super with foundation strips keeps the queen from laying brood in the first super. It makes a natural queen excluder.
If the bees are strong and the flow is abundant, three comb honey supers are possible. The first super placed on the bees will likely be capped when it is time to put on a third super. Place that third super over the brood nest, move the half-filled second super to the middle position and place the first super, now capped, onto a bee escape board so that the bees from the first super go down into the second super to complete that one. Then, remove that unprotected comb honey super before wax moths or small hive beetles destroy it. If you are lucky and the flow is long, a fourth super can be added using the same procedure.
Frame manipulation is required during this entire super placement. When the first super is one-half to one-third full and the second super is ready to be placed under the first one, frame manipulation is needed. First remove the outside frames. They will be less complete than the center ones. Numbering the supers from one side to the other as 1 — 10, remove frames 1 and 2. Replace one and two with 5 and 4, respectively. The outermost frame should be replaced with the innermost and the second one with the fourth one. The same task is performed on the other side. Frame 6 will replace frame 10 and frame 7 replaces frame 9.
As the frames are replaced, it becomes obvious the fronts of frames above the entrance are less filled than the backs of the frames. To counteract this problem, the entire super is rotated so that the frames with the less filled space now set where the more filled space was and vice versa. This maneuvering will not only promote even filling of all comb honey frames, but will stimulate the bees to fill them faster. When frames are filled faster, there is less travel stain and a more attractive product. Removing supers as soon as they are filled promotes increased productivity.
Bait combs are another way to ...
by Ray Nabors
Honey bees naturally clone the colony by swarming in the spring. The colony will divide as soon as the population increases and the brood nest becomes crowded. An uncontrolled swarm is usually detrimental to honey production. It is in the best interest of the beekeeper to split the stronger colonies as a part of apiary management.
Weak colonies make weak splits. Feeding pollen or pollen substitute in spring will stimulate brood building and prepare colonies for division. It is best to overwinter colonies in two story situations in two hive bodies. Two medium depth boxes would be fine in the southern two-thirds of the United States, but you cannot confine the splits to one medium for a brood chamber. Therefore, only full depth hive bodies should be employed.
To use single-story colonies for honey production after overwintering in two standard hive bodies will require two tops and two bottoms for every colony overwintered. After the colonies are combined in the fall, the extra top and bottom can be stored on the extra hive stand for easy use the following spring.
You try to double your colonies each spring. One reason to divide colonies is to get more hives. In our case we will mitigate the increase in fall if all colonies are combined in the fall for overwintering. We must put a queen in one of the splits. Order queens in the fall. If you let a split raise its own queen, it will take 60 days for the colony to begin production. It is better to order mated queens.
Single story colonies produce more comb honey. The crowding into a single standard hive body helps encourage comb building. Usually, a split will prevent a strong colony from swarming. It is preferable to get queens supplied as early as possible in the spring before hives get ready to swarm. This is also the best time to re-queen the old colony. I recommend ordering two queens for each overwintered colony.
Communicate with your supplier of queens. They will contact you when queens are shipped. That is when to split each colony into a single story, while your queens are in transit. Hopefully, you will have a nice day with sunny weather. It is never good to make splits when weather is windy or rainy and the bees are not flying. Make sure you have brood and food in each of the splits. It is most convenient to have each overwintered colony on a stand for two colonies.
Do not remove the overwintered queen until the new queens arrive. You will know which split has the queen within three days. She will be where the eggs are. It is best to feed both splits a gallon of syrup after the process is complete. Arrange the splits so that brood frames are together in the center. Each split should have a minimum of 3 frames of brood (4 or 5 is better). Put frames of honey and pollen in each split on either side of the brood frames. This is an excellent time to recycle old combs. If damaged or aged combs were placed on the outside of the wintered colony frame arrangement, those can now be removed and replaced with frames containing new foundation.
Most beekeepers make an even split for each box. Consider an uneven split for a comb honey operation. Most of the field bees will return to the overwintered colony site. The goal is to have two equally strong single story colonies when the honey flow begins. Remove most of the capped brood and place it in the hive body on the new location. Leave the frames with eggs and some open brood in the overwintered location. The honey and pollen from the overwintered colony must be distributed evenly. The queen will most likely remain in the colony with the eggs and uncapped brood.
What does this accomplish? The new location colony will have mostly house bees that will stay with the brood. Most of the field bees stay with the overwintered location colony. The new location with house bees will accept a queen much more easily than the split with field bees. The hatching brood in the new location split will provide ample space for a new queen to lay eggs. This helps reduce swarm tendency in that single story box. Since the capped brood is most of the brood, it will quickly populate the new colony as well.
If new foundation frames are used to replace old worn out frames (not brood frames), it is good to put one or two of these where the eggs and hopefully old queen is located and reduce swarming there. The apiary is now prepared to receive new queens. The best location for the new split may be on the other end of a double hive stand.
Marked queens are easier to find next season. The cost is little when compared to the time used locating unmarked queens. Requeening is expensive and it takes time. Annual requeening increases honey production. Do not be apprehensive, you can do this. Use smoke in the entrance, but open the top of the hive with little or no smoke very gently. Go for the middle of the brood chamber and take out each frame. Look each frame over carefully until the queen is found. Grab the queen into your hand and quickly close the colony.
Leave each colony location ....
by Ray Nabors
One of the most important activities in comb honey production is preparing supers with wax foundation. This needs to be done early in the spring before your honey flow begins. Obviously, no two years are the same regarding climate. It would be difficult to find two years when the honey flow in any location would start on the same day or even in the same week. In many places there are two flows, one minor and one major. The first flow is usually in early spring, the second maybe in summer or fall. Having supers ready to go on the bees as soon as nectar comes in is paramount in comb honey production.
You never want to allow burrcomb to be built up in your single story comb honey production hives. That burrcomb is part of your profit. For beekeepers in the extreme southern states, spring honey may come in during February. On the Canadian border honey may not begin to come in before May or June. One advantage for those of us north of the southern tier states is that we can figure out an approximate honey flow start date if we know when honey plants come into bloom along the Gulf of Mexico. The trick is to use A. D. Hopkins bioclimatic law. A given biological event such as clover bloom will occur 4 days later for every one degree latitude north or every 4 degrees longitude west or every 400 feet elevation higher. It pays to know when honey plants are blooming south of you. Add 4 days for every 1 degree north, 4 degrees west or 400 feet elevation. If you are east 4 degrees subtract 4 days.
Once you know the approximate honey flow start-up date, you can estimate how many supers you will need for that first or only honey flow. How long will it take you to put wax in those supers? It has been my experience that you need to start early enough so that you have your supers ready at least a week before the flow begins. I begin getting supers ready to go before I make my spring splits and install new queens. Now you know the subject of next month’s column on preparation of colonies for production. Any hobby or sideline beekeeper can only do so many beekeeping duties at one time. Get your supers ready before time to make splits and increase colonies.
I have explained my bias toward cut-comb honey production. The wooden box sections are rarely used by anyone nowadays. If you want authoritative information on that technique, read Honey in the Comb by Eugene E. Killion. Round Sections are more common these days. Round sections are more rare in general than cut comb. They are smaller and cut comb, side by side, will outsell sections because the customer gets more for his/her money.
Cut comb is more economically beneficial because, at this location, I can produce three cut comb supers on a colony that would produce only two supers of sections. In the case of round sections, they would produce only 32 sections per super in 2 supers if all are completely filled. Compare that with three supers of 40 cut-comb boxes and you see that more money is made with cut comb every time. Bees also work cut-comb frames more quickly and easily than section frames .
With comb honey foundation the most desirable foundation is the thinnest and clearest foundation you can find. I use Dadant’s Extra Thin Surplus Foundation for shallow supers. There are 22 sheets to the pound and the wax is clear enough to read this article right through it. If there is another source of foundation out there like that, I have not found it. Your customers do not want to bite through thick wax in the centers of your cut-comb honey.
I recommend shallow supers for production because they are lighter to handle (dropping a super of comb honey will ruin your day). Medium-depth supers have too much waste. Mediums only yield 4 boxes just like the shallow supers. Full depth supers will give 8 boxes of cut comb, but if they are not filled completely, there will be too much waste. Full depth supers also must be left on the bees longer and have more travel stain. Use shallow supers for comb honey.
I do not mix comb honey frames in with extracted honey frames, although this is a common practice. This can make very good comb honey when you put 4 or 5 frames of comb honey, alternating between frames kept straight with crimp wires, but comb honey sells at a higher price. Proper hive manipulation can make comb honey frames full all the way across. Always use 10 frames in every shallow super for comb honey. Supers with 9 frames are spaced too far apart.
Methods and Materials
by Ray Nabors
Most of you will remember Richard Taylor. I have a signed copy of his monograph “The New Comb Honey Book”. This is one of many good books on the subject of comb honey. I have another by Dr. Roger Morse and another by Eugene Killion who won many competitions for quality comb honey production at state, local and national fairs. I once talked with Richard Taylor telling him that I was using a particular method he wrote about. I was tickled when he told me, “I never tried that method, a friend of mine in New York is the one who does that.” Here is that method:
Comb honey production requires crowding which stimulates swarming. Swarming can reduce production significantly. One way to reduce swarming is to split a colony in the spring. Colonies overwinter well in a two-story hive made of standard hive bodies. We could winter colonies in two medium depth boxes at this latitude in the Mississippi Delta area of Missouri, but once split, the bees do not have enough room to produce the brood needed for comb honey production. If I did not split my colonies each spring, I would use two medium-depth boxes for the brood nest. A single Langstroth hive body is where you keep a comb-honey producing colony. It is difficult to overwinter in a single story hive in the northern half of the country. The logical solution is overwinter in two stories, then split each colony in half for the production season.
Splitting each colony into two single-story colonies makes finding the year-old queen easier. Colonies are less prone to swarm and more productive with a new queen. When you buy two queens for each overwintered 2-story colony, expenses are higher. However, it has been my experience that this is an investment which pays off. It is easy to tell where the overwintered queen resides. There will be freshly laid eggs where she is in two days after the splits are made. Take out the overwintered queen and introduce the new queen 24 hours later. You can requeen the split without a queen as soon as you know which one has a queen. Your apiary should now have 2 single-story queen-right colonies ready for the spring honey flow for every 2-story overwintered one.
In most locations a single story colony will produce from 2 – 4 shallow supers of cut comb honey. There are 4 squares in each frame. Those squares sell for $5 each here. Our honey prices are below average in the apex of the Mississippi Delta. However, that is still $20/frame, which is a $600 gross return per colony. If you have 10 production colonies, you can support them well on $6,000 annual income. With Varroa and Virus problems these days, you will likely lose two overwintered colonies each year. These can be replaced with 4-frame nucleus colonies. Remember, you will need 4 nucleus colonies to fill 4 hive bodies. The good news is that a nucleus will grow rapidly and produce honey the first year. Packages are slightly less expensive, but often will not produce the first year.
After the honey flow has ended, combine each single story hive with another one. I take the weaker ones and combine them with a stronger one. I place a single sheet of newspaper between the two single-story colonies. A slit 3” long between middle frames allows communication and peaceful hive combination. Trust your bees! They will sort out which queen survives and she will be the best one.
Supers of honey that are not capped or filled completely make excellent feed. Use a queen excluder, the wax makes beautiful candles, or soap. If you have space, you can leave the wax in the supers and place the whole super in a large plastic bag. Place those in the freezer and put them back on the bees next spring to increase production. Use a queen excluder below those supers to keep the queen out.
You will not have enough honey to feed colonies going into winter. Granulated sugar makes adequate feed. It is better than corn syrup in my opinion. I use 4 pounds of sugar per gallon of water. It pays to find a source of sugar in larger quantities to cut back on expenses. Three gallons fed in the fall seems to help colonies overwinter better. I also put a scant pinch of salt in each gallon.
There is extra equipment cost with this method. You must have two tops, two bottoms and two hive stands for each colony. The hive bodies must be reversed in spring as bees crowd the top hive body. If you overwinter 10 two-story colonies, that means 20 covers, bottoms and hive stands. You will know how many you can support. Most places will support at least 10 single story production colonies. A strong location near a town will support twice that many. Remember, comb honey production may not allow as many colonies as liquid honey production. If the average apiary has 20 colonies in your area, you may want to try 16 comb honey production colonies, which means you will overwinter eight colonies.
One good way to reduce swarming and cull old combs is to replace one or two brood frames each year in spring. Take out the end frames and replace them with new foundation in the center of the brood nest. Crimp-wired wax foundation is always the most acceptable. This gives the bees a feeling of open space in the brood nest.
Comb honey is arguably the highest quality and most artistic hive product. The exquisite taste and rareness keep comb honey as a high priced commodity. It is less expensive financially to start a comb honey bee apiary. It remains the natural place for aspiring beekeepers to start their hobby. If you do not treat colonies with antibiotics, miticides or other chemicals, that helps sell comb honey as an all-natural product. Use mechanical means like screened bottom boards, beetle traps and drone brood destruction to control mites and pests. Try comb honey production. You might just discover your beekeeping niche in this market!
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