Comb Honey Corner
Which Honey Comb Races are Best for Comb Honey Production?
by Ray Nabors
The many different races of bees are a result of natural selection for adaptation to geographic locations throughout the world. The naturally selected traits do little to make bees well adapted to modern beekeeping economics. There are many distinct geographic races. Only a few have been introduced into the Western Hemisphere. We will examine the main races available in North America and consider their value in comb honey production here in temperate climates.
Different races of bees all have advantages for beekeeping. However, every race of bees has undesirable characteristics as well. These various characteristics can help or hinder comb honey production. The value of various races increases or decreases regarding geographic location. Pollen flow periods and nectar availability periods vary from one place to another. Which race of bees is best adapted to your location should be given serious deliberation. That decision is most critical when comb honey production is your objective.
Apis mellifera scutellata — The African bee’s genetics are part of the bee population genetics in parts of North America now. The most devastating effect for comb honey production is not necessarily the aggressive defensive behavior. Africanized bees are much more prone to swarm or abscond. A new package of bees may abscond after apparently accepting a new hive body. Africanized bees will leave brood behind and move on after a month of residence in a new hive. This behavior was most uncommon if not absent before African genetics arrived in the Western Hemisphere.
Bees with African genetics will swarm in the fall. This behavior was non-existent or extremely rare before the Africanization of our bees. Some bees have always been more defensively aggressive than other bees. Africanized bees bring this characteristic to a whole new level. In African history below the Sahara, bees were robbed not kept. Bee robbers would pick the easy targets first, thus selecting for aggressive defensive behavior. Honey badgers and other African animals, as well as people on that continent rob bees. The one advantage is that some African traits seem to handle Varroa destructor better than European races.
Apis mellifera ligustica — The Italian race of honey bee is the most popular bee in the history of our nation. These Italian bees have numerous advantages. Italian bees are foremost, generally more productive than other races. Italians overwinter well in most of our country. They start brood rearing earlier than other races. This bee is less prone to swarming than other races. Italian bees are generally less aggressive than most other races. Italian bees are conservative in their use of propolis which is a distinct asset for comb honey producers. The Italian colony expels drones earlier in the season. They would rarely if ever swarm late in the season.
Italian bees do have undesirable characteristics. This bee is more prone to robbing than other races. They will quickly annihilate weaker colonies. They do not overwinter as well as some races in colder climates. Italian colonies use more stores and must be fed more or have more honey left on them than other races. Italian bees will keep brood production going after a nectar flow stops if honey is available. An Italian colony will have more drone comb than colonies of other races. Winter losses with Italian bees can be greater if they continue to raise brood with stored honey or feed.
The characteristics of early spring build up makes this bee ideal for honey production in temperate forest areas. In the United States that would include most areas from the Ozark Plateau east to the Atlantic Ocean. If your main honey crop is gathered in April and May; then Italian bees are probably your best choice of the races available in North America. The Italian bees on our continent have hygienic behaviors bred into them. This helps with mite control and disease control.
The strongest honey flow is required for comb honey production, regardless of race. If your strongest flow occurs early in the spring, then Italian bees are most likely to be ready early and take advantage of that early honey flow. Typically, trees bloom early in the spring. Here in the center of the country Maples will bloom in February.
Apis mellifera caucasica — The Caucasian bee is gentle. This is the most gentle bee known. Caucasians do not run on the combs. This bee produces strong colonies, but they swarm less than other races. All is not perfect with these bees. Their use of propolis is renowned. They will seal their hive entrance almost shut. Frames in the hive will be difficult to pry apart. They must be worked frequently if you intend to get the frames loose at all. This bee is slow to build up and a later honey flow or longer flow favors the Caucasian. The Caucasian colony is susceptible to Nosema. Caucasians produce less honey and their cappings are flat in the honey. Caucasians are more prone to drift than other races of bees.
Where would Caucasian bees fit in our landscape? We need a place with ...
by Ray Nabors
Holiday time is honey time. One way to get your Christmas shopping list shortened is to give your friends honey for Christmas. Most folks like honey anyway, but comb honey is special. Our comb honey here in the middle of the country along the lower Mississippi River is some of the best tasting honey in the world. I know everyone thinks their honey is the best around.
Taste depends on the honey you consumed as a child. The comb honey here is light yellow in color and would be favored by most people if put to a taste test. Honey preference varies from dark to light or in between. Sage honey is nearly white and on the Great Plains it is highly sought after, but I prefer the taste to our honey here. In the Northeast many people prefer the dark flavor of buckwheat honey. Most people here in the Great River Valley would not like honey that dark. When I was a lad, I preferred our local honey made from Tulip Poplar tree flowers. It is dark, thick with a reddish tint if you shine light through it. It has an after taste of molasses. Many people here in Missouri do not like the Tulip Poplar honey, but it is preferred by many in Tennessee where those trees are so common. Like beauty in the eye of the beholder, honey flavor is in the taste buds of the consumer. One person’s treasure is another person’s bee feed. Local honey is most preferred by local people for good reason. Their taste buds recognize that honey as what honey should taste like.
If we had a panel of honey tasters from across the country, I think almost anyone would like honey produced in the Lower Mississippi River Delta. The reason would be a lack of strong flavor. The honey here would taste like buckwheat honey if you added a pound of buckwheat honey to a barrel of our honey.
So what is the nectar source? Most of it is soybean honey. There is an abundance of weed species around and in our soybean fields. The bees add that yellow color by collecting nectar from a variety of wild flower plants that also bloom here while soybeans are in bloom. The light yellow color of our honey here is probably from carotenoids produced by the flowers from which the nectar was gathered. Even clover honey will overwhelm the honey flavor of this area. That makes my customers here very picky about their honey. Our extracted honey is a bit darker with a little stronger flavor. The honey here would not be recognized as local anywhere else. Neither would the honey where you live. The point is not all honey is created equal and your local comb honey is the best where you live.
We have mentioned before that comb honey tastes even better than extracted honey because there is no oxidation in comb honey. Those little bee jars we call honey comb packed by the bees protects the flavor of that honey beyond anything we mere beekeepers can do. So why, comb honey is less recognized by many people for its superior flavor currently? Because comb honey is not as common as it was 20 years ago. It was much more common 100 years ago. Up until 1900 comb honey was the most common sweet substance available. There was a time in history when comb honey was almost the only sweet substance consumed anywhere. Going back to the earliest times of beekeeping, comb honey had the value of precious metals.
Dark honey is more mineral rich than light honey. There are also enzymes in honey which are mostly added by the bees, but some are from plant sources. Honey also contains proteins. The type and concentration of proteins varies from region to region. Some protein is from the bees and other proteins are from the plants visited. Honey remains a source of multiple amino acids in small quantities. These building blocks of proteins are unique to honey produced in your particular location. Vitamins are contained in small amounts and again vary from one location to another. The delightful aroma and flavor of honey are remembered from childhood. That is why people prefer their local honey.
Beekeeping practices and processing affect the flavor and aroma of honey. Pure comb honey without travel stain has not been affected in any way that changes the flavor or aroma. You might wonder why we are devoting a whole article about honey in the Comb Honey Corner. It is because every beekeeper needs to educate his customers and potential customers about the health benefits of honey. People need to know that everyone needs to eat local honey every day. The flavor of honey is at its peak in the comb where the bees placed it. The health benefits are the most pure when honey is consumed just as it comes from the bees stored within honey comb. Comb Honey is indeed one of the healthiest foods on earth.
Recently, a veterinarian has been using some of my comb honey in his veterinary practice. He specializes in emergency surgery for wounded dogs. His practice involves dogs that are severely injured. Once the wounds are cleaned and treated, he puts comb honey on the wounds to draw out the moisture and reduce the onset of infection. His opinion is that nothing else works any better than or as fast as honey direct from the comb. That property may have something to do with the reason honey was so valuable in ancient times. We are rediscovering the health benefits of honey. Honey was the secret medicine that saved the lives of wounded Egyptian soldiers. Today people do not consider honey as a medicine, but many are finding it has almost magical medicinal powers.
“A dab of honey on cuts, burns, and abrasions is both soothing and will protect you from infection, scaring and swelling. Eat a teaspoon of local honey every day to relieve allergy symptoms. Your immune system will become accustomed to local pollen in the honey. A dose of honey will help relieve insomnia by releasing serotonin in your brain to calm you down and help induce sleep. The Honey Toddy will relieve constipation. Stir 2 tablespoons of honey in a cup of warm water and drink it down. To relieve diarrhea, use the same tonic followed by a tablespoon of honey in a half cup of fruit juice.”
That is the statement on one of my bee labels. You can get a copy of the label from Amy’s Bee Labels (email@example.com). The composition is my gift to you this holiday season. All of those statements about honey have been proven to work. What other properties of honey would enhance our health? There is little scientific study into the ...
Preparing for Winter
by Ray Nabors
Keeping colonies alive in winter has become more difficult since the advent of Varroa destructor. I also believe that we now have tropical African genetics in all of our bees. These characteristics are recognizable. Some bees are extremely defensive and more prone to swarm or abscond. One thing about these tropical bees, they do not have the best genetics for living through the winter in the U.S. or Canada.
This past winter was a disaster here in the middle of the country for my bees. The winter was as cold as the winters during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Those winters were not as difficult for the bees kept here at that time, but today, the bees are different. We had three hard freezes here when the temperatures dropped into the single digits at night. This is the mid-south-central United States where our snow cover only stays a few days at most. I was able to check on the bees during a warm period after each cold spell. The clusters were noticeably smaller after each deep freeze. All the bees were alive after the second freeze. All colonies had ample food stores. The third freeze killed half the colonies and left the remainder weak. This was the worst winter loss I have had in 30 years keeping bees in
Overwintering bees has become one of the most difficult tasks for beekeepers throughout the country. At this time, even if everything is done to help bees get through winter, there will be winter losses. All we can do as beekeepers is to minimize the damage. Strong colonies over winter much better than weak colonies; cluster size is critical. This involves keeping colony numbers as high as possible in the fall.
If stimulated by food gathering, queens will continue to lay eggs until December in this area. One strategy I use is to feed bees a 50% solution of sugar in water. I include a pinch of salt. Fall feeding is not a matter of filling a quart jar for the entrance feeder. Think in terms of gallons for each overwintered colony. My bees will receive 3 or 4 gallons of sugar syrup each in the fall as fast as they will take it.
There are several easy methods to feed bees. Entrance feeders work. In fall use two for each colony entrance. That is a half-gallon of feed so fill them 6 times. I have some gallon and half-gallon jars and put those on with a hive cover that has a 2 3/4 inch hole for the jar lid with feeder holes in it. External jar feeders are easy to see and easy to fill. Another method that is easy to use is gallon zip-lock bag feeders. Place the gallon bag full of syrup on the top bars. Cut through the air bubble that comes to the top with a utility knife. Place a shallow super rim around the feeder and put the hive cover over all.
There are also division board feeders, but these take up the space of two frames. Comb honey-producing bees need their frames. Feeding in the open gives the most feed to the strongest colonies, but any form of feeding bees in fall is far superior to not feeding them in preparation for winter.
In the far north, wrapping hives is common. Insulation on the top of the hive is particularly important as heat rises. Some U. S. beekeepers are beginning to adopt the European practice of keeping bees inside over winter. I have seriously considered constructing an indoor apiary. Keeping cold winter wind off the bees is very beneficial. A winter cluster of bees is a warm blooded, endothermic colonial organism; subject to wind chill. Controlling the wind chill factor might have saved my bees last winter.
Successful overwintering is best accomplished with strong colonies. Strong colonies with a lot of bees require a lot of room. Even in the South Central United States, it is more challenging to over-winter colonies in a single hive body. Two are better. We have talked previously in this column about combining colonies for winter. It does require at least one new queen for every colony in the next year. The effect is protection from winter cold. It is a combination of hive pests, shorter bee life due to disease and winter cold that causes colonies to shrink into a cluster too small to survive winter.
I will not exclude pesticide effects from possible winter losses. We must examine the facts more closely. Pesticides, especially insecticides, adversely affect bees. Often the crop oil, detergents and other adjuvants used in or with crop protection chemicals are detrimental to bees. My bees reside in an area where there are literally millions of acres of crops. All are treated with herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. The fact is, that beekeepers in the mountains west of here are hundreds of miles from any pesticide application. However, their winter losses are as bad or worse than mine.
Treating bees with chemicals to control Varroa mites hurts the bees, but is likely better than ...
by Ray Nabors
All beekeepers who produce surplus honey have one thing in common; marketing. The first job in marketing is preparation. Honey is a pure and nearly sterile product. Keeping it in that condition is the first consideration. It is possible to harvest comb honey without ever touching the comb. This is even possible with cut comb. First make sure every tool used is as sterile as the honey you are going to touch with it.
If you do not have a dish washer that sterilizes dishes, one commonly available way to sterilize tools such as the knife, spatula and tray upon which you process comb honey is to put them in a 10% solution of sodium hypochlorite. That chemical name may be less familiar to you, but it is household bleach. 1 part bleach in 9 parts water will sterilize your stainless steel tools. You must air them out afterwards. I suggest using rubber gloves so that the tools are not touched by hand while washing in the sterilization process. The gloves also keep your hands out of the toxic solution. Why use something toxic? The chorine is very toxic. However, it is also extremely reactive. It will react with air in a matter of minutes and completely dissipate leaving nothing behind to taint your honey. Once the smell is gone, all of the chlorine is gone, dry your tools with a clean paper towel and you are done.
At this point I remove the first pair of gloves and put on another. There is an alternative method of sterilization that I often use. A flame from a torch or even an extended lighter will sterilize metal in seconds. The metal heats quickly to a sterilization temperature. The metal need not be heated to red hot. The flame will do the job in one or at most 2 seconds. Just pass it quickly over the entire metal surface and sterilization is complete. Flames do tend to stain your stainless steel after several applications.
The knife will touch only hive parts hereafter. It can be used to separate round sections, square sections, half comb cassettes or cut comb out of a wooden frame. A standard spatula comes in handy to pick up any type of comb honey section including cut comb. A stainless steel rack to place cut comb above a drip pan can be used to rest cut comb sections before packaging. That same spatula can be used to move round sections, square sections and cassettes. There is something nice to be said for telling your customer, “When you pick up that honey comb, you will be the first person who has ever touched it.”
Storage of comb honey is very important. Our product has a lot of value. The best thing we can do for our customers is keep it as pristine as when we first took it from the bees. The best way to store comb honey is in a freezer. Comb honey stored in the freezer may not change in color, flavor or texture for a decade. The first step is to place the comb honey section, frame, super or package in a plastic bag. That will keep condensation off the product when it is removed from the freezer later. Comb honey taken from the freezer should be allowed to reach room temperature inside the plastic bag to avoid condensation from ruining the label or the honey.
CO2 can be used to treat for wax moth but the freezer is equally good, if not better at control. CO2 is more expensive and does not preserve the honey comb like freezing. Make freezer space for your comb honey a priority.
Packaging for comb honey has diversified over the years. One quality I much appreciate about round sections and half comb cassettes is their mail-ability. These products are less likely to leak in transit because they have no cut edges. Both products are more easily processed. You take them directly off the bees, and with very little cleaning, place the clear plastic covers on and seal with the label.
Cut comb honey has the advantage of producing a little more quantity of product most of the time. However, the processing is more involved with cutting, draining, packing in the hard plastic box and then labeling. More processing time must be allowed with cut comb. Draining over a drip pan with the cut comb on a draining rack takes time. The equipment for cut comb is more economical. Standard shallow frames are less expensive than round section equipment or half comb cassette equipment. There are uses for all of them and most comb honey producers are wise to have all of them on hand.
Before 1900, after the process of making sugar and sugar syrup were industrialized, adulterated honey became available. It is available today from China and other nations. A 12 oz honey bear of syrup with a small amount of honey for flavoring sells for ...
by Ray Nabors
The major issues with comb honey production have much to do with crowding the colonies. Crowded colonies are prone to swarm which defeats the purpose for crowding. Swarming can severely reduce production potential. Another problem is keeping comb honey production colonies alive and healthy through winter after production is finished. Replacing weak colonies before or after winter is a constant concern. Both of these problems can be addressed using some of the same techniques. I will recommend the new edition of Larry Connor’s book from Wicwas Press on Increase Essentials. This book will provide step-by-step information on the suggestions in this article.
In order to keep up with the same number of colonies in any comb honey production system, new colonies must be available to either strengthen existing colonies or replace others. A successful comb honey operation is likely to expand needing new colonies. There are several methods of colony replacement, supplement and increase. Package bees are one method of increase but splits, swarms and nucleus colonies are all options. At times, one method maybe better than another, so that multiple methods should be employed when appropriate; remain flexible.
For the starting beekeeper, I recommend package bees. They will not likely make much honey the first season, but they are more gentle when the cluster is small and the beginning beekeeper has time with less defensive bees to become accustomed to working in a colony of bees and observe the workings of a developing colony. There is no substitute for assembling new equipment and installing package bees. It is a part of your education as an aspiring beekeeper and should never be skipped. Order your packages so that they arrive for installation during first dandelion bloom. The pollen source will help, but feed a 50% sugar water solution also. The bees with the queen will all be gone when the package actually makes honey. The queen must produce the bees for that job. Continue feeding until all of the combs are drawn out.
If you have a few colonies already, package bees can be used for increase. The only limitation may be the reduced or no comb honey production from new packages of bees. There is a way to keep your strong colonies from swarming and supplement your new package of bees. Open one of your strong colonies and remove a frame of capped brood. Shake the house bees covering this brood back into the colony and replace the frame of capped brood with a frame of foundation. Place the frame of capped brood in the new hive prepared for package bees. Those package bees will accept their new home much more quickly with brood to care for. That frame of capped brood will triple the size of your package when they emerge. That new colony will make comb honey the first season. The colony where you replaced the brood with foundation will be less likely to swarm. You just accomplished two goals with one manipulation—colony management multitasking at its finest.
The most important method of colony increase in comb honey production is probably the split. Last month we talked about how to raise a few queens. An easier way is to order new queens. You will find it easy to order queens in summer. Queen producers can meet most orders quickly in summer because the big rush is for queens in spring. These companies produce queens all season long and will appreciate summer business. It is good to take two frames of brood out of one strong colony (7-8 frames of brood). The house bees should be left on two frames of capped brood and placed in a new hive body with foundation and at least one frame of honey. After these bees have been without a queen for one day, they will welcome a new queen introduction. Always allow the bees at least 3 days to release the queen from the shipping cage.
A split like this can be made and fed to have a strong colony that will survive the winter. This colony will produce well the next season. It has been my experience that colonies like this are usually less infested with Varroa mites and small hive beetle the first winter and survive at least as well as established colonies. These bees can be strong and productive during the first season for honey production. Splits can also be made from two or three colonies by removing one frame of capped brood from each. The house bees must be shaken from one or two of the frames in order to reduce fighting. It is always advisable to shake house bees from a second frame of capped brood from the same colony where house bees were taken on one of the brood frames. These bees can cover two or three frames of capped brood. Replace the removed capped brood frames with frames of foundation. Swarming will be reduced and you have a new colony.
You can shake house bees from a strong colony onto foundation. One frame of brood helps. Do this on a sunny day when all the field bees are gone. You can put bees from two hives on the same box of foundation if they are placed on opposite sides of the box and made to cut out newsprint folded over a middle frame. The newsprint must extend from bottom board to cover. These bees will accept a new queen and make a colony that will produce the same year if made up in the spring. The reduction in strength from the strong colony can reduce swarming, especially if one frame of capped brood is replaced with one frame of foundation in the parent colony.
I accept swarm calls. The local fire and police department know I will deal with the problem and have my number. The people are always grateful when I come to deal with their unwanted bees. They often become honey customers after our interaction during the removal of their unwanted swarm. I keep a standard hive body ready for swarm capture. Why transfer the bees from a cardboard box? Once the swarm is secured, provide them with a frame of capped brood from a strong colony and the buildup will produce comb honey quickly or overwinter better. The swarm will also be much less likely to abscond. One frame of capped brood is plenty of supplement for a swarm. If you can find the queen, remove and replace her with a new one. Queens in a prime swarm are not likely to be young and productive.
Keeping a swarm in the hive box during the first 48 hours is the biggest challenge. One way to insure they stay is that after the queen is inside; put a queen excluder under the hive body. If the bees try to abscond, the queen cannot go along and they will return to the hive body. Larger prime swarms are the goal. Use frames of foundation. These bees are replete with honey to produce wax. They need foundation to fill out in order to keep busy.
For colony increase before the honey flow, I prefer a nucleus colony when available. A nucleus is more expensive than a package, but will make comb honey that first season, paying for itself in honey. I suggest getting to know someone who produces nucleus colonies in your area or somewhere south of you. Many bee producers will ...
by Ray Nabors
All beekeepers need a source of queens for several reasons. The most obvious is to increase their number of colonies. This can be done by making splits or creating nucleus colonies. Replacing a poor quality queen or and old queen are other uses for new queens. Queens are available from numerous excellent queen breeders in warmer areas. Even if you decide to make a few queens yourself, you will need quality mother queens from which to propagate a few new ones. The best source of these will be our good queen breeders.
In the March issue of the American Bee Journal we had two interesting articles concerning the making and uses of queens. It is easy to produce a few good queen cells and make up your own nucleus colonies. Dr. Lawrence Connor went into great detail about how to make up a nucleus from existing colonies. This action can help restrict swarming and make additional strong colonies for comb honey production.
Dr. Connor recommends the Doolittle method and I agree with him. Doolittle was famous for understanding the actions and talk of bees not mammals. His method goes something like this: Remove two frames of capped brood from one or two strong colonies. At this point I would replace a capped brood frame in two strong colonies with a sheet of foundation. Placing a sheet of foundation in the middle of the brood nest will decrease swarming tendencies. The bees clinging on the two frames removed can be shaken or brushed off. Place these frames of brood in a deep hive box with enough empty combs, foundation and two frames of honey to fill the hive body.
The two frames of brood are placed above a queen excluder over a strong colony. House bees will cover the frames in one day. The following day this nucleus colony can be removed with attending house bees, from the queen excluder, and all placed upon another hive stand in the same apiary. A mated queen or queen cell can be placed in this nucleus the following day after placement upon the new hive stand. The queen cell may be the more economic of the two as house bees and emerging brood are very accepting of the queen they release.
Frames of capped brood can also be used to support a weak colony. Often the weak colony has a weak queen. She should be replaced. The poor colony will accept a frame of capped brood. The queen can then be located and removed. After 24 - 48 hours a new queen cell or mated queen can be used to replace the failing queen of the weak colony. In these days of CCD knowing how to preserve your strong colonies by preventing colonies from swarming is a great economic asset. The art of making up nucleus colonies and producing queen cells to load them is another economic asset. It can also add another interesting aspect to your beekeeping avocation. A nucleus started before the honey flow can produce comb honey in the year started.
If you look on page 273 of the March 2014 American Bee Journal, there is an article by Randy Oliver about producing queens for pennies on a dollar. I suggest you read this article carefully before you follow my suggestions. Randy has written as good a synopsis of the steps necessary to raise a few queens as any I have read. This article was inspired by his excellent step-by-step system. If this were a class, his article would be the required reading for the hobby beekeeper to raise those few queens. We will be concentrating on queen cells rather than mated queens. We will take up where he left off and this is not a repetition of his steps.
The one part of producing a dozen queens that strikes fear into the hearts of beekeepers everywhere is grafting. The method we are going to learn does not require grafting. Does that get your attention?
The first thing that must be done is selecting a strong colony with a good queen mother candidate. A queen that has survived through a winter and is producing another strong colony this season is a candidate. One that has made it through two winters is even better. A first-year queen installed in spring that has a strong colony may be the only thing you have available. Queens and nucleus colonies are better than no nuclei or queens cells, regardless.
As a side note, my preference is to use Carniolan queens. The Carniolan race of honey bee can overwinter in a smaller cluster than the Italian. They also build up a little slower. This helps make swarm control easier for comb honey production. For those interested in extracted honey, hygienic Italians may be better. Caucasians are the most gentle if you can find them. Each race of bee has its attributes and drawbacks.
Once you have located that chosen queen mother, it is time to ....
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!
Send your comb honey questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org