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Honey harvesting time

26 January 2023
beekeeping in backyard
Photo: GettyImages

A new bimonthly series begins with how to plan honey crop removal from a hive and what to be alert for to keep honey production and extraction smooth. Words Maggie James

The arrival of February means many beekeepers are coming to the end of their peak honey flows, though honey production varies from region to region, year to year. Those in warmer environments, particularly urban areas with numerous floral sources, might find their honey flows continue another month. You can begin removing frames to extract honey once the second frame in from each side of the honey supers is half waxcapped on both sides of the frame. Any earlier, and excess moisture content will cause honey fermentation.

Harvesting honey supers

After an American Foulbrood or AFB inspection (see box on page 95) trim off burr comb between the tops and bottoms of the honey frames using your hive tool. For AFB prevention, burr wax is best placed in a bucket. Do not throw it on the ground. To harvest honey, it is necessary to remove the bees. The most common methods are shake and brush, a bee blower or an escape board.

An escape board, if used properly, does not aggravate the bees and is much more pleasant for both you and the bees. When using escape boards, your honey supers must be in good condition, so that robbing (aggressive foraging behaviour) will not occur in supers that can no longer be defended by the colony. If there are any gaps in your supers, make these robber-proof with some heavy-duty silver duct tape. Install escape boards underneath the honey supers three days before you plan to extract your honey.

Have at least two escapes so supers are cleared more quickly. Ensure the top side of the board with the round holes, allowing bee entry, is placed under the super. The underside of the board has metal or plastic corners, allowing bee exit from the honey super. Don’t leave the board on longer than three days, as bees can learn the pheromone footprint and re-enter the escaped super. For those in areas with high ant populations, if ants enter escaped supers, very briefly place frames in the freezer just long enough to kill ants, but not freeze the honey. If you’re escaping the last honey super for the season and your hive still has a strong population, place a top feeder below the escape board.

This helps with swarm prevention, giving the colony more space and ventilation. Once the honey super is removed, it needs to be extracted in a room that bees cannot access, otherwise potentially a robbing frenzy can occur that will attract every bee in the area – and neighbourhood complaints!

Uncapping honey

Uncapping is the removal of the wax cappings from the frame of honey, so honey can be extracted. An electric uncapping knife is used, and once the knife is warm, caps are peeled off. If the comb is well-drawn and proud of the frame, this is an easy job. Hold the frame to be uncapped lengthways, supporting one end of the frame on the point of a nail driven through a piece of wood or stainless steel that sits atop a basket or bucket so you can drain your cappings as best as possible.

Uncap down from the top end bar towards the bottom end bar, taking care to only take the wax cappings without damaging the honey and wax foundation. The cappings take several days to drain their honey through a sieve into a bucket. Alternatively, use a mutton cloth secured tautly to the bucket opening with clothes pegs. Some beekeepers feed drained cappings back to the hive in a top feeder. To help prevent potential spread of AFB (see box opposite), put cappings back in the hive they came from, and to avoid robbing, undertake this task at dusk, in a cooler temperature. Drained cappings or burr comb can be placed on a hot day in solar wax melters, producing beeswax blocks for household use.

When extracting ‘thixotropic’ honeys, such as mānuka, kānuka or heather, you’ll need a hand-held pricker to loosen the honey just prior to extraction. Thixotropic honey is solid (or gelatinous) until disturbed, when it becomes fluid.

Honey extraction

Many hobbyists use a two-, four- or six-frame manual or electric honey extractor, often bolted to the floor to prevent imbalance. Extract one side of the comb, then hand reverse the frames. To avoid comb breakage, balance combs of equal weight opposite each other in the extractor baskets.

When opening the extractor gate to collect honey in a bucket, use a mutton cloth filter or sieve to collect honey debris.

Prep for hive overwintering

Some apiarists store recently extracted supers in their sheds as ‘wets’ over winter. Others put these back on the hive at dusk or in cold weather for about three days, giving bees a final prewinter lick of honey. Once bees have cleaned out the honey, boxes are removed to the shed.

For your first two seasons of beekeeping, I recommend inserting an easy-to-use proprietary miticide varroa treatment from a beekeeping supplier. It’s important to learn and observe bees for some time before considering the more complex organic treatments.

Once the honey crop is removed, around mid-February, get those miticide strips in immediately: insert them amongst frames of brood, generally for eight to ten weeks and as per manufacturer’s instructions, then remove.

Then, if you need to replace an aged queen, this gives you time to do so with a caged mated laying queen, which hopefully gets you through winter and the next beekeeping season.

Be aware

Toxic honey

Summer is the main risk time in some areas for tutin, a plant toxin found in the native tutu plant. Tutin may be found in comb honey or extracted honey, and when ingested by humans it can cause giddiness, exhaustion, vomiting, stupor and coma. In severe cases, it can be fatal. For more information visit

American foulbrood (AFB)

Prior to removing honey from your hive, it is important to perform an AFB inspection of every frame of brood for signs of this disease. If honey is harvested from an AFB hive, you carry the risk of the infected equipment redistributing AFB throughout your hives, which may result in a major outbreak.

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