I didn’t harvest any honey from my top-bar beehive last summer/fall, and this spring it was chock full of honey! I have seven honeycomb bars in the hive. Out of those, three were almost untouched and full of over-wintered honey, two were half-full and had new honey on the bottom, and one was nearly empty. Since the nectar flow is starting here in Portland, Oregon, I decided to harvest two bars.
If you’re interested in beekeeping, or the process of harvesting honey, there’s more details after the break.
The fun part
I started early this morning, probably around 7:30am. Bees are paralyzed by the cold, so they mass into a ball to share warmth, and they’ll shiver to produce more heat for the hive. Opening up the hive is better in the morning, before they start to stir, but after it’s warm enough that lost bees are able to fly back into the hive entrance.
Honey bees will naturally seal up all the cracks in their hive with a sticky, hard substance called propolis. In a top-bar hive setup, their comb hangs down from a bar, and the bees will often attach the comb to the walls of the hive. That means when the beekeeper has to open up the hive, they have to gently unattach any connected comb from the sides and bottom of the hive.
Last year’s honey harvest was a disaster. I had bought super-long professional beekeeper gloves, but it turned out the huge leather fingers were designed for a man’s hands, and I became a total fumble fingers. I also couldn’t get my hive tool hook far enough under the bottom of the comb (the honeycombs are deep!) and the comb broke. Then I had bees drowning in honey, buzzing around me all pissed off, and it was just Not Good. Brushing the bees off with a large plastic brush from my local beekeeping store didn’t work either. The plastic bristles were too stiff, and the bees would get caught and not be able to work themselves out. Then the brush got sticky with honey, and some of the bees got permanently stuck.
This year, I ditched the professional gloves and just used my normal garden gloves with broccoli rubber bands to hold them in place against my long-sleeve shirt. The rubber bands keep bees from crawling up my sleeves. The garden gloves gave me the flexibility to actually feel what I was touching, so I wasn’t mashing bees. I also went to the local art store and bought the finest bristled wide brush I could afford. Not that many bees get stuck in this bush, and the ones that do seem to have a much easier time working their way out. To deal with the hive tool being too short, I sharpened the edges of a BBQ fork and used it on the bottom of the comb. Worked like a charm, with no breakage of the comb.
The experience was actually kind of Zen-like. Bees will react and get mad if you move too fast, or quickly stick something in their hive. Today, I moved slowly, and deliberately, like I was doing yoga or Tai-chi. If I got frustrated, or the bees started reacting, I would just freeze, and take a couple deep breaths to relax. (You have to be careful not to breathe hard into the hive, because the bees will react to the carbon in your breath like you’re a bear stealing their honey.)
I only killed two bees this year! The most difficult process is getting the bees back into the hive once it’s opened up. At some point, I had to close the gap between the bar I was trying to insert and one that was already in place. The bees were very confused at that point, and they kept poking their heads out, or trying to climb back in through the gap. That’s when I squished one. It made such a pitiful high pitched distressed noise too. 🙁
After the first bee death, I found the right technique to coax them either in or out of the hive. You gently place the loose bar in the hive, then push only one loose side against the in-place bar. You hold that end in place, while slowly, gently working the other end so that it’s flush against the in-place bar. Then it’s easy to concentrate on the bees that are potentially getting trapped on the narrow side, and sort of wiggle the bar at the right times to convince them to go in or out. Then you don’t have to worry about all the bees in the gap at once.
Of course, once the hive is sealed, there’s still a little mass of bees on top of the hive. They are very confused, and they’ll try to somehow get back into the place where the gap was. I ended up slowly coaxing them onto my hands or brush, and dropping them off at the hive mouth. It’s not good to just leave them out, because a few of them might be young enough to not have ever made it out of the hive! If the young bees haven’t made their navigational first flight, they might get lost on the way back to the hive entrance.