Monday, November 19, 2007

Lesson Sixteen: Honey Production

Hi, I'm David Burns, and thank you for joining me today for lesson sixteen of our online beekeeping lessons. Our family loves the bee business. My wife, Sheri, handles some of the administration details, produces parts for our frames and hives and oversees our honey bottling process. Our children all work in various areas of the operation too. It's a blast! My father-in-law, Bill Henness is retired and helps keeps our operation going smoothly too, by volunteering his time working the bees, building hives, building our bee-vacs and selling honey.

I've had a busy beekeeping week. Saturday I attended the Illinois State Beekeepers Association in Springfield, Illinois. A few days prior to that, on Thursday, I visited with Gene Killion. Anyone who has been in beekeeping for a while knows the name of Carl and Gene Killion. He holds the world record for the most comb honey produced from a single hive. In the glory days of his work, he had over 1,000 hives with 8 supers on each hive! The Killion family was recently featured in the American Bee Journal. The Killion's have had remarkable success in beekeeping!

While visiting with Gene, he showed me around his place where they processed comb honey and prepared their supers for the next year. Not only that, but he gave me one of his famous 8 frame comb honey supers that he and his dad made and used.
Lots of our customers request comb honey. Some customers are convinced that comb honey helps their arthritis, citing the Bible verse that says, "Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones" (Proverbs 16:24). So this Spring, we are gearing up now to produce much more comb honey, which is almost a lost and dying art among beekeepers. It's not easy to do, and some have concluded it is not worth the bother. Liquid honey sells just fine, so many beekeepers no longer produce comb honey.
When I talk to other beekeepers, they too tell me that more and more people are turning to pure, raw honey including honey comb. We find it impossible to produce enough honey to keep up with the demand from our customers. Our comb honey sells out within a few weeks after we harvest it, and our honey sells out in the fall. So, we are constantly considering how to produce more honey.
It is a great joy to any beekeeper to place frames full of honey into the extractor and watch the honey start flowing out. Take a look at the video below and you'll hear our excitement!

Honey bees produce honey and in a good year, they produce lots of it, more than they will need, so the beekeeper can remove the excess. This is why most of us keep bees--for the honey. Although, truth be told, we just love keeping bees!
Let me share with you, two things: First, how to manage a new hive to produce the most honey, and secondly, how to manage established hives to produce the most honey. Also, let me say that sometimes, even after all the right management techniques are followed, bees are insects, and might disappoint you in doing something contrary to what you want them to do. However, bee management is effective for the most part.
If you are starting with a package of bees, then you should be happy if the bees only produce enough honey for themselves. This is good and par for the course. However, I always work my packages to produce honey for me my first year, and most do. My success comes from placing my packaged hives on drawn comb. In my opinion drawn comb is the beekeeper's third best friend! The hive tool is first, and a bee-vac is second.
Obviously, a new package or nuc will have to build up their hive. This means they will need to produce a huge amount of new comb on the frames. They need ample amounts of comb for the queen to lay eggs and for the workers to store nectar and pollen. Comb building requires a huge amount of consumed nectar. The bees need a large amount of incoming nectar for their glands to produce wax. In fact, it takes 8 pounds of nectar for the bees to produce 1 pound of wax.
Not only must they produce a significant amount of wax to build their new hive, they also need to increase their population. Typically a package contains 3 pounds of bees, which is roughly estimated to be about 10,000 bees. An established hive will usually have between 40,000-80,000 bees. The difficulty with packages and nucs is that before they develop a large number of foraging bees, some key nectar flows may have come and gone. This is why it can be difficult for a new hive to produce extra honey. They are using the incoming nectar to build comb and feed their growing population and they do not have enough bees of foraging age to get the job done.
To accelerate a package hive, drawn foundation is a huge push. Less wax production is needed and more nectar can be immediately stored. However, rarely does a beginning beekeeper have access to drawn comb. And special care must be taken to ensure that drawn comb is free of any disease, especially American Foul Brood. AFB spores can live in comb for more than 50 years. So, just because a retiring beekeeper gave you all of his equipment, including drawn comb, doesn't mean that you've got usable draw comb. If you have access to clean drawn comb, this is one way to help your package produce honey their first year.
Another way to produce honey from a new hive is to capture swarms and add the bees to the hive. Again, you must be sure that the bees you are adding are free of pests and disease. You will need to lay down newspaper between the two groups so that they can become familiar with one another and not fight. Many beekeepers capture swarms for the single purpose of using them to draw comb. Then, the drawn comb is placed into new hives. Swarms are geared to build comb.
If drawn comb isn't an option, and no one calls you to remove a swarm, what else can be done on a first year hive to produce excess honey to be taken off? Crowd! This is the opposite of what most people will tell you, because crowded and congested hives are more likely to swarm. And, if you are not an experienced beekeeper, purposely crowding a hive can backfire. In the Spring of 2006 I took a brand new 3 pound package of bees and installed them into a 10 frame deep hive body. Accidentally, I failed to monitor the hive as often as I should have--about every two weeks. A month later, I noticed some unusual signs that the hive was crowded, so I inspected. When I did, I noticed that all 10 frames were completely pulled out and excess comb was being built on the top of the inner cover, which is always a sign that you've waited too long. However, in my case, this seemed to work to my advantage. I placed a second deep with foundation on at this time, and it too was drawn out in record time, as if the bees were desperate for the extra space. I waited until the second deep was as packed as the first, then I started placing on supers. They began filling up supers.
Traditionally, and rightfully so, we are told to place the second deep on when about 5-7 frames are drawn out on the first deep. This does prevent overcrowding and swarming. Yet, I have found that if I can keep the hive VERY TIGHT, the bees seem to expand faster and work more productively. I'm not sure why. I suspect that since bees are social, that they are more efficient in tighter quarters. Perhaps the queen's presence and pheromone is more saturable. This was not just a one hive deal. As I practiced it this Spring again, I had the same results. Always better production by keeping the first deep hive packed before adding the second.
In doing this, I did have one package swarm on me, so again, there is a thin line between running at full capacity and for the congestion to produce a swarm.
It takes 40 days from when an egg is laid for that bee to emerge from her cell, serve in her housekeeping role and finally be old enough to fly out and forage for nectar. Just because you have lots of bees does not mean you have lots of foragers. To gather nectar you need to have a full squadron of foraging age bees PRIOR to the nectar flow. Therefore, beekeepers could produce more honey if they simply counted 40 days backward from when the nectar flow starts, and begin to prepare ahead of time for that flow. Most beekeepers do very little to prepare for the flow other than make sure their bees are alive.
Here in Central Illinois, weather permitting, I usually have a nectar flow as early as May 10th. This means that for me to take advantage of this early flow, I must have a huge number of foragers, 19 days or older, ready to fly out and bring in that flow. Therefore, I need lots of eggs to be laid before April 1st. This means that I need my queens to lay heavily in March. My challenge is that March is still a cold month for me, and my bees are still mostly clustering over very little brood that is being laid. The older workers decide how much the queen should be fed to stimulate her to lay eggs. If these older workers do not see enough nectar or pollen in the hive they hold the queen back from laying.
During the month of February, I will do two things. First, I place pollen patties just above the cluster, usually on the inner cover since the cluster is up high coming out of winter. And I place sugar water just above the cluster as well, one part water, one part sugar. These two food sources are just enough to prove to the older workers that a steady flow of nectar and pollen are available, so that they will stimulate the queen into laying more than she normally would at this time of the year. This helps the hive overall as well, because most hives that starve do so in February and March. The idea is to expand the population of nurse bees so that more eggs can be laid and cared for than what is normally found this time of the year, thus increasing the amount of foragers prior to May 10th.
This is a "common sense" technique. Farmers know when their crops will need harvested, and they prepare in advance to have all of their equipment and workers ready. Beekeepers do this very poorly. Beekeepers must prepare their workers (the foragers) to bring in the harvest! A terrible mistake beekeepers make is that they do not monitor the various ages of their bees. They view all of their bees as foragers. But they are not. Only one fifth of the bees in an entire hive are at foraging age.
You must also make sure your bees are healthy. They need nutrition. They need fattened up so they can remain strong and fight off various diseases. Mite control is essential in keeping healthy bees. The healthier the hive, the better the honey production.
Having a good queen is important as well. It is optimal to replace your queen every couple of years. You certainly don't have to, and often the hive will replace a faltering queen. However, for maximum honey production, you should replace your queen in September. Then, by the time you start stimulating the hive in February with sugar water and pollen patties, this new, young queen can really begin laying. You must see your honey production season as starting in September!

Finally, you need lots of supers! Research has shown that bees with plenty of supers on the hive at one time do better than supering a hive as needed. I always have at least 3 medium supers on all my hives prior to the nectar flow. If some of those supers have been saved from the previous year and have drawn comb, then you're that much closer to an excellent honey producing year.

One final note on honey production. Monitor the location of the queen. Keep the queen down. She moves up as she lays. Therefore, you may have to reverse your brood bodies many times in the Spring. However, be careful while it is still cold in the Spring not to divide the brood nest when rotating the bottom two deeps. But, they will need rotated. Get her down, so that she will see plenty of open cells to lay in. This will help prevent swarming as well.
In our next lesson, my wife Sheri will be sharing about selling honey. I can't wait for her to share her ideas with you. I'll see if I can have her share about the other products she makes from the hive too, such as soaps, candles, lip balm and more.
Be sure to get all of your equipment ready before Spring, and check out our website and our ebay store and auctions for great pricing on beekeeping equipment. You'll see links to our sites on the right hand side of this blog.

See you next time and BEE-Have yourself!

David & Sheri Burns