Honey. Many of us will harvest honey in July. Honey is our reward for beekeeping. We look after and manage our colonies 24/7/52 hours/days/weeks of the year, with the expectation they will give us two weeks of surplus honey in return.
One common concept of keeping bees is that colony populations increase with spring due to lengthening days and increasing flower resources. When colonies remain intact without swarming, we hope and expect their peak population to coincide with the nectar flow of our area. After the summer solstice, populations decrease. This annual cycle can be visualized as a bell-shaped curve.
We hopefully supered strong colonies, as discussed last month, prior to and during the peak nectar supply. This is the concept of nectar (some term it honey) flow. Starting in July, before we begin to perform our fall hive maintenance activities, we expect to have something to harvest.
This is by no means the only concept. Individuals with honey sales like to have more than one honey product to sell. Putting harvested honey into different size and shape containers is one way to stimulate sales. Different honey colors/flavors (when you can give customers a taste sample) can mean customers buying two of instead of a single container. And the same offerings bring customers back for repeat sales.
Harvesting following the bloom of a particular source can result in having honey of particular sources for customers. Some areas might even be blessed with more than a single major source flowering at different times of the season. For example, goldenrod honey is a fall source but beekeepers in the same area might also have basswood honey or spring apple blossom honey to harvest. These sources have distinctive colors and flavors that have customer appeal. As you undoubtedly know by now, all beekeeping is local.
Colonies in agricultural areas might yield different floral sources, harvestable once the crops finish blooming. Marketing of apple blossom honey, peach honey, blueberry honey, even watermelon honey might generate more sales. Sometimes to get these sources the colonies need to be moved. Or if you’re a honey reseller you can find a beekeeper who has colonies situated where these sources occur and purchase distinctive floral sources from them.
In some markets, customers are looking for distinctively branded honey sources. In Portland, Oregon, for example, honeys from Cully neighborhood or Sauvie Island for example find a good market. Internet buyers are often seeking distinctive honeys as well.
Is it time to harvest honey?
Harvesting is the messiest and one of the most time-consuming annual activities we perform with our bees. If you lack the time or means, it is best to leave stored honey on the colony. The bees know how best to protect their honey stores. Once we remove it, we need to process it before something ruins it.
While still in the comb, we cannot store honey with any assurance of being able to protect it as well as our bees can. Leave it with the bees if you are not ready. At the very least, you can harvest it later, such as in the fall, or plan to use it next spring for feeding bees. In areas of small hive beetle and warmer climate areas where wax moths are continually present, you need extra precautions in harvesting honey. This might mean harvesting only what you can immediately process.
Most beekeepers harvest just once a season. There may be good reasons for removing honey from the colonies more than once, such as lack of sufficient equipment or concern of too many supers piled onto colonies — a “good” problem to have! Another reason of course may be a desire to harvest honey from different nectar sources. Some areas have a break in the nectar flow, preceeded or followed by a smaller flow. If you have a good honey sales trade, with strong market demand, you may need to harvest some product early in the season.
Do you have honey to harvest?
So now that it is July it is time to determine if you have anything to harvest. You might not actually harvest until next month but July is a good time to start determining what, if anything, has been stored in the supers you added earlier. You probably were evaluating this as you supered? But the bees can fool us and what once promised to be a SUPER honey harvest might have disappeared to rearing of brood. Our harvest might not be as great as we thought. Or perhaps due to the bees’ reluctance to move through a queen excluder, they packed the honey into the brood boxes. Sometimes when we observe lots of nectar ripening, once the honey stores are consolidated by the bees a harvestable surplus might not be as great as we once thought.
In July we might have to wait for nectar processing to be completed. As sustainable beekeepers, we are only going to harvest surplus honey, over and above what the bees need. New beekeepers with no or only a couple of years of experience find this difficult to determine. We simply don’t know what the remainder of the season will offer the bees. What other beekeepers are experiencing and what experienced beekeepers predict will happen are great questions to ask on your bee club forums and at summer meeting events.
Weather — love it or curse it?
One big unknown each season is what August will bring in nectar and pollen resources. Will there be enough to maintain a colony? One weather ringer we have to work around is drought or rain. Drought is predicted to affect a significant portion of California, the Pacific Northwest, and a large portion of the middle section of the U.S. from Texas to the upper Midwest this year. Already, after a record harvest last year, beekeepers in North Dakota, the state consistently with the greatest honey harvest in total and per colony average, are expecting a lower harvest this season. One prognostication is the harvest might be only half that of last year. Drought or excessive rain complicates estimating future nectar income.
A recent study from Penn State University, scanning three seasons with data provided by Pennsylvania beekeepers, illustrates how critical weather might be. After measuring many variables, winter survival of honey bee colonies was found to be strongly influenced by summer temperatures and precipitation in the prior year. (See BeeWinterWise at https://beescape.org/ for a model that incorporates weather variability into colony outcome, immediately applicable only to Pennsylvania.)
The researchers said their findings suggest that honey bees have ….