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The Classroom

The Classroom – October 2020

- October 1, 2020 - Jamie Ellis - (excerpt)

The Classroom - ABJ - Jamie Ellis
Q Uncapped honey?

In a perfect world, the frames of honey removed would be filled, capped and ready for the extractor; but at the end of the season, one gets partially capped frames. If the honey does not pass the refractometer test, how does one cure or age the honey and how long? Note — we live in a very dry part of the west.

If we can mix the honey, what is a good rule of thumb in doing so? I do know my honey harvested crystallizes very quickly once bottled.

Terry Smalec
Colorado, August


Thanks for the questions. First, honey bees make honey from nectar. Nectar is, essentially, sugar water that many plants produce. The moisture content of nectar is much too high for the bees to store it. If they were to store it as nectar, it would be prone to fermenting in the comb. Thus, bees convert the nectar to honey via the addition of enzymes and by evaporating off a lot of the moisture. Generally speaking, honey is most stable between about 15.5 and 18.5% water and this can be measured using a refractometer. Bees usually cap cells containing honey somewhere around those moisture levels.

As you state, it is best to harvest honey from frames that are 100% capped. This is not always possible so the general rule-of-thumb is that you can harvest frames that are ≥75% capped. If you do this, your honey is usually within the target moisture range.

Despite this, biology often works against us. It is pretty common for supers not to be fully capped by the end of the honey production season. This can happen when people over-super (i.e., put on more supers than the bees can fill/cap) or if a nectar flow stops suddenly. Bees need incoming nectar to secrete the wax necessary to cap honey cells. A cessation in incoming nectar means the bees will stop capping cells. All of this can lead to you having supers that are not capped fully.

What do you do when this happens? I know some beekeepers will take their supers that contain mostly uncapped frames and put them in a small room that is heated and that contains a dehumidifier. This can help reduce the moisture content in the honey. You, then, can stop the process when the honey is within the appropriate moisture range (use the refractometer to check). When this happens, you would be free to extract the honey.

Some beekeepers even devise ways to reduce the moisture content of honey after it has been extracted. They usually do this by heating the honey in the settling tank, stirring the honey, and having a dehumidifier in the room. Some equipment manufacturers even sell machines that reduce the moisture content in honey for you. So, you have quite a few options for reducing the moisture content of extracted honey.

You specifically mentioned mixing honey to dilute your moist honey with a dryer honey. There is no set ratio of dry:moist honey that you need to follow. You would simply mix the moist honey into the dry honey until you achieve your desired moisture content, as determined using your refractometer. One word of caution here: Do not dilute your moist honey if it has begun to ferment. Doing this can cause the entire batch to ferment.

Believe it or not, I think honey moisture content is a very common problem for beekeepers. I travel all the time and people always want to give me a jar of their honey (which I welcome with open arms and an open stomach). However, the vast majority of the honey I receive this way is fermented. I have come to appreciate that many beekeepers struggle to know if their honey is fermented. Fermented honey has a unique smell and taste (much like a hint of a rotting fruit or an alcoholic beverage). Fermentation is not reversible; so it is very important to ensure that the moisture content of your honey is not too high.

Q Honey Production Problems

I am a beekeeper in north Florida and my gallberry crop was dismal. May was quite dry; however, I had my hives on a river. Perhaps I did not have enough workers? Most hives were a single deep with a honey super. I donated frames of brood from my nucs to try and have as many bees as possible without overcrowding them to the point of stimulating swarming. As I understand it, timing is critical and having the right number of bees at the right time is the name of the game. Maybe it was just the weather? I have also heard or read somewhere that you never want more than ten hives in a bee yard for honey production. I had 18 hives in one place and just curious if that had a negative impact on per hive honey production?

JT Brown
Florida, August


There are actually quite a few possible reasons for the poor honey flow you experienced. It sounds like your bees were in good shape and that you had bees to spare. Assuming this was the case, the rest really is up to Mother Nature. Sometimes, the weather is too bad for bees to forage consistently during the flow. Other times, it may be too dry, or too wet, for the plants to produce nectar. Some plant species might have bumper crop years but have a few down years in between the bumper crops. Perhaps the density of gallberry was not sufficient to provide the amount of nectar you anticipated. Maybe the plants in the area have a disease that affects their production. Perhaps your bees swarmed a lot. As you can see, a lot of things can cause the unfortunate year you had.

You ask specifically about hive density in an area and how that can contribute to poor honey crops. Many commercial beekeepers who keep bees for the purpose of honey production target 20-50 colonies per apiary. I think ~30 colonies per apiary is the norm. It is possible that there simply is not enough nectar available for the 18 hives you keep. My gut tells me that is not the case in your situation and that one of the other reasons I listed might be more responsible.

With all that background, it is important to determine, or at least get a general feel for, (1) the number of colonies an area can support, and (2) if the area is a good honey producing area. Some areas are just bad. Where I live is a good example. There simply is not enough nectar in my area to produce marketable honey. Unfortunately, you can only answer these questions if you have your bees in an area for three years or more. I usually chalk it up to natural variation if I have one bad year in a new area. I call it a trend if it happens twice. After my third bad year, I find a different place to keep my bees.

One good way to get around this, or at least get a good sense of the quality of forage in an area, is to talk to other beekeepers in your area to see what density of bees they run in an apiary and how much honey they can expect per colony. I find this to be a very helpful strategy in my search for honey producing sites.

Q Drone brood removal and African honey bees

Drone frames in conjunction with the removal of drone brood is used as a way to mitigate Varroa infestations. This is just one of several ways to control Varroa populations. Living in Southern California, which is populated by Africanized bees, I have a concern that this is a harmful beekeeping practice. By intentionally reducing the populations of genetically preferred drone bees, we are unintentionally contributing to the spread and increase of undesirable Africanized populations. Do you have any thoughts on this practice, and do you know of any studies that have been conducted to evaluate the benefits/harm of this practice?

Warren Carl
California, August


Drone brood removal is a method that some beekeepers use to reduce Varroa populations in their hives. Varroa are more attracted to drone brood than to worker brood. You can purchase foundation that is made for drone-sized cells. Workers bee construct drone cells on this foundation and queens lay unfertilized eggs in the comb. This results in a solid frame of drone brood. The premise here is that Varroa are attracted to the developing drones and they preferentially invade these cells. You wait until the entire frame of brood is capped, remove it from the hive, and then freeze it for 2-3 days, killing the drones and Varroa. You put the thawed frame back into the hive later and the bees will clean out the dead brood/Varroa and the entire process starts over. Research has shown that this method does, in fact, reduce Varroa populations, although it is quite labor intensive as you note. I recommend checking out information about this practice on the Honey Bee Health Coalition’s website. Just Google “Honey Bee Health Coalition Varroa” and you will be led to a PDF in which this practice is discussed. Furthermore, they have a video on their website that shows you how to use the practice.

With that background, your point about destroying your drones in an area where African honey bees are present is well taken. For the benefit of the reader, I will remind everyone that virgin queens leave the hive to mate with drones from colonies nesting in the nearby area. These drones will originate from your managed colonies, other beekeepers’ managed colonies (if any beekeepers are in the area) and feral colonies. Where African bees are present, a high percentage of the feral honey bee population can be Africanized (i.e., they usually are your feral colonies). When your European-derived colony goes queenless, they will raise a queen that is, herself, European-derived. However, she will leave the hive to mate and may end up mating with African-derived drones present in the area. When this happens, your colony can become Africanized.

Now to your question: I do not recommend using drone brood removal as a method of Varroa control if (1) you live in an area where African honey bees are present AND (2) you allow your colonies to requeen themselves naturally. You are right: This can stack the deck in favor of the feral African honey bee colonies and you can have downstream problems in your apiary later. However, there is something that you can do to have the best of both worlds. You can practice drone brood removal and requeen your colonies yearly with queens you purchase from a certified producer of European-derived honey bees. When you do that, you do not have to worry as much about the impact of the feral African honey bee population. Just make sure that you requeen any colony that requeens itself naturally and becomes defensive before you are ordinarily scheduled to requeen the hive. For example, let us say that you requeen all colonies every March. Then, a colony goes queenless in August and you do not want to purchase a second new queen for it this year. You can allow it to requeen itself and then requeen it if it becomes defensive.

Honestly though, if I were you, I would find a different way to control Varroa and allow my colonies to rear drones to adulthood. I think there is some benefit to allowing your colonies to produce drones when African bees are present in the area.

Q What to do with old comb

I was treating my older hives with Formic Pro, which instructs that the pads be placed between the two bottom brood chambers. While I was doing that, I noticed that the comb is old, very dark, and remembered that the cells get smaller as the years go by. So I took out two frames that were full of honey but no brood (there was brood in the next frame) and put in two new frames of mostly drawn out comb. But does not most/all the old stuff need to be replaced? That is kind of hard to do, with brood being in a lot of the frames, and having to move four supers off the top, and the general upset of taking the hive apart.



This is an interesting series of questions/comments. Let us start from the top. First, pure beeswax is a creamy white color. Bees secrete it from glands underneath their abdomens this way. The comb darkens as it ages and this darkening is related to use. Bees have dirty feet. There are residues of cast skins, pollen, staining, etc. in the combs. This is especially true of the comb in the brood nest. It only takes one cycle of brood being reared in the comb before the comb starts to turn brown and then black.

As you note, brood cells get smaller in diameter over time. This is because larval honey bees deposit silk while developing. This builds up in the   …