I was surprised to get a text message from John McMullan, a sixth-year beekeeper in my inspection region, at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning in mid-May. “Is there something wrong with my honey?” he asked. “What are these brown flecks — some sort of egg?”
It was a beautiful sight to see! It was a close-up picture of an uncapped shallow frame of water-white honey, with some puffy, white wax cappings peeled back from the comb. A few tiny, dark brown concretions sat on the glistening frame face — impurities left by his heated-knife uncapper, a benign problem, as he wasn’t entering his honey in the fair. The concretions, of course, were trapped in a bucket filter when he strained his honey.
John was the first beekeeper I knew to market the 2023 honey crop in the St. Louis Metro East (Illinois side). Thanks to a strong black locust flow that had wrapped up two weeks earlier, he had a bumper crop, of which he harvested every surplus ounce — 575 pounds from 8 hives. Meanwhile, his bees carried on, peacefully working the beginnings of the clover flow, seemingly none the wiser that their keeper had robbed them, that is, until John returned the empty supers to the hive. The return of wet supers spurred the bees into double-time action. The supers filled with clover nectar quickly, and John planned his next harvest date, excited that he would have two distinct honey products.
Honey harvest timing is a major factor in determining the success of a beekeeping operation, and the beekeeper that harvests early can produce more honey, meanwhile ensuring a healthier, more sustainable enterprise. The ideal early harvest time to plan for is right after the peak of a particular nectar flow. But how do we know when that will be? How can we plan for something we can’t see? The number one tool to determine the best honey extraction date is good, old-fashioned human interaction with the ecosystem — time outside. The second and third most important tools are comforts in our lives that we take for granted — weather forecasts and calendars. But no tool, innovation, or in-hive monitor can rival the power and accuracy of observations you make as you stroll through flowers, or peek in your beehives, checking for clues about the nectar flow status. Gentle, mindful minutes attuned to the managed pollinator ecosystem allow a beekeeper to work smarter, not harder, and bring an enormous amount more enjoyment to our work, leading to stronger honey harvests that stress our colonies less.
I talk to what feels like a high percentage of beekeepers who save honey harvest for late summer and fall. This choice of time goes hand in hand with lower yields and higher colony demise. It’s not unusual to see a September harvest lead to colony starvation before winter arrives. Changing one paradigm — that the main honey harvest should be scheduled close to the summer solstice, can turn a cycle of damage control into a cycle of increase and abundance.
Habitual early harvesters take advantage of several differences. Early harvests stimulate bees to more vigorous foraging, helping bees hoard more for themselves, and a little extra for you. Early harvests also take some of the stress out of the equation, offering a more pleasant experience for beekeepers and certainly for bees, who are still preoccupied with foraging, rather than robbing.
Another advantage of early harvests is that the shift brings the beekeeper into a closer alignment with the bees. Bees are winter-minded after the summer solstice, and the beekeeper who wrapped up the harvest before the brutal late July and August heat can deliver hive management that’s more seasonally-appropriate for bees, like weed-whacking, replacing weak queens, treating for varroa mites, changing small hive beetle traps, or applying terramycin to hives with European foulbrood. Or beekeepers can spend time enjoying related pursuits, like managing a pollinator garden, or simply kicking back at the farmers market stand.
Finding your date
I find I have to force myself to adopt more productive habits by arbitrarily scheduling my to-do’s in a calendar. If it wasn’t for cloud-based calendars, I might live more humbly, but I’m happiest when I’m busy. So as I approach honey harvest time, I aim for happiness! I superimpose a stretch of potential apiary work days over other (work) plans I already have scheduled in my calendar. Leading up to the summer solstice, I remind every person in my life that I am a beekeeper, and those who rely on me need to understand that I need a flexible schedule in late spring/early summer. Then I keep my eyes in my hives, my nose in the flowers, and my mind on the 10-day weather forecast. When frames start showing white wax cappings over cells, I look for a short stretch of days where temperatures are above 85°. I choose hot days because the honey slings out of the comb in the extractor more easily, and also, I use a Simple Harmony uncapper, which slices cappings open. For small persons like me who lack a level of brute strength, frames are easier to uncap when air is hotter and wax is softer.
These conditions are my preference, my ritual — every early-harvest beekeeper will have their own “perfect extraction day” based on the design of their harvest system. But the strategy begins with prioritizing each particular nectar flow. You either need to decide where to focus your energy because you have a favorite flavor of honey you love to consume, or you want the most marketable varietal you can capture. A lot of American beekeepers are harvesting the “Mixed Flower” class. In the Midwest, Upland and Deep South, and Great Plains, the most common high-value, marketable flowers in the mix are black locust, clover, and soybean, with chances at varietals like apple or cherry trees, or blackberry. There are, in particular regions closer to the coasts, prized honeys like orange blossom, tupelo and sage.
There are also rare varietals. In Northern California and Oregon, there is meadowfoam — uniquely delicious with undeniable vanilla and marshmallow flavors. I first tasted this at a fair last year and nearly choked on it — I was so surprised and moved by the flavor, I gasped, inhaling it. It took a long, urgent minute of forceful coughing to open my airways. From now on, when I try new flavors of honey, I will take much smaller tastes. Choking on honey would be an embarrassing way to die.
For the most part, bees in the U.S. begin collecting nectar when willow and maple buds open. Then a flush of weeds and spring ephemerals yield nectar. If hives are particularly strong, they can gain weight and begin to store surplus honey when fruit trees bloom. The big nectar push comes for most beekeepers from April through June, with black locust and clover. Unlike the outside-the-hive clues that you see during early-season foraging (gray willow pollen, bright orange dandelion pollen, red purple deadnettle), clover and black locust flows aren’t accompanied by iconic pollens. The status of the main nectar flow is only seen inside the hive. Early-harvesting beekeepers purposefully look for soft white wax swelling from any extra space bees can find in the hive.
Here I can’t resist mentioning an idea I came across on Michael Bush’s website in an article titled “Honey Harvest.” He challenges the old British beekeeping adage that to produce a pound of wax, bees have to visit 30 million flowers, yielding six to eight pounds of honey. Michael references great old American beekeepers to support his challenge against the British claim. Quoting Richard Taylor and Gilbert M. Doolittle, he says that during a strong nectar flow, the wax glands of bees are automatically activated. Bees secrete wax automatically, independent of the volume of nectar they gather. And if the beekeeper hasn’t added blank frames (or comb honey sections) into hives at these precious peak nectar flow moments, the potential for wax building is wasted. Bees can’t help but make wax during a strong nectar flow.1
This concept of wax production is critical in terms of defining ultimate dates for nectar harvest. Beekeepers who allow themselves frequent spring inspections witness a few ….