A note before reading this: we are total beginners at beekeeping. We got into this like everything else we do around here; we jumped in with both feet and are learning as we go. We have a mentor-friend who knows more about bees than us (he caught this swarm for us), but he keeps a Langstroth hive, which is different from keeping top bar hives. So our method is based on what we’ve read about. Smart people would take a class or something.
A few weeks ago, we decided to open up the beehive and check on the ladies before the winter really kicked in here. We were happy to see that they had built comb throughout the entire hive and, by the looks of things, will have plenty of honey to get them through the winter.
I really didn’t have much time to devote to the bees this summer, so we were unsurprised (but disappointed) to learn that they built all that comb diagonally across the bars. With top bar hives, the idea is that the bees will build straight comb, one on each bar, and you will be able to pull up one bar at a time. When I checked them this spring, we saw the cross-combing then, but it was minor and I just didn’t have time to get in there and correct it.
Removing the Comb from the Hive
The first couple of bars we lifted broke some combs, which is not unusual. After you get the first bar out, typically you can use a top-bar-hive-tool to cut along the sides of the hive, and hopefully not break any more comb. However, with cross-comb, all the bars get joined together by the beeswax, making it much harder not to break comb.
I decided to go ahead and harvest the honey from the first bars I pulled. I was really excited to see how full the hive was.
In the picture below, I am holding two bars together and there are five or six separate combs diagonally across the bar. The cross combing is no longer minor, and we will have a lot of work ahead of us this summer to get the bees back on the straight and narrow, so to speak. Lesson learned.
To harvest honey comb from a top bar hive, you have to cut the comb off. This honey is going into a food-grade bucket lined with a mesh bag, both of which we bought at our local apiary supply store for this purpose.
Side Note: Notice the holes in my jeans? Yeah, well the bees did too. Smart people would not wear holey jeans to harvest honey. Smart people (Rick) may have even told me this before I did it. But I didn’t listen. Normally our bees are fairly mellow. Yeah, not so much when you are stealing their stash. Also – like a dumb-dumb, I didn’t think about the bucket being knee-height. I only got about eight stings thanks to Rick shouting at me to run away. Apparently even the most docile bees (which ours aren’t to begin with) will get pissed with you rob them. Another lesson learned.
Because of the holey jeans, I ran into the front yard, hands over knees, where Rick helped brush away any persistent bees. Then I changed my pants in the garage and decided that was enough honey to take for the day. I went back in whole jeans to close the hive back up and retrieve my bucket. So this first harvest was a small one.
Removing the Honey from the Comb
A few bees followed the bucket of honey everywhere until I hid it in the garage. Once the bees were finally off to other things, I took the bucket in the house.
Once inside, I took the comb out of the bucket and put it into a bowl. Unlike traditional bee keeping, you can’t use an extractor to remove honey from comb built on a top bar. I used a kitchen knife to chop up the honey comb as much as possible so the honey could pour out.
Then I put it all back in the mesh bag, back in the bucket. I left it in a warm place to drain for a couple of hours.
Here is what the chopped comb looked like before and after the straining:
The next morning (to give the bees time to simmer down from the robbery), I took the empty comb, bowl and bag outside to the bee hive for the bees to pick over and reclaim any left-over honey. They were all over that. Sort of a peace-offering, in my opinion.
I left the empty beeswax overnight and retrieved it early in the morning before the bees were out. The bees had pretty much completely cleaned it. I rinsed the wax and plan to melt it into a candle or something crafty later.
Finally, I put the honey into clean jars. I used half-pints, hoping to make gifts of a few.
Each jar ended up holding about half a pound of honey. I ended up completely filling six jars, and nearly filling a seventh. So, for two broken bars of comb, I harvested nearly 3.5 pounds of honey.
Can I just say that I am really excited for the flow next spring? I’m anticipating a full harvest (and a do-over on the cross-comb thing).
Oh – and the honey tastes delicious!