Generally, honey is harvested one to two times per year, once after the main flow and sometimes again after the fall flow. In Indiana the typical yield per hive is 65-70 pounds of harvestable honey with another 80 pounds left on the hive for winter stores. The honey in the bottom boxes is left for the bees, and the harvestable honey is located in the honey supers above either the second deep or the third medium. After the flow has ended and the bees have the honey supers capped, it’s time to harvest. The bees will cap the honey when the water content reaches 18% or lower. When removing frames of honey for harvest, avoid any that are not at least 90% capped. Open nectar is not completely ripe and may ferment and spoil due to the high water content. Do not remove supers from the hive if you will not be able to extract them within three days. Any longer than three days and you run the risk of the small hive beetle or the wax moth damaging your honey crop. If you do remove the supers and find yourself unable to extract them within that time frame they can be either returned to the hive or placed in a freezer for storage.
How do I get my bees off my honey? If the weather is cool enough that the bees are clustering in the bottom boxes at night then removing the supers is easy. Simply go out in the early morning or late evening and take the bee free boxes off. If the weather is warmer when you decide to harvest your honey, there are several ways to remove bees from honey supers.
If you are harvesting just a few frames worth of honey the easiest method is to either shake or brush the bees off of the frames. Try not to smoke the supers as this can impart an off taste to the honey. After shaking the bees off the frame immediately place the frame in an empty hive box and put a lid on it. Keep it covered except to add another clean frame to the box. This is the simplest method for a beekeeper harvesting from a very small number of hives and has the added advantage of knowing each individual frame you remove for harvest is capped and ready. It is slow, tedious work though, especially if you have more than a couple hives. Spilled honey may incite robbing and you’re more likely to take a sting with this method.
A bee blower or modified leaf blower is another method of removing the bees from the supers. By setting the supers on their ends and blowing air forcefully through the bottom of the frames, the vast majority of bees will be blown into the air and return to the main part of the hive. Bee blowers can be expensive, but a standard yard leaf blower can be modified for this purpose. You’ll need to add 15 feet or so of extra hose to give you room to maneuver around the hives and add a screen over the air intake to avoid clogging it up with bees. There is always the possibility the queen could be blown out, and this method works best with 2 people. One handles the stacking and loading of supers while the second person goes down the line and blows out the bees. For a beekeeper with 20, 50, or more hives this method is fast and efficient.
Bee escapes or bee escape boards are available for purchase or can be handmade. They work by providing an exit from the honey super while preventing reentry. A bee escape is a small piece made to fit over the hole in the inner cover. An escape board is a single piece of equipment that functions just like the inner cover and bee escape combination. Both accomplish the same goal of preventing reentry into the honey super. The bee escape or escape board is installed directly beneath the stack of honey supers you wish to remove. The supers must be tight with no additional entrances or the bees will find and use the secondary entrance. Cracks between boxes can be taped shut to prevent robbing by yellow jackets or other hives as well. If there is any brood in the supers the escape method may not work since bees are reluctant to leave brood behind. It takes one to two days for the super to be cleared of bees, as long as the exit does not get clogged with dead bees. If the escape is left on for more than a couple of days the bees may figure out how to reenter through the escape and return to the honey supers. It is best to return the next day and check if the supers are bee free and ready to be removed. In hot weather the comb may collapse without the bees there to regulate the temperature. The escape method works well, although the necessity of making two trips to the apiary may be a no-go for some beekeepers.
Bees can be chemically driven out of the honey supers. There are commercially prepared bee repellant products, such as BeeGo. The repellant is used in conjunction with a fume board, which is similar to an inner cover. The difference is the fume board has no holes and has some kind of cloth attached to the bottom. To use a fume board, remove the top and the inner cover. Gently smoke the bees off the top frames. Soak the fume board with the repellant and place on the hive, cloth side down. On a hot, sunny day this should drive all the bees out of the super in just a few minutes. Remove the fume board and super, and repeat on all the supers in the yard. If you find yourself driving the bees completely out of the hive, use less repellant. If you have a queen excluder on the hive it may need to be removed first so that the bees can make their rapid exit. Never use more bee repellant than the chemical’s label calls for and never use off-label chemicals on honey designed for human consumption.
I’ll mention one more method of emptying supers, although it is not recommended for beginners. To remove supers while there is a flow on, simply tip them on their sides next to the hive. The idea is that the bees are too busy working the flowers to start robbing all the exposed supers. The supers are tipped in late afternoon and the bees return to the main hive before dark. One problem with this method is that summer weather can be unpredictable and you don’t want all your supers sitting on the ground in a pop-up thunderstorm. Also, if robbing starts you can quickly lose your entire honey crop. It takes an experienced beekeeper to adequately understand how the relationship between flow, weather, and the temperament of the hives can be balanced to prevent a robbing frenzy.