Comb honey: Kelley squares
Years ago, square sections of comb honey in fragrant basswood boxes were everywhere. I adored the honey, the boxes, the pristine little combs. But as the years rolled by, the square sections disappeared and were replaced by extracted honey in bottles that squeeze like ketchup and jars shaped like preadolescent bears. I never quite understood the bear thing.
In my childhood, buying honey was an event; bringing home the square was a ritual. We all gathered around the kitchen table to experience that first cut. We cooed over the sanctity of the comb and exalted over each viscous drop.
I don’t think I would have started keeping bees if the squares hadn’t become freakishly missing from the marketplace. My life would have taken a different course, and right now I would be blogging about English, perhaps, or potatoes. I love potatoes.
The last comb of honey I ever purchased was also the last straw. The honey was in a plastic box, it was crystallized like quartz, egregiously expensive, and probably going on twenty years old. In any case, my mind was made up. If I couldn’t buy it, I would make it.
When I started, I didn’t know that only one company made the equipment necessary for wooden sections. I thought it was expensive, but it was doable and I ended up making section honey on my first hive in my first year. It was heaven.
For a long while I was paying $22 for 100 section boxes, $7 per 100 of the cellophane inner wraps, plus $45 per 100 of the cardboard window cartons. Not counting the super and all the fittings (lots of fittings), that comes to $0.75 per comb.
Then one year, out of the blue with no warning, the price skyrocketed to $80 for the section boxes alone. But it didn’t stop there. Instead, it goes up every year. This year you need to shell out $97.50 for 100 sections, $93.50 for 100 cardboard cartons and $11 for 100 cellophane bags. That’s over $2 per section without figuring in the cost of the super, fittings, and foundation. And all that is before you ship it diagonally across the lower 48.
Instead of getting more and more of my business, they are getting less and less. Well, none actually. I’ve heard it said that those prices are reasonable because beekeepers can get so much for comb honey, but that doesn’t make sense because you can get nearly as much for cut comb. And it doesn’t explain why the section box price increased by nearly four times in one year. The price I can get for comb honey didn’t increase nearly that much. What Walter T. Kelley Company needs is some competition.
As it turns out, however, I’m having fun trying to devise alternatives. Right now I have a partner in crime designing a section box that will fit into a standard shallow frame in a standard shallow super. I haven’t seen the finished product (nor have I seen the bill) but I’m excited about the design and I hear it’s almost ready for my guinea bees.
I am also planning a carton for the sections to fit into. The one Kelley sells now is the same design I saw as a kid. It looked old-timey then, and it looks worse now. With the low cost of internet print orders, I hope to get something that looks clean and current without breaking the bank. A dollar for a scored piece of card stock seems absurdly high.
When it comes to comb honey, many people are looking for alternatives. I’ve received a number of links to section super designs and options which I will share with you at the end of this series. I think comb honey in sections, whether round or square, would be more popular if the price for a super was not prohibitively high. In their e-mails, many people have said they would like to try it just for fun—not to sell—another reason that pricing the equipment based on how much the beekeeper can get is short-sighted. Whatever happened to the idea of selling many units at a low price versus a few units at a high price?
Regardless of the expense, the Kelley system works and can yield fine squares of honey. For those of you wanting to go that way, my next post will contain hints and tips for using the Kelley section super and making sense of all of its parts.