Comb honey production part 1: The why of it

Why would someone decide to produce comb honey in place of, or in addition to, extracted honey? This good question has several possible answers.

Many people—myself included—grew up with comb honey and then lived through a long period when it was nowhere to be found. I remember describing to people what I was looking for and getting a blank look in return. In fact, a lack of comb honey is the precise reason I began keeping bees. I figured if I couldn’t buy it, I would make it myself.

It turns out there were a lot of people who missed having comb honey. Beekeepers who figured this out learned they could sell comb honey at premium prices—far above the going price for extracted honey. In recent years, many beekeepers have decided to tap into this market and, consequently, comb honey is not nearly as scarce as it was in the 70s and 80s.

This new interest in producing comb honey gave rise to new techniques for producing it. Creative new types of supers were designed and several of these have become quite popular. Ross Rounds, Bee-O-Pacs, and Hogg Cassettes have joined basswood sections on the shelves of farmers markets and upscale groceries. Cut comb honey is also popular, as well as chunk honey—a combination of comb honey and extracted honey in one container.

Comb honey can be as simple or a complex as you want to make it. Cut comb is relatively simple and basswood section boxes are fairly complex. In addition, the cost seems to increase as the complexity goes up.

But as expensive as these systems are, nothing comes close to the price of an extractor. Unless you have access to an extractor belonging to a friend or a club, you may want to consider comb honey as a cost-cutting alternative. Remember this: although an extractor is expensive, extracted honey doesn’t bring nearly the price of comb honey. The type of honey you produce will probably depend on how much—if any—selling of honey you plan to do and what the market is like in your area.

I will be writing a serious of posts—perhaps one per week—covering the different types of equipment used in comb honey production, the hive management necessary to produce it, and finally packaging and marketing techniques. I’m starting this series now because this is the time of year I begin getting ready for next year’s comb honey crop.

However, I want to begin with a word of advice. There are many beekeepers out there who try to discourage new beekeepers from attempting section honey of any type because it requires knowledge of bee biology, queen management, swarm control, and a feeling for the honey flow, weather, and temperament of the colony. These people reason that a newbee can’t possibly know all these things.

But I look at it in a completely different way: by attempting to produce comb honey, you will very quickly develop the knowledge you need. In fact, I don’t believe there’s a better way to learn about the complexity of the hive than to just jump in and try to get the bees to do something they hadn’t been planning on—namely, building honeycomb in little pre-formed containers.

Since you can’t force bees to do something against their nature—kind of like herding cats—you have to work within the realm of bee-dom to convince them that those cute little pre-formed containers were their own brilliant idea. I believe you’ll learn more about bees in one year of comb honey production than in ten years of extraction.

Rusty

Comments

Rich
Reply

Rusty,

There is another argument against producing comb honey: doing so expends too much energy from the bees compared to extracted honey. How do you counter that argument?

Rich

Lisa
Reply

I counter that argument pretty easily for myself because I’m not a commercial keeper. I have five hives in all. Bees were designed to build wax comb for a portion of their lives. Sure, it takes energy and reserves of honey you could otherwise harvest (20 pounds of honey for one pound of wax, or so I’m told) so if you’re trying to make a living at it, you either have to sell the section honey much more dearly, or you cut your profits. Me, I’m not trying to make money, so I’m unconcerned with it. And I’m more concerned with making life healthy for the bees than making it quick or easy for me, since I got into beekeeping for the bees and just harvest honey as a side benefit. Since bees are designed to build comb, it’s not cruel or unusual to make them do it. It might even be stressful if they don’t have the ability to build as much comb as they decide to make. (I don’t know, never sat a bee down on a little couch and asked her if she was stressed.)

I do not even provide my bees with foundation. They build *all* their own comb, every time, and every time I harvest it I take the wax away from them. They don’t seem to mind. They build quickly. I let them clean the wax thoroughly if I drain it, too, before I use the wax for candles or the like.

I use the three major kinds of hives found in the US . . .Top Bar, Langstroth, and Warre. They each have their weird idiosyncrasies. But with the Warre Hive, I harvest a whole box at a time, and it’s easy to cut it up into comb honey because it’s basically just a box of free-hanging honeycomb sheets. I don’t have an extractor; I moosh up the comb I want to use for extracted honey and let it drain through a sieve. Time consuming, but since it’s just for me and my friends and family, it’s fine. (If I were doing this commercially, I’d change some things.)

I actually had cut comb honey harvested before I tried extracting honey.

Rich
Reply

Lisa,

The question was poised by a Ph.D. friend, and I have often pondered what the best response might be. Your reasoning is sound. How can an insect doing normal life functions be wasting energy, anyway? I also suspect that the lower production of comb honey compared to extracted honey from a given hive is at least substantially offset by the increased value of the comb honey for the commercial producers.

I used to have creamed honey at my grandfather’s house in Quebec when I was a kid. I was introduced to comb honey by my wife years ago. It is my favorite now. My preference is 8 grain bread from Costco, toasted to perfection, coated with a little butter, then smeared with comb honey. It’s a great way to start the day.

Rich

Karl Schroeder
Reply

The below description of hive placement for insertion of a comb honey section hive confuses me – Does it make sense to anyone?

Cut and pasted from thewarrestore.com

Production of Section (Comb) Honey

Everyone knows that in order to follow Warre’s principles, it is important to never super a hive. Right? Well, not quite. What follows is a compilation of information from Beekeeping for All, which explains Warre’s method for making beautiful sections in fresh, clean combs. The bulk of this information can be found on pages 91-92.

Now, the People’s Hive is better than all others for rapid construction of beautiful sections. To do this, it is first necessary to construct a special box. The depth should be that of the sections desired. For American sections this is 130mm. This box will contain 8 frames, each divided into two sections. The box should match as closely as possible the internal dimensions of the hive bodies, but it is not necessary that they are exactly the same. Once you have your sections box with frames, here’s how to make them:

When the nectar flow has really started, i.e. when there is already a small amount of honey stored in the top box, at least 5 kg (12 lbs., or about half full), this box, which we refer to as box No. 1, is lifted. The following box (No. 2) is lifted likewise. On the next box (No. 3) is placed box No. 1 whose honey has been uncapped if necessary (the honey is rarely in need of uncapping). On box No. 1 is placed box No. 2. On box No. 2 is placed the box built for section honey. Now, under the box containing the sections there is some brood and as a result of this no room for the honey that is brought in daily. The bees are therefore forced to put the new honey in the sections box. Furthermore, the bees never leave honey for long under brood. The bees will thus have a tendency to carry honey from box No. 1 into that containing the sections. There is therefore a rapid and considerable influx of honey into the sections. This is all that is necessary to obtain beautiful sections. Note that here our bees are not pushed into swarming as happens in other hives when one makes sections. For, in the People’s Hive one can always leave a free space for the bees under the brood, in box No. 3, and as much of it as one can give to them if the need is felt.

Rusty
Reply

Karl,

I think I can best explain this with a diagram, but because I’m in the midst of preparing for Thanksgiving guests, I’ll need a few days. Don’t forget to check back; I know I can show (and explain) this much more clearly!

Carl U.
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I would really like to try cut comb honey in the next super that I add. Would I just order some empty foundationless frames and put 9 of them in an empty super on top? Do you recommend adding some wax (a bead?) to get them started? … or to ask this a different way… is there an article I missed called, “Comb honey production part 2: How to do it” ? :) Thanks in advance,

Carl
Seattle

Rusty
Reply

Carl,

I intend a whole series on comb honey, but it is not done yet. Yes, you can use foundationless frames or you can use “this surplus foundation” which is made from cappings wax and is extra thin for comb honey. If you go foundationless, use comb guides or starter strips to keep the bees from drawing comb crosswise across the frames. By the way, I like your idea. I will call the next part, “How to do it.”

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