honey bee management

Avoid a honey drip free-for-all

One of the worst parts of honey extraction is the accumulation of sticky, gooey frames that remains after the process. These frames of uncapped comb, known as “wet” frames, are a storage nightmare until they are cleaned of all traces of honey.

Fortunately, honey bees are more than happy to do the job. They lick and clean every nook and cranny and put the remaining honey back in storage. This is a great system that conserves honey and makes the beekeeper’s life easier. But how you deliver wet frames to the bees is important.

It is popular to pile the frames into a great heap on the edge of the bee yard and let the bees do their thing. I have seen frames piled in wheelbarrows or stacked like wood in a bonfire. This will get your frames clean in no time, but it is not good practice. In my opinion, it is just plain irresponsible.

This system, very similar to open feeding of sugar syrup, has several negative consequences:

  • Open feeding draws bees from all over. Conflicts over the food source may develop into a robbing frenzy, replete with fighting and dying.
  • Shared food sources are perfect for the transmission of parasites such as mites. Even if you have worked hard to keep your mites under control, you may unwittingly bring new mite stock in from somewhere else. During a nectar dearth (a popular time for extracting) bees will travel long distances to get to your honey drips—perhaps five miles or more.
  • Honey bee pathogens, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses, can also be transmitted during open feeding. It’s sort of like eating your dinner from a community trough. You could easily bring a new disease into your apiary.
  • Open feeding also draws other insects, including wild bees, hover flies, wasps, and hornets. Some of these insects, such as wasps and hornets, may go for your bees as well as the honey.
  • Open feeding may draw other animals as well, including raccoons, opossums, and dogs into your neighborhood. If rewarded with a sweet treat, these animals may add your apiary to their regular rounds.
  • There is a real possibility that wild bees may pick up diseases or parasites from honey bees at an open feeding station. Wild bumble bees have already contracted diseases from greenhouse bumble bees, and it appears that some wild bees may have already picked up honey bee diseases such as chalkbrood. Cross-species disease transmission may be the single biggest risk to open feeding . . . and it’s just not worth it.
So what do you do with all those sticky frames? When they come out of the extractor, put them back in a super, and put the supers back on the hive. Sure, there is still some risk of transferring disease, but it is much smaller than at an open feeder. And all the other problems of open feeding are basically solved.

If you are concerned about starting a robbing frenzy at your hives, there are several things you can do to reduce the chances:

  • Clean any honey drips from the outside of the supers.
  • Reduce the hive entrances to a size commensurate with the colony size.
  • Select only strong hives for cleaning supers as they are more able to defend against robbers.
  • Add the supers in the evening, near nightfall, when bees are not flying. By morning, a strong hive will have the situation pretty much under control.
With a little care, you can get your frames cleaned and still have healthy, happy bees when you are done.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

45 Comments

    • Jason,

      Same thing, basically. Put the cappings in a container and put the container in an empty super on top of a hive. The bees will cement the container down with propolis, but they will also clean the cappings. Just pry the container loose after a couple of days.

  • I will do that next year because I already let them clean it out yesterday outside of the hive. It never occurred to me about the disease spreading. I had tons of wasps, hornets and bumble bees going after the honey. I lost about 30 bees in that. This is never mentioned in books that I’ve read. It’s also very clear I need to think more like a bee. No human would go into a place full of disease. We need to minimize the bees’ exposure because we are altering how they behave to some degree. I hope that makes sense?

    • Jason,

      It does make sense. In beekeeping, as in lots of other endeavors, it is hard to analyze all the consequences of our actions. In nature, honey bees don’t have folks emptying out their frames, so we don’t have a precedent to look at. Many ideas, like open feeding, seem really good at first, but only after we try them do we realize the full extent of the consequences. Good observations, Jason.

  • I was just thinking about this, as I am getting ready for my first honey harvest next week. Do you put the super with the wet frames directly on top, or do you put the inner cover in between the deeps and the super? (I saw a photo yesterday, in which they put the inner cover in between the boxes.)

    Also, I recently took off 3 fully capped frames from each hive (I have 2), and put in 3 empty frames with foundation. I did this because everything in the hive was capped and I did not have the time or equipment yet to harvest. And meanwhile, my blackberries and fireweed still had some blooming to do. I put these empty frames in the center of the supers. When I extract next week (weather permitting), I expect they will have drawn out the foundation and started putting nectar in, but doubt it will be capped. So my question is…. can I feed this to the bees this fall instead of 2:1 syrup? How would I do that?

    Thanks so much. I have been enjoying your blog. I am also in Western WA, in the foothills.

    • You can put the inner cover in between or not. I do not use a standard inner cover in the summer (I use screened inner covers), so I just put the super with wet frames directly on top. But using the inner cover between them is just fine too.

      Your bees will be a lot slower to draw out foundation at this time of year. But if they do, you can feed the uncapped honey to the bees the same way as the wet combs. Just put the frames in a super above the inner cover (I assume you are doing it that way) and the bees will move it down as the brood nest shrinks. As the brood nest gets smaller the bees backfill the empty cells with nectar and honey. They try to have all their stores close to the brood nest, which is why the move it down from above. Once cold weather sets in, though, they stop moving it around.

  • I’m a little confused. In my situation with little nectar yet to come in and a hive that appears full at it’s present condition, I took off one western of honey about a week ago. The hive structure is now from the bottom up- 1 deep brood/honey/pollen, 1 western with mixed brood and honey, then 1 western full honey (my winter feed). I’m considering taking full frames one at a time and replacing them with foundation but it seems so disruptive and damaging/messy.

    So, with a week or three remaining of decent weather in the NW when do they consume rather then store? And if you put on a wet super and there is no room to store honey, will they re-fill it rather than clean it? Or just eat it? Or is there always room for something.

    I have to borrow extraction equipment so I probably won’t have a wet super to offer back until the last week of Sept.

    • Cole,

      First of all, it sounds like your colony is in good shape for winter–lots of stores and a good colony arrangement.

      In my opinion there is little reason to give the bees foundation at this late date; the bees will most likely not draw it out. As the days are getting shorter, less and less brood is reared in the colony and the empty, unused brood cells will be back-filled with any nectar the bees manage to find, including any honey from wet frames. They will continue to store nectar and pollen until it is too cold to fly, or until they find nothing to collect.

      When do they start eating their stores? At the time they are unable to collect anymore. So I would say around October they will gradually transition from collecting to eating what they have. They may have already started to cluster at night, and break cluster during the day. Soon they will be in a cluster most of the time.

  • If you put wet frames straight back into a super and back onto the existing hive, wouldn’t the bees be tempted to fill the frames with honey again?

    What do you do when your trying to reduce the colony size for winter at the end of summer?

    Ive been collecting the wet frames and freezing them giving the hive 1 frame a time under the telescoping cover for them to clean off but its a slow process in compared to using an entire box for the job 🙂

    • Robert,

      If you put a box of wet frames above an inner cover with a hole in the center, the bees will clean up the frames and store the honey below the inner cover. It really works.

      • I had the experience that mine kept storing above the inner cover. Maybe too early in the season when there is still flow?

  • One other book you will enjoy to read is: Confessions of a bad beekeeper. I checked it out of my local library.
    Vince

  • Everything you say here makes sense. However, my situation is a little different. I have gone through a process of getting my bees onto medium frames so that, in the future, all my hives can be made up of 8-frame, medium-depth boxes (I have a back injury). The only honey I am harvesting this year is about three frames’ worth of honey on the deep box I just removed from the hive. Obviously, after re-configuring the hive to be all 8-frame, medium-depth boxes, I cannot put the extracted, deep, wet frames back in the hive for the bees to clean up.

    Any thoughts about how I can make those frames available to the bees?

    • Scott,

      If you have extra medium boxes, you can put two empties on a hive and put the wet deeps in them. Just leave them long enough to get clean, then remove. Or without extra boxes, take three frames from each box (frames without brood), line them up one side, and put the deeps in the empty space for a few days till clean, and then put it back together.

      • Yes! I have two more medium-depth boxes, so I’ll do exactly that with the extracted, wet frames.

        There was also some nectar left on some of the deep frames, and I want the bees to be able to get that back into the hive as well. But, what will keep them from just trying to dehydrate it down to honey and cap it on the deep frames? If the frames are inside the hive, what will motivate the bees to move the nectar off of the deep frames and onto the medium frames? (I’m just talking about the deep frames with nectar here, not the extracted wet frames.)

        Thank you so much for your help. This is my first year to keep bees, and, like so many others, I’m smitten. I have just one hive but hope to split it this coming spring. (I have a very prolific queen.)

        • Scott,

          As the brood nest shrinks in the autumn, the bees backfill cells close to the brood nest with honey. The inner cover adds even more motivation.

      • I just read what you wrote to Robert about putting the box of wet frames above an inner cover with a hole in it. I guess I could do that with the frames of nectar as well. Am I understanding this correctly?

  • I have a single brood box and about 8 are drawn and 2 outer are empty. Can I place a fully honey-filled frame at the outer ends? Will there be any problems?

  • Just put honey off hives yesterday. I put the wet frames back on so bees could clean them. Can I leave them on the hives or pull them back off in a few days. In Mississippi

    • Rebecca,

      It’s best to pull them off again after they are clean. All that extra space gives other creatures like wax moths and small hive beetles a nice place to live. The space inside the hive should be the right size for the colony, if at all possible.

  • Earlier this year had a hive that I thought was in danger of swarming. The only extra super I had was a medium so I put that on top of the deep, intending to replace it with another deep. Two weeks later I went to put the new deep box on and there were already eggs and brood in the medium so I left it on. I put the new deep on top of the medium thinking they would use it as a honey super. When I inspected yesterday, the deep on top had mostly honey but capped brood and larva in the centermost 6 frames. With winter coming (in Michigan), should I just leave the 3 boxes on the hive and let the bees figure it out or is that too much space for them to try to keep warm through the winter?

    • Gail,

      It’s not an issue of warmth because honey bees only worry about keeping the cluster warm, not the hive interior. However, too much space gives pests a place to live, things like mice, moths, beetles, shrews, or whatever. I would consolidate the two deeps, if possible, and put the medium on top of that. My guess it that you will easily be able to consolidate the two deeps.

      • Just to be sure… consolidate the 2 deeps into 1 deep and leave the 1 medium on top? Will that leave them with enough honey for the winter?

        • Gail,

          I don’t know. I was under the impression you were worried about empty space, and if there is lots of empty space, I would get rid of it. If the frames are not empty, but full, then you can leave them all in place. In Michigan, you’ll need 80 or 90 pounds of honey for the winter. Estimate a full deep frame (both sides at about 9 pounds and full mediums at about 6 pounds. Just count and add them up.

  • My bees have all left. However I did get lots of honey. Now I have a load of wet frames and no bees to clean them. I would like to clean them and store for another attempt next season. Any ideas?

  • After extracting honey and putting the plastic frames back on the hive to be cleaned up, is it then better to scape off the wax cappings or leave them on for next year for the bees to rework for next honey harvest?

    • David,

      You’re saying you didn’t use an uncapping knife, but used a scratcher or slicer instead, right? If so, I would just leave everything as is. The bees know how to fix it.

      • I’m sorry I didn’t clarify my earlier post Rusty. I use a 8 frame spinning extractor. I normally put the honey supers back on after extraction for a couple of days and then freeze them until spring. I have a ant problem so that’s why I freeze them. Is it better to scrape off the extracted wax or is it better to let the bees repair the existing wax cappings?

  • Here I am again, 8 years later, with a new wet comb problem!

    I lost my 3 hives this fall and winter. I didn’t feed them in the fall, as they have plenty of honey stored for the winter, so we extracted the honey this past weekend. Now we have A LOT of wet comb and no bee hives to stick them on for clean-up. We are taking this year off of beekeeping, so won’t be getting more bees until next year.

    My neighbors have bees coming this spring (they also lost their 2 colonies this winter), but I wonder about asking them if their bees can clean my comb, because we don’t know why our bees died.

    Suggestions?

    • Hi Gretchen,

      I can’t make that decision for you, but if you were offering them to me, I would use them. Not many diseases harbor in honey, with the exception of American Foulbrood, but it your bees died of that you would know it from the overpowering smell.

  • Pleases help! BK for 3 years, but first time I am trying to extract honey using a 4-frame hand crank and a homemade double uncapper. Using a hot knife. I am working about 50 feet away from the apiary and my girls are all frenzied and biting everything. Do I need to move farther away? Sadly, I have to extract honey outside – no indoor space at all. Overnight, about 3 feet of bees got into my extractor. Not only did the poor girls die, but I also had to throw out about 2 frames of honey. Also got into my uncapper and frame storage.

    Karin

  • I started my mite treatment pretty much the same day I took off the honey supers. I was originally taught to leave the supers outside somewhere, but I came across your article when searching whether there’s any way to make sure it goes back to your own bees and not other nearby colonies, wasps, hornets etc. – and whether to worry about disease transfer from this type of “buffet table”. I’d like to try this method of putting the supers back on the hives for the bees to clean up.

    I assume that since it will be months before I use the supers again, it won’t matter if I put them on for clean up during mite treatment? (Using Apivar this fall.) Is that correct?

    Also, do you put ALL the wet supers on at the same time?! Or just one or two at a time. I only harvest once a year and this year I have at least 4 medium supers per hive, 5 for a couple of them.

    And can you tell me approx how long it takes yours to clean them? A couple of days?

    • Lisa,

      You can put multiple wet supers on a hive. How fast the bees clean them up depends on a lot of different things, including how many bees are in the colony, how “wet” the supers are, whether you’ve got a fall nectar flow in progress, and how wet and cold the weather is. I normally check after a week or so.

      As for Apivar, I don’t know. Apivar is a pretty intense commercial pesticide, so I would be careful with it. My preference would be to not have Apivar in there during clean up, but as far as human safety goes, I truly don’t know the answer.

      • Thank you! I really appreciate your website and the fact that when you reply to people, it’s obvious that you read their comments and understand their questions/concerns! I did check about the Apivar with the president of our local bee association previously with regard to using frames that have been in the hive during mite treatment, whether they needed to be kept separate forever or how one was supposed to handle that, whether people marked them somehow so that they wouldn’t inadvertently get used in honey supers if one moved frames around for whatever reason and lost track. His reply: “… with Apivar The French laboratory of ANSES in Sofia Antipolis is the reference lab for the European Union for honey bee health. It has conducted a residue trial in 2007 whose results are consistent to previous ones:

        – No residue of Amitraz was detected in honey after 10 weeks of treatment, regardless of the date of sampling. This is due to the instability of the active ingredient in an acid environment. Other studies have also proved that the amitraz is fully degraded after 10 days in honey. No residue of amitraz in wax after 24h after the removal of the strips.”

        On the basis of that, I was hoping that if I put the supers on for cleanup, and then store them for winter, they will be fine to use come spring, but I wasn’t sure if the breakdown of amitraz relies on the specific environment inside the hive. I’ll probably play it safe and not put them on during treatment but it might be quite cold by the time treatment is done (I live in Ontario).

        Is there any danger in storing the frames wet in bins/totes in a non-heated outbuilding? Would they go funky? Ferment in spring?

        • Lisa,

          Wet frames stored long-term need to have adequate ventilation to prevent mold. Frames stored in plastic bins in cold environments often develop impressive layers of mold. If I need to store wet frames in a non-heated outbuilding, I leave them exposed to the air. But of course, then you have other things to worry about, like mice.

  • Still thinking about this and my other question is that if there is still a nectar flow (goldenrod, alfalfa here), aren’t they more likely to start filling it in rather than cleaning it up? Of my 3 colonies, I have two really large colonies for which I already decided to run triple deeps for the winter, so I don’t know what I’d do with any extra honey (that I can’t harvest due to mite treatment) if they did start filling these, especially if they don’t have time to cap them!

    My mite load was high enough that I didn’t want to wait any longer to start the mite treatment, and the Apivar is on for 54 days. (I suppose I could have used a different mite treatment but I didn’t…)

    Do I put the wet supers on later when there’s little or no nectar flow? Or if I put them on now and they immediately start filling them, do I assume they needed the space and leave them on until later in the fall? I was a bit worried about removing all the supers when the goldenrod and alfalfa are still blooming – not sure if they can get honey bound at this time of year?!

    • Lisa,

      Put an inner cover between the brood box and the supers. This encourages the bees to store honey below the inner cover, down in the brood nest. There should be plenty of room down there because the brood nests are shrinking at this time of year. No, being honey bound shouldn’t be a concern just now.

      However, if they do start filling supers, good for you! You can always use that honey for winter feed.

  • Hmmm. I don’t see my first comment/question which was about whether it’s OK to put the wet supers on when you have the mite treatment on. I assume it’s OK since it will be months before I use those supers again in the spring. (Apivar treatment this fall).

    Also, do you put ALL the wet supers on at once or just one or two at a time? (I will have approx 4-5 wet supers per hive if I average them out over the hives).

    And approx how long does it take the bees to clean them up this way? A couple of days? (Using the method of leaving them in the field, they are pretty quick about it, but I’d rather try this method for the reasons you mention in your post).

    Thank you, by the way, for your absolutely fantastic website!!

    • Lisa,

      I would just divide them up between colonies, with larger colonies getting more supers. As I said, the time depends on lots of variables. Just give them a quick check in a week or so.

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