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.