comb honey

How to manage bees for section honey

How to manage bees for section honey. Maja Dumat

Producing exquisite and delicious comb honey is an art. Those who do it well have mastered the subtleties of beekeeping.

Managing bees for cut-comb or chunk honey is relatively simple, but coaxing them into other containers is more difficult. Unless a colony is prepared for sections or jars, you will often see a dozen bees examine the supers, indifferent and bored. This can go on all season: you think your colony is not thriving, but your colony thinks you’ve lost your mind.

In spite of the naysayers, standard Langstroth and top-bar hives make sense to bees. They understand the possibilities. They build parallel combs in the hive that mimic those they would build in nature. In a frame, they will conveniently attach the comb to the bottom and sides. In a top-bar hive, they often inconveniently do the same.

Managing bees for section honey is tricky

But install little compartments above the brood box, and the bees become vexed. Tiny storage vaults—whether round, square, rectangular, or cylindrical—do not comport with the bees’ sense of order. They walk around with a glazed expression like employees offered a cubicle instead of an office.

The question, then, is how to get bees to do something you want and they don’t. While our brains are bigger, theirs are definitely more stubborn.

Since section honey is popular and demands a high price, beekeepers have been fighting the section honey battle for many years. Ideas have been tried and failed, and new techniques have been developed, but some principles remain the same. Managing bees for section honey is a challenge, but it’s also fun.

Your overwintered colony must be populous and healthy

This is basic. If a colony is not robust, it will not put wax combs in little containers. You will be lucky to get any honey at all. If a colony is mediocre in strength, skip it and try another.

To complete fully-capped honey sections, a colony must be large, edgy, and boiling over with bees that are bouncing off the walls and fighting for space. Remember, managing bees for section honey is not for the faint of heart. Although you can easily identify the perfect colony for comb honey, you won’t want to go near it without a suit of armor.

Your colony needs a vibrant young queen

A new first-year queen is necessary for a vigorous build-up of early spring bees. Colonies with new queens are also less likely to swarm than those headed by older queens. While a new spring queen is best, it is sometimes possible to use a colony headed by a queen installed the previous fall.

The bees need a major nectar flow

Comb building always requires a good supply of nectar, so timing is important. You want your colony to be robust with an actively laying queen by the beginning of the first major nectar flow. If you don’t know when to expect it, ask a local beekeeper or call your county extension agent.

Keep your colonies on the verge of swarming

So far, these requirements are not much different than those for any honey production, but here the similarity ends because the key to superb section honey is maintaining colonies on the verge of swarming.

I have written many posts on various ways to keep your bees from swarming, but most of those techniques will not give you great section honey. Instead, you need to crowd your bees so they have no room to store nectar unless they go up in those funny-shaped containers and build comb. You need to leave them no alternative.

Be prepared for an errant swarm

Here is a good place for a word of caution. If you are an urban beekeeper, or if you have neighbors who would not be happy to have a swarm decorating their swing set, you should probably avoid section honey and stick to cut comb instead. Keeping bees on the verge of swarming without actually swarming is tricky business. Every now and again you will lose a swarm. It’s like walking on a tight rope—the day will come when you fall. Like any gamble, the payoff can be great but the stakes may be high.

I like to prepare for an errant swarm by setting up bait hives or swarm traps on the edge of the apiary. Traps don’t always work, but when they do, you can dump those bees back into the original hive.

You can’t manage bees for section honey without crowding the colonies

The first step to crowding your bees is to consolidate all brood frames into as few brood boxes as possible. For example, with triple deeps, I put all the brood in two boxes and remove the third. If my bees are in double deeps, I put all the brood into one box and remove the second. If I have an odd number of frames, say eleven, I put that final frame in another hive.

I know other beekeepers who reduce all brood to a deep and a medium, or sometimes three mediums. It really doesn’t matter, as long as you put all your brood in the smallest space possible. Any extra workers can be shaken into the consolidated hive, or they can be put into a weaker hive that needs a boost.

Now place your consolidated hive on a bottom board, add a slatted rack, and then a section super on top of that. Although the slatted rack is not absolutely necessary, it relieves some of the congestion, which reduces overheating in the brood nest.

Excluding the queen

Personally, I do not use a queen excluder under the section super. It is difficult enough to get the workers to build comb in the containers, so I see no point in making it even harder. Secondly, I have rarely seen a queen lay in a section super. One year I had a queen that laid one row of eggs in each of two different sections, but to me, that amount of intrusion isn’t worth the negative effects of a queen excluder.

I simply cover the section super with a screened inner cover with no upper entrance. The screen gives better ventilation and faster curing while the lack of an upper entrance reduces travel stain. Most of the debris from the bee’s feet is left on the brood comb as they make their way into the honey supers from the bottom.

Feeding your bees

After the section hive is set up, many beekeepers like to feed 1:1 sugar syrup until the nectar flow begins. This can give the bees on jump-start on producing the white wax comb that will hold the honey. This is fine as long as you remember to remove the syrup as soon as the flow begins—don’t give them a chance to store any syrup in the comb.

Replacing the old queen

Now that you are all set up, nothing remains but the hard part. After four to five days, go into the hive and destroy all queen cells that you find. They are hard to find under so many bees, but you need to get them all.

Three days later, go into the hive again and destroy (or remove) the old queen and all of the brand new swarm cells except three. Make sure the three remaining are uncapped; if they are capped, they are older than three days and should have been destroyed the first time around. According to Eugene Killion in Honey in the Comb, the delay caused by destroying the early swarm cells makes the bees all the more eager to swarm, and this eagerness produces higher-quality queen cells.

Now you can let your bees raise a queen. Some beekeepers destroy two of the three remaining cells after seven more days. Other beekeepers let the bees do the culling. There are risks with either method, but according to master beekeeper Ray Nicholson of Minnesota, queens raised by the colony seem to suppress swarming better than introduced queens, so this is the preferred method.

If you would rather introduce a queen, go back into the hive five days after removing the old queen, destroy any queen cells, and add your caged queen. Be sure she gets released in a few days.

At this point, you have done your job until the nectar flow begins.

Honey Bee Suite

Next time: how to manage section supers


  • Rusty,

    About feeding bees syrup at the setup. Is the assumption that bees will build comb and then fill it with honey later? I don’t think I’ve observed that behavior, but maybe I’ve not paid as much attention as I should have.

    I think they build the comb out of necessity to store honey somewhere. I think Seeley said that the wax is metabolized from nectar that has not been placed into any cell, So I assume that if the cell is half built, that’s enough of a storage to place incoming nectar/syrup. I am being very vague because i do not have Seeley’s book handy, it was an ILL.

    I am all for converting sugar into comb, but I just want to eliminate or at least minimize syrup in the capped sections.

    • Aram,

      Bees often build empty combs. The cells may be shallow at first, but sometimes they are nearly full depth. Wax-secreting bees are very young and haven’t yet started to forage. By feeding syrup, the comb builders can get started even before the foragers have any nectar to collect. That means that when the nectar flow starts, there will be a place to store it sooner.

      If your bees start to store syrup, just stop feeding. Comb honey production is a labor-intensive endeavor. You can’t just set it up and walk away, you need to monitor the bees constantly. If you don’t want to monitor for syrup storage, then don’t feed syrup.

  • We want to try chunk honey this year but had a bizarre experience last year which leads to a question: for a dumb, amateur reason I ended up with one fewer frame than I should have in the brood box and the bees built up a mass of comb, filling the space.

    For another amateur reason, at the end of the summer I had to combine hives. So I took out this frame with its lumpy mass of comb and figured I’d try my hand at melting the comb into wax. We got only the tiniest streak of wax and just a pile of papery, unmeltable gunk. It reminded me of a paper wasp nest – certainly not something you could eat. Am I just confusing things? Wouldn’t this be the same stuff we’re actually trying to get the bees to give us next year?

    • Andrea,

      I’m not sure I can answer your question without more info. Did the bridge comb (the lumpy mass) have honey in it? Did it at any time contain brood? What color was it? How did you try to melt it?

      Usually a pile of “unmeltable gunk” means the comb once contained brood and is now full of cocoons. We call this slumgum. However, you say it is “papery” so that sounds different.

      The comb in comb honey has never contained brood, only honey. Besides cocoons, baby bees leave behind feces and sometimes body parts. There may also be dead mite nymphs, mite eggs, mite feces–all kinds of not especially palatable stuff.

    • David,

      Good question. I shoot for about four weeks prior. It won’t be exact because the date of the nectar flow is not exact. Four weeks give you enough time to destroy queen cells, raise a queen, get her mated and laying, and build up the number of foragers.

  • What about Romanov sections? Are they as difficult to coerce bees store honey in them as the others? At the first glance it is not that much different from regular shallow frames. They just have 3 vertical dividers in the middle.

    • Art,

      I personally have not used Romanov frames, but they are small like other sections, and I think the size is the bees’ primary objection. Just guessing.

  • Rusty,

    I definitely am watching this series like a hawk. The last time I did comb was in another age (I think we were still doing manned lunar landings) and *if* I knew anything about it, I fear it has gone the way of Kodachrome. Really, I think I just got really lucky. I do well remember how Mom’s eyes lit up when the section box was set out with Sunday dinner. She had a neat rectangular, yellow serving platter that had a long lip on one side, perfect for keeping the thumb out of the sticky bits.., perfectly sized for holding said section.

    I fear I digress.

    My question centers around the timing of getting ready for the sections. I’m just a bit north of you in Kent, so really huge regional differences aren’t an issue, although we do have some variations with micro-climates. I’ll go out on a limb and say our calendars should pretty well match.

    Locally my first flows are dandelion and maple, if the maple come out to play. I’ve always thought of this as my reprieve from feeding. As far as I know, I’ve never sampled maple honey, they use it during build up.

    With the condensed ‘section’ hive, is the plan to take the maple (other early flow) as sections or are the sections going on after that first ‘flow’?

    I’m kinda thinking we’re shooting at really being set for blackberry which can be late May? (Seemed early this last year for raspberry and blackberry.)

    That brings the question of requeening. Are you raising spring queens for yours, purchasing queens or just opting for letting the hive raise their own? I shouldn’t omit requeening with an overwintered nuc queen either.

    Since we’re looking at increasing the population to a crescendo for the big flow, I’m thinking pulling the old queen out and letting them raise a new one is a 30-ish day lull in solid laying we’d rather avoid?

    Is an over-wintered ‘fall’ queen a better alternative than a brand new queen? If it is true that a replacement queen raised by the colony suppresses swarming, it looks like a choice between that and the benefit of having a ‘known’ fall queen?

    Isn’t it odd how *short* the spring seems when you start working the ‘bee math’ backwards? (Disclosure, ‘Bee Math’ from

    Kent, WA

    P.S. Odd dream last night. I pulled comb sections off of one hive to take to the Farmer’s Market. Highway Patrol gave me a ticket for an overloaded vehicle when I blew a tire out. 🙂 Obviously it is winter and definitely a dream.

    • Nick,

      1. First, the perfect serving platter for comb honey is hard to find. I have a couple that come close, but your mother’s sounds better.

      2. Getting bees ready for maple is tricky because it is usually raining like crazy, but if I can get it, it is the absolute best honey the Pacific Northwest has to offer. I hoard it because I can’t get it every year.

      3. As far as weather, I’m probably colder than you. It’s a lot colder where I live (unincorporated Thurston County) than it is in Olympia. Olympia has a warming influence from the sound, whereas we get cold air from the Black Hills. For example, we often have snow while Oly, Tacoma, and Seattle have none. Micro-climates make a big difference.

      4. You’re getting ahead of me on the comb honey thing. I like to let the bees raise their own queen, but if I’m going for the really early flows, like maple, I’ve got to go with whatever queen I have. Usually, though, they don’t swarm yet because it’s too early for drones. Judgement call. The theory and the ideal conditions are often very different from reality. I’m trying to go through the ideal set-up, then I will go back and take a stab at reality.

      • Rusty,

        Hrrmmm… Maple Honey = Holy Grail? I’ve heard that but as yet am in the unwashed masses of the yet-to-be enlightened with the touch of such to the tongue. Maybe this year?

        That dish is the only one like it that I’ve ever seen, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if it wasn’t made for the job. It could just have well been ‘coinkydink’.

        🙂 Sorry to ‘anticipate’ the Section Series. Although, to my credit, I did hold out for whole days! (Kinda like a kid holding out for everyone to wake up on Xmas morning?)

        That said, I was cruising the weather almanac for my neighborhood on weatherunderground with particular interest in the *average* weekly high and low temperatures with the eye toward queens and hive working.

        My ‘rule of druthers’ is to stay out of the hive under 50-deg. At 50 plus, sliding the quilt over to check winter feed is about it, quick and not very intrusive. At 60 I’ll look a little deeper, but I’m really trying to not expose brood frames to temps much under 70. (It also sticks in my head that somewhere there’s a link to 70 degrees and queen raising, but I’ll be dipped if I can point to it in any of my books or ‘net references.) I’ll just mention that to see if it rings a bell?

        Oh.. and really. Please DO stab reality, it’s driving me nuts! 🙂

        Kent WA

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