When the sun slants golden through the barren trees and the north wind shivers the browning reeds, I begin thinking of honeycomb. I dream of next year’s harvest, the neatly packed cells oozing to the press of my knife. Nothing brings me closer to my bees than nature’s perfect fast food—preserved, packaged, portion controlled, and ready to eat.
As magical as comb honey is, many beekeepers think it’s difficult to produce. Many believe it’s an “advanced” skill, available only to those with years of experience. But I disagree. Anyone with bees can make comb honey; after all, the bees do the tricky parts.
Today, we have more equipment choices than ever. You can make comb honey in squares or rounds, in wood or plastic, in big chunks or small. You can make comb honey in standard frames or mason jars. And now, thanks to a happy mistake, my favorite shape is free-form. Honeycombs with undulating arcs that nest within each other are edible art. A curved wall built of hexagons seems mathematically impossible, but honey bees do it with ease.
Small colonies can produce comb honey
For years I read everything I could about comb honey production. Most articles were aimed at commercial beekeepers trying to make a living with comb honey. Some of the suggested routines were onerous and required lots of equipment and colony disruption. But if you would like to make a super of comb honey for yourself and your friends, you can easily do so with little effort, minimal equipment, and only modest colony disturbance.
In recent years my beekeeping practice has been influenced by those who believe small colonies fare better against some parasites and pathogens, and I have gradually switched to single-deep hives. Since the conventional wisdom states that one large colony will produce more honey than two small ones, I was fully prepared for a loss in comb honey output.
This past season was my first running single deeps exclusively, and I was in no way prepared for the results. I spent the spring scrambling for more honey supers. It seemed I never had enough, and my bees just kept cranking out more honeycomb—lightly flaxen with snow-white cappings. In the end, I averaged three times as much per hive as usual, even though I lost the entire crop from one hive to a queen who moved into the supers.
Of course, one year’s results doesn’t mean much; it could simply be an anomaly. But I wonder if the rule “bigger colonies make more honey” may have been truer in the days before Varroa destructor, rampant viruses, Nosema ceranae, and small hive beetles. Regardless of colony size, vigorous bees will produce more honey. If larger colonies have disproportionate mite or viral loads, they may be at a disadvantage. I don’t know the answer, but it’s a possibility.
Comb honey equipment options
The first thing a beekeeper must decide is where he wants the bees to put the harvestable combs. I’ve gone full circle with comb honey supers. I started with cut comb, then went to Kelley squares, Ross Rounds, then to a homemade system of four squares that fit in a shallow frame. After that I went to the Eco Bee Box, mason jars, and now I’m back to cut comb.
Cut comb is the easiest to produce. You simply cut the comb from a frame, drain it, and place the pieces in a container. You can let the container determine the size of the pieces or use a variety of containers that suit the shape of the comb. Because honey bees build as they see fit, the artistry of the comb should be visible. Having perfectly square or precisely cut pieces is not the point, rather we should showcase what the bees have created.
Kelley sections are a lot of work to assemble, but they make a fun wintertime project. I find bending the basswood section boxes to be more art than science, and it becomes a game to see how many I can fold without breaking one. I like the scent of the wooden boxes, and the basswood and honey combination is a rich, earthy experience. Plus, a wooden section in a cardboard box makes a nice presentation for sale or for gifts.
Ross Rounds are easy to assemble, easy for the bees to fill, and make a sanitary-looking package. Filled Ross Rounds make perfect gifts because they look clean and neat. I often give them to first-timers—people who have never tried comb honey before. I tape my instructions, “How to Eat Comb Honey” to the top of each plastic box. Considering the woeful state of the modern diet, it’s amazing how skittish people can be about food they don’t recognize. Without some direction, first-timers will often store the box of comb in the cupboard for years before it gets tossed in the trash. A few serving tips seems to help a lot.
Other super choices
Of all the honey supers available, I am most surprised by the one made by Eco Bee Box. Whereas other supers often result in empty or partially-complete outer frames, all 26 frames of the Eco Bee Box fill every time.
The reason for the filled frames is related to their orientation. The Eco Bee Box frames are arranged in two columns that run perpendicular to the brood box frames. For the sake of clarity, imagine that most of your bees are on the middle four frames of your brood box. When you add the Eco Bee Box, a portion of each small frame is directly above your four heavily-populated brood frames. The bees move straight up and begin building in each and every one. Once they begin work, the comb expands to fill the frame. In a normal super where the frames are running parallel to the brood frames, the outer frames are often ignored.
Another comb honey option is the Hogg Half-Comb Cassette, in which the bees build literally half a comb—one side only with no midrib. With no midrib or foundation, the comb has no “chewy” portion. The different styles of honey super come with pros and cons, but with all the choices available, a beekeeper should be able to find one that’s appealing.
Don’t waste those free-form pieces
My latest rendition of comb honey happened quite by accident. A swarm of bees moved into an empty brood box. Once I discovered them, I added all the customary hive parts plus a used candy board for them to finish. The candy board, made of a three-inch eke and a queen excluder, was nearly empty, containing only crumbs.
In true distracted-beekeeper fashion, I walked away from this new colony and forgot about it. Weeks later when I finally checked on them, I found a gorgeous structure inside the eke. The curved combs resembled a geologic formation of mesas and canyons, all white and pristine and filled with molten honey. Using dental floss to sever the attachments, I was able to recover 12 pounds of free-form comb with little damage. I cut it into chunks, drained them on a rack, and packaged them in clear plastic clam shells. Their artistry—curves and arcs and valleys—only added to the appeal. And the best part? No foundation, not even starter strips.
The comb honey in the eke simply illustrates that you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment or dozens of years of experience. Honey bees are hard-wired to build comb, so when a beekeeper asks, “How do I make my bees build comb honey?” I explain, “You don’t make them, you let them.” Given the right conditions, they will build honeycomb in any kind of super you provide.
The secret to tender comb honey
Whenever someone says that eating comb honey is like chewing gum, I cringe. When you eat comb honey, “gum” should be the furthest thing from your mind. The wax should disappear like ice cream, leaving no trace. So even though eating comb honey is all about eating the comb, you want to minimize its impact. The wax needs to be impossibly thin, ethereal, barely noticed.
If you let your bees make the comb, they will do this automatically. If you “make” your bees build comb by supplying foundation and establishing rules, you are more apt to get a thick and chewy midrib. Your bees want to get on with it without reading specs or deciphering your intent, so make it simple. We need to let go of the idea that all corners need to be straight and all sides parallel.
Regardless of the tenderness of your comb, remember that comb honey should always be paired with another food, such as crackers, cheese, salad, or bread. When eaten in combination, the wax mixes with the other food and prevents the formation of chewing gum.
My comb honey work flow
To make delectable honeycomb, you need healthy colonies that are moderately crowded. Your bees need a strong nectar flow and convenient access to their honey supers. The furious pace of spring nectar collection yields comb that is light and thin without propolis-reinforced edges. In preparation for the nectar flow, I do not cut queen cells, re-queen, rearrange brood boxes, or provide foundation.
I get the best results by using a single deep hive with a queen excluder, a honey super with an upper entrance, and a screened inner cover for good ventilation. The upper entrance gives the foragers quick access to the honey supers without having to go through the brood nest or the queen excluder. The foragers simply fly in, hand over their nectar to house bees, and leave. I’ve also noticed reduced travel stain when I’m using an upper entrance, possibly because the pollen carriers tend to use the main entrance which is closer to the brood nest.
Once a honey super is about 80% full, I add another super with another entrance hole. Any of the supers described above will work, but I load them with starter strips only—never full sheets of foundation.
When the main flow begins to ebb, I plug the entrance holes and place a medium box and an escape board directly above the queen excluder, and then replace the supers. The medium super gives the bees a place to go and a place to store honey. In a day or two, after the bees move down, I remove the honey supers and freeze the frames overnight to kill any wax moths.
Removing the comb honey supers a bit early in the season gives the bees plenty of time to store honey for the winter. Even so, I always reserve some frames in case a colony needs a supplement. Since I prefer not to feed my bees sugar syrup, I like to keep a back-up supply of honey for winter.
Swarms are inevitable
Since the best comb honey is made by crowded bees, swarming is always an issue. But researchers, including Thomas Seeley, tell us that frequent swarming is one of the best controls for Varroa mites, so I think of swarming as a good thing. If a swarm issues from one of my comb honey hives during the major flow, I do nothing. The bees will raise a new queen without my help so there is no need to interfere with nectar gathering. I will see how they did once the supers come off.
In practice, I surround my apiary with bait hives and I’m able to recover most swarms. If I put a fresh swarm in a small brood box—say a medium—and add an excluder and honey super, I can often get comb honey within a few weeks. Later, though, that colony will need help getting through the winter, or it may need to be combined with another colony. Each case is different.
Swarms from single deeps are much smaller than swarms from multi-box colonies. Although either may lose up to 70% of its adult population, the small swarm is less intimidating to neighbors and passersby. Still, if you live in an area where swarms are a problem, comb honey may not be a good fit.
A word about mind games
Using this system, I rarely find a colony that refuses to pass the queen excluder. If you open your hive and find bees giving you side-eye instead of comb honey, it usually means the colony isn’t strong enough to build upstairs. Give them more time or remove the comb honey super and provide a regular super instead. Don’t try to trick your bees into something they don’t want to do.
As I general rule, forcing bees to do something is counterproductive, and playing mind games with bees is one of the worst things you can do for your emotional health. In the end, you will lose. Worse, once you start comparing brain efficiency—yours against theirs—you risk a fractured ego. Instead, try to work with your bees. Don’t dictate, just suggest. And remember that comb honey should be simple and fun.
Honey Bee Suite