Inside: How sneaking a taste of honey from your first hive can help your bees in the long run.
Table of contents
The two types of new beekeepers
I see two types of first-year beekeepers: those who harvest everything and those who harvest nothing. Each group cannot understand the other.
Over-harvesting can be fatal. When colonies don’t have enough food, they can starve or freeze to death. But it’s not just about quantity. Bees can become weak and suffer from nutrient deficiencies if they rely solely on sugar syrup for long periods. And the absence of real honey can even mess with the gut microbes that keep bees healthy.
We still have much to learn about the complex science of bee nutrition. But one thing we know for sure is honey and pollen play a vital role in the bees’ evolutionary diet. These natural foods keep them healthy.
Given the perils of removing too much honey, why do I think beekeepers should taste their honey as soon as possible? Well, that’s complex, too. And it’s not even about bees: it’s about the psychology of the beekeeper.
Familiar arguments from both sides
Those who over-harvest frequently mention financial reasons. They poured tons of money into their beekeeping project and they need to make it back right now. Perhaps they don’t realize that allowing colonies to get established can lead to greater honey yields later.
The usual excuse is that their bees made so much honey the first year, they simply had no choice but to harvest it. I’m sure that happens from time to time. But more often, those people end up needing to feed sugar syrup during the winter dearth, something I see as a sign of taking too much. But that’s a discussion for another time. Today I want to address the under-harvesters.
Meet the under-takers who never taste their honey
I encounter the under-harvesters (under-takers?) at least as often as the over-harvesters. These folks become unglued when I suggest they should taste their honey. “No!” they say. “My mentor said I should not extract in the first year! Never! I don’t want to kill my bees!”
But who said anything about extraction? I said, “Taste your honey.” Way different. But here’s the thing: I can no more get these people to taste their honey than I can get the others to delay harvesting. So here I will try again.
Why I believe you should taste your honey today
Let me start by explaining that nothing on earth is more sublime than warm honey from the hive. When nothing comes between you and that honey—no utensils, no time, no distance from the bees—you will experience pure bliss.
Yes, it’s a taste of freshness and sunshine few people will ever experience, but it’s more than that. The floral flavors combine with the aroma of beehive and the swampy warmth of bee bodies. It’s enhanced by the bee-propelled zephyr on your face, the churning purr of wings, and the slightly jarring fear of being stung. Taken together, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime exposure.
You cannot replicate this experience with a jar of extracted honey. You cannot duplicate the sensation inside your house or fifty feet from the hive. No, the total immersive thing happens right there in stingsville. This is non-negotiable: you absolutely must try it.
How? Well, the next time you’re inspecting a hive and accidentally tear open a few cells, stick your finger in the gooey mess and lick it clean. If scraping burr comb springs a leak, go for it. If you separate two brood boxes and cause a drip, get it quick. “Harvesting” is not part of this. It’s more like opportunistic foraging—the thing my dog does when he finds a fragrant carcass.
Don’t keep bees from a distance
I have known many beekeepers who, despite refusing even the tiniest taste, have lost all their bees and all their honey during the first winter. Lots of these give up, becoming part of the 80% who quit in their first two years.
Of course, those who taste their honey also have losses. But those cherished moments when the warm, oozy sweetness hits the tongue will keep them from quitting. The tasters (in my unofficial opinion) are more likely to try again next year.
The sheer sensory overload will compel the tasters to become better, more informed, more educated beekeepers. They will read more and study harder. In the end, they will become skilled beekeepers. Why? Because they know what’s truly at stake.
The call of that piquant sample can lure you on a mission to do everything possible for your bees. Everything.
And that is why I believe stealing a taste of honey early on is the very best thing you can do for the long-term health of your colonies. It’s the critical moment when you form a honey-producing partnership with your bees and an unbreakable bond with nature.
So go ahead. Do your bees a favor and steal a taste of their honey today.
Honey Bee Suite
This resonates so much. I still remember that time I had a small pail of nectar/honey-filled burr comb (for reasons possibly related to bad beekeeping–shh). I did walk away from my hives before tasting it, but still within sight and sound. And by “tasting it” I mean shoving great bites of pure golden summertime into my mouth. Best Honey EVER.
I’m happy to hear you did that.
All I can say is: This is sooo 100% true! While reading this post on sampling the honey I realized how much this applies to ME.
We did steal a taste (but did not harvest) our first year. Our 6 year old daughter was delighted. We also had a little extra wax from cleaning during an inspection (burr comb) and made a small candle (filtered through cheesecloth multiple times). When I scraped propolis, my daughter loves to chew it like gum. So we have enjoyed a few tiny morsels from the hive, which was fun for us and harmless to the bees. I guess you could say we were enthusiastic about the products they create. We even brought some problems to our homeschool group for the children to touch and smell.
We installed the nuc in May last year and I didn’t feed much sugar syrup, only fed for a week or two. Maybe it was wrong, but when I saw the bees coming home loaded with pollen and presumably nectar, I felt safe to stop feeding. (The hive is where where we can observe them frequently through the day). At last autumn inspection, they didn’t have much to spare, but goldenrod blooms a long time and they must’ve made good on it because they survived winter with big stores of honey. We’ll split the hive this weekend as they fill 2 deeps. We look forward to our second year with the bees. Our daughter loves them and is fearless around them! She picks them up in her hand if she finds them drowning in our water fountain. We keep stones for them but sometimes one falls in.
Sounds like you’re doing great. I always stop feeding syrup when I see the bees bringing in nectar. I figure, if there’s natural food available, that’s what they should be eating. As you can see, it worked perfectly for you.
This post is one of the many reasons that I still read your blog even though I had to (hopefully temporarily) give up beekeeping. The greatest scientists see the poetry in their study. You are one of the few I have come across who are able to also express it in words. Good science is not incompatible with good literature. Thank you for another delightful article.
What a kind compliment! Thank you so much.
This is probably an insane question, but here I go.
I used a plastic pail back in March, 2 gallons, to put a little heating oil into my oil tank (had to get air out of my line, pumped a super small amount of oil into the pail) for my house. I left this out, with a light coating of oil on the bottom of the pail. It’s been rained on/in since March, multiple times, so much so that that the pail was 3/4 full. Just dumped it this morning.
Crazy thought entered my mind: have the bees I installed 10 days ago been drinking from this pail?
The bees have been on sugar water since the day after they were installed.
Are my bees ok? I mean, I think they are, they all seem good.
I would not worry about this at all. You would not believe the number of things out there that bees can get into, but the vast majority of bees don’t bother with them. Most likely, the odor would be an instant turn-off for them (even if you can’t smell it they can). You don’t say where you live, so I can’t guess about the general availability of water, but if you didn’t see any drowned bees in it, probably no bees drank from it. If a pail is 3/4 full of liquid, there would be no place for bees to stand and they would drown.
Just forget about this incident except for remembering not to leave pails of stuff around now that you have bees.
I guess I am concerned about contamination for the sake of the bees health and for the sake of eating honey for humans. Is there any validity to these concerns?
Even if they drank some, which I don’t think they did, it is unlikely that any would get into the honey.
You made me smile. You remind me of a new “dad” the first time the baby sticks some inedible object in its mouth! I don’t mean that in a critical way; I think it’s kinda cute.
Thanks Rusty! I’ll take the compliment!
I live about a mile from a huge swamp, in central CT, near the river.
Believe it or not, this is my 6th year beekeeping, but I skipped last year and am lacking confidence for some reason.
How timely! I got my first nucs last weekend and did my first inspection yesterday. One hive had lots of honey-filled burr comb, so I brought my scrapings back inside. My five year old quite enjoyed crushing it to strain honey and wants to make a candle with the wax!
I wasn’t planning on being able to harvest honey this year, but it was nice to get a taste anyway!
Maybe next time I’ll try to brave taking my veil off to taste it there at the hive 😅
The times I’ve smeared honey on my veil, forgetting it’s in the way of a taste of warm honey…
Yes, I’ve done that, too!