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