Would you take all your crayons—crimson, daffodil, indigo, grass, bubblegum—and melt them together in order to make one dingy brown crayon instead? Would you take all your favorite varietal grapes, perhaps sauvignon blanc, merlot, malbec, viognier, and gewurztraminer, and mash them together in a vat to produce something less compelling? Would you take your favorite marmalade and mix it with strawberry jam, grape jelly, and lingonberry preserves in order to attenuate the flavor of each?
Of course not. What a blasphemous idea. You think I’m nuts for suggesting such a thing. But most beekeepers do something far worse: they take all the discrete nectars the bees worked so hard to contain in little protective portion cups and mix them together so the whole batch tastes the same. Your bees did all that hard work so you could muck it up, blending it into that well-known flavor called grocery store honey. You took a valuable product—a unique blend of flavors and aromas that came together at a particular point in time and space—and trashed it. After all, why have more when you can have less?
Why produce commercial-grade honey?
The why is the part I still can’t answer. I started this website in part to answer that question, but nearly a decade later, I haven’t come close. On one hand, I can certainly understand why a commercial beekeeper would extract. The commercial guys run big operations, they need to do things in an economically prudent way, and they need to pay the bills. Things like extractors were designed for big operations, and they allow huge crops of honey to be sold, stored, and shipped in ginormous barrels which can later be turned into breakfast cereal and barbecue sauce. I get it.
But why would a backyard beekeeper try to emulate the flavor of industrial honey? When we bake at home, we don’t try to copy the flavor of Wonder Bread. When we squeeze our own oranges we don’t aim for the flavor of Minute Maid. We don’t try to make home brew that tastes like Coors or burgers that taste like MacDonald’s. So why, oh why, do we try to dumb down the taste of our honey?
Yes, I’m repeating myself here. I’ve written about this phenomenon extensively in the past, but I still can’t get over it. I can’t wrap my mind around the idea that every two-bit backyard beekeeping operation has an extractor. Nothing horrifies me more than the idea of an industrial-commercial process that lowers the quality of honey, a machine that takes all the bright notes, the flavor highs, the unexpected explosions of nectar bliss and melds them into something ordinary and bland.
The marvel of bees and perfect honey
To me, beekeeping comprises two marvels: the bees and the honey. We are well-attuned to the bees, but I think we overlook the incredible range of flavor, color, and aroma that can occur within a single comb of honey. Cutting into a comb—breaking open pristine cells that have never been exposed to air—is a different experience every day. We overlook the wonder of honey, I think, because we seldom experience it. We accept the mundane mixture. But extracted honey is processed food which can never hold a candle to the real thing.
I find irony in the level of care people lavish upon their bees compared to the care they give the honey those bees produce. Beekeepers will do anything—and pay any amount—to keep their bees happy and healthy, and then process the life out of their honey, manhandling, uncapping, spinning, aerating, straining, warming, bottling—process after process after process. To me it’s the greatest disconnect in the entire world of beekeeping.
Go ahead and make some
So, if you’ve read this far, I urge you once again to make at least one super of comb honey for yourself and your friends. Let the bees make it without foundation while the nectar is flowing fast. Harried bees build thin-walled cells of white wax without propolis-reinforced edges. If you don’t have an extra super, just give them a shallow eke to fill with convoluted comb. It will be the best honey you ever tasted, bar none.
If all my preaching yields but one convert, I will have succeeded in my quest. And by the way, if you decide to make extra, there is a huge untapped market out there for comb honey. Not a day goes by when people don’t write to ask where they can buy comb honey in their area. They often explain that their local beekeeper doesn’t produce it. How sad is that?
Honey Bee Suite
You make a great case for the Flow Hive! I know it’s in a different league to comb honey but the flow frames allow you to harvest one at a time. The honey is never exposed to air like it is in an extractor. You get honey straight from the cell into the jar.
I know there are a lot of Flow Hive haters out there including many at my local Marin Beekeepers club. I find the flow hive system is a fantastic complement to my otherwise traditional Langstroth equipment.
Rusty I agree with everything you say but I do not see the public clamouring for comb honey. Maybe it takes time to get the word out but moving comb honey is a slow venture here in Victoria BC. One thing I have tried is making single frame extractions. It’s time consuming but you get much better seasonal separation and the jars show the variance in colour and clarity. In the mean time I continue to offer both types of honey. Thanks for all the work and support.
I agree about the public, but you should see what happens when I set up a “try-it” station at some kind of event. I offer a little chunk on a salted cracker, which produces a huge crowd and the comb honey is wiped out in no time. The public needs encouragement for sure, but not much.
I somewhat tend to agree. I like comb honey. Most of what I eat is comb honey, as well, cut comb. So here it goes, I extract because:
1) I need combs for my “operation.” First super in the spring, is combs if I have them, to get the bees up there quicker. Also when doing splits, hiving packages or hiving swarms the comb gets them going faster.
2) Many of my customers “want” liquid honey, they have been using the extracted and are actually very happy with it and claim, my honey and store bought are not even close in taste. So yes comb is the best but extracted is better than most store honey.
3) I need to sell some honey to offset the cost of woodenware, paint, gas, packages, nucs, etc. My little 2 frame extractor can extract 10 medium supers in one longish day. Buy putting in 6 combs and 3 foundation, in each super, I can grow my comb count 50% per year if necessary.
4) Some times I get some deep frames, honey bound where 5 or 6 frames of a deep are full of honey, too early to leave them on. After saving some for spring feeding, and late swarms, and late splits, I extract the rest. Using the empty comb as mentioned above.
I used to cut, smash, strain, it worked but having combs is very nice when trying to make increase or add an extra brood box for triples or 2 queen setups, or late swarms.
So in summary extraction is operationally expedient for me.
I’m an old former beekeeper that got lured back into beekeeping with the invention of the Flow Hive. Back in the 70’s I had a number of hives, extracted high stacks of supers every year, and sold honey commercially to a grocery store chain. I HATED robbing and extracting – hot, incredibly messy and sticky, plenty of dead bees = miserable. Never wanting to rob and extract again, I left beekeeping.
Then I discovered the Flow hive. I now have a number of hives. With Flow, you can see the different honey colors in the different frames and only drain the honey color you want. Thus, you can identify and harvest the different honeys separately from the same hive.
The best part is that the bees never even knew they were robbed. They are walking around happily on the same frame that you’re draining. No hot, sticky honey house, no messy uncapping, no dead bees. The honey goes straight into the jar with no processing, spinning, heating, filtering, etc. It is truly RAW honey and it is delicious! So…. I’m a beekeeper, again.
This thread is beginning to sound like an advertisement for the Flow Hive. I’ve had to concede, since my original diatribes way back when, that a Flow Hive eliminates a lot about extractors I don’t like. However, I still crave the texture of comb honey, as well as the flavor and aroma of newly-minted thin and flaky beeswax, let alone the beauty of it. I love nothing more than to look at comb honey. Still, if there is going to me a middle ground, the Flow Hive might be it. A lot of beekeepers really like them, so that has to go in their favor.
I completely agree with the love for comb honey. I love to eat it, but have never ventured there in my beekeeping. However, I might sometime. My comment on the Flow Hive is in response to your great point about mixing the honeys. It is so wonderful to enjoy the unique flavors from different flows and I just wanted to suggest that pure honey harvesting is available now with this invention.
And that, like I said, is why I’ve had to change my attitude toward the Flow Hive.
…..”If all my preaching yields but one convert, I will have succeeded in my quest.”…. Consider your quest a success Rusty, I am a convert. I am attempting pure comb honey this year!
I’m also on the same wavelength re the blending debacle. I have always extracted each individual hive early and late season and labelled the jars as such. Then in February when tasting a jar of ‘Hive 3 June 2017’ it takes me right back to the time, care and activity around that colony. The full circle. Bliss!!
Yeah! I got one!
I am going to try it too. I never even heard of comb honey until I stumbled across one of Rusty’s articles about it. Now I can hardly wait to try it out.
Got me too. I’m putting my first comb honey super on soon.
I’m using the thin comb honey foundation because the local guys use it. I may try your starter strips too. Hope for the best.
I used to use thin foundation for comb honey, but once I tried starter strips, I couldn’t go back. The thin foundation is much thicker than what the bees build. However, I do use thin foundation for starter strips. I just cut it into strips with a rotary cutter
Why don’t you do a column on the Flow Hive, “interviewing” by email these beekeepers who have them?
I really would like to hear the math – are they worth the money? the time saved, vs conventional Lang supers and extraction? and why they keep calling it a “hive”?
Your comment made me laugh because just yesterday I was still wondering why they call it a hive. I think that many people would not have been so against the idea if they (the marketers) had made it clear in the beginning. Honestly, when I “figured out” a Flow Hive was a Langstroth hive with a self-extracting super, I was like, “Well why didn’t anyone just say so?” Instead of selling self-extracting honey supers, they have this huge business selling regular old Langstroth hives. It is such a weird business model, but it’s worked for them.
I just bought a square comb cutter yesterday from a lady decided to step away from beekeeping! I can’t wait! I’ve never had comb honey myself. I wasn’t sure if there would be a market for it or not. I bought some bottles too, but wondered if it would be better to extract each super by itself. Would each super mostly be of from the same plants?
That will depend on local conditions, how heavy the flow is, how many bees, etc. I think normally you will get a number of different nectars within a super. Sometimes you can see the color shift, sometimes not.
Rusty, you must be getting goose bumps looking @ this video. Not only from different flowers but from many beekeepers from many countries “blended”, India, Thailand and a shot Canadian honey for the “right” flavour.
Rotten. Episode 1 of 6 Lawyers guns and honey
while the whole video is almost like a crime novel, relevant to the topic on hand, mixing, is from 7′ to 11′.
Only Part I deals with honey. Yet the other parts are equally disturbing.
Every two bit backyard beekeeping venture has an extractor, just like they have a huge plethora of unneeded hiveware, because of clever marketing. Varietal honey is one of the many pleasures of New Zealand honeys and even commercial keepers are well aware of the market and the added value at sale if they are careful enough to exploit each differing nectar flow. Heck, our Manuka industry depends on it!
Well, add two more ‘converts’, as we are trying it this year as well. Already put the shallows on to see what the bees will do ! Go Bees !!
I put on shallows with starter strips two weeks ago, and two of those supers are nearly capped. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a crop in May before.
I started my beekeeping with the FlowHive, I have noticed the unique flavors in the frames. Even in a single Flow frame there can be many different flavors if harvested in sections.
The FlowHive is why I got into beekeeping due to the ease of extracting honey without the mess. My fellow beekeepers were against the FlowHive, they were persistent it would not work in my area. Early this year they tried the honey I harvested and they said it was really good.
As Rusty has mentioned before the FlowHive is just another extraction built in super, you need to care for the bees the same way as normal beekeeping.
Cut comb honey is craved by our customers who also love our extracted liquid gold!
We experimented with cut comb last season and the results have prompted us to go large this season; however we are trying Michael Palmer’s cut comb method as shown in great detail in his utube video. Need the ‘see’ more of Flow Hive in person before trying that approach…
You mentioned in another post to get a bee biology book. Which one would you suggest?
Honey Maker: How the Honey Bee Worker Does What She Does. 2012. R. L. Mattingly. Beargrass Press. Excellent combination of anatomy and function. Although the book stresses worker bees, the others are covered as well.
As I was reading your post, I feel like such a heal for extracting our honey and bottling all the different aromas, flowers and flavors the past 3 years! Mostly out of ignorance of the subject…. So I gratefully and humbly thank you for educating me! It was the best advice!
So, add me to your growing list of converts!
Your past posts have convinced me to put in more foundationless frames this year. This year I’m alternating foundation/foundationless frames in my honey supers to give it a try. So I’ll end up with a whole frame of comb…how do you suggest I store it?
I usually cut the comb into squares, drain it on a cooling rack, and then put the pieces in small plastic (or glass) containers.
Rusty — THANK YOU!!!
As I child, I would follow my Grandfather to his beehives. His (bee’s) honey was always in the comb – that is what I understood honey to be – not processed or extracted, but in the comb.
I recently had the opportunity to start my own beehive. As a new beekeeper, I certainly had a lot to learn, but was puzzled to see the hive set-up with frames and foundation that did not produce H-i-t-C.
Rusty – you have ignited my desire to change my hive system to allow the bees to make Honey-in the-Comb!
Consider me Converted!
Nina – Longmont, Colorado
Why would anyone want to produce commercial grade honey?
I would suggest that it’s partially due to what I’ve come to think of as “the McDonald’s Effect.”
A lot of people will go eat at fast food joints because they know what to expect. Even if their expectation is a meal that sucks and isn’t very healthy. It’s still familiar to them. I think it may well be the same with honey.
Ha Rusty I have comb honey frames in my hives as we speak. I watched videos on the u tube they say u have to freeze the comb because of bugs, please tell me the process u do for the comb honey what is a cooling rack please do not assume I understand the terms -words u use. Thanks so much I just hope they produce comb for me this year I have tryed and tryed for the last 3 years with no success of anything. thanks
the breed of bees varies as well I have russian carnies and itatians the russians make wet cappings and I got a little honey from them last year. the itatians they ate it all, and I had to feed them and they were strong,to and the carnies is the first year for them so I can not say what they do, yet I have 1 hive that has some honey in it but not capped yet. I have 26 hives and they are all over the place and I also moved from where I was thanks and have a great day
There is a photo of a cooling rack in this post: How to cut comb honey. And this post on freezing combs explains how to do it.
Rusty I have 1 question for u u have been a bee keeper for years the 1 hive that has honey in it they hive is very tall it floods here and i am having a hard time lifting the honey suppers up so high what would happen if the brood was on top and the suppers on the bottom would that hurt any thing thanks
If the honey supers were on the bottom, you would have to lift the brood boxes off the top instead of the honey supers. I can’t imagine it would help with lifting, and I doubt it would aid honey production.
Thank you so much for your informative web site! I would like to try this idea and have an empty shallow (4 3/4″ tall) 10 frame super I can place on the top of my hive. Do I just install this empty super on top and let the bees take over? What are starter strips you mentioned above and where can I purchase them? Would you place these starter strips in the super like you would a frame? Thanks again!
I use a queen excluder and put the shallow super above the uppermost brood box. To make starter strips I take a sheet of foundation and cut it in strips the long way. I make each strip about 3/4- to 1-inch wide. I put the starter strips in the top of the frame, and use melted wax to cement them in place. Or else I use wedged top bars to keep them in place.
Just yesterday I saw a table at a farmers market selling 6×6 inch sections of cut comb for $25 each. People were buying it too. Last year I did a mix of comb and crushed/strained honey since I only produce enough for personal use and gifts, but this year I think I’m going to have to start selling cut comb.
You should! I keep telling beekeepers, there is a huge market for cut comb. People will buy it who didn’t even know they wanted it until they saw it.
I just did a presentation for about 20 kids and their parents. I brought a container of honey and minced cappings, and mini spoons for tasting. I asked each kid or parent if they wanted their sample “with comb or without.” Except for one young person, everyone wanted to try “with” comb!
Maybe selling comb honey is helped by suggesting ways to serve, to maximize a crunchy-chewy-sweet-buttery taste explosion. The goal being to hit a symphonic chord of taste buds, without overpowering the fragrance of the honey:
1. minced and drizzled over coarsely-chopped walnut and cardamom orange-zest baklava (includes a little crisp of Phyllo pastry and a little bitterness of walnuts to balance the honey).
2. classic British “bees on toast” using Dave’s Good Seed Bread, salted organic butter, and sliced organic strawberries. Served best with black tea and cream.
3. Comb honey with chopped toasted hazelnuts in a salsa with mango/papaya/canteloupe, over a piquant arugula-green leaf salad
4. Warmed and softened, served with a sprinkling of roasted pine nuts, over a light whitefish dipped in coconut flour and panfried in grapeseed oil to a crisp edge. Suggested sides: fennel sauteed in white wine & key lime spritzer.
5. “Land of milk and honey” – whipped organic plain full-fat Greek yogurt, topped with comb honey and whole ripe raspberries
The chewiness of the comb makes each yummy bite last a little longer 😉
That is exactly why I include instructions with my comb honey!
I agree. I will not pull Palmetto honey frames and spin them with yaupon holly honey frames. I try to keep the two separated as much as possible. On frames with mixed, I use scoop. The same goes for goldenrod honey if I decide to harvest (I usually leave for bees). My mom and quite a few other people I know actually DISLIKED honey until I got into the bee business. Now, they are my loyal customers.