honey production

When can I harvest honey from a new hive?

Don't harvest honey from a new hive unless the bees have enough to overwinter.

Don’t be tempted to harvest honey from a new colony too soon. Setting up a household is a lot of work for honey bees, and they need plenty of food energy to do it.

Oh, the temptation! Once you get your very first colony of bees, you just can’t wait to harvest honey from your new hive. Who wouldn’t be excited?

A new colony is as tender as a newborn

A new colony of honey bees, especially one living in a newly constructed hive, needs to be nurtured like a puppy. A new colony cannot provide you with excess honey any more than a baby chick can give you eggs or a baby goat can give you milk.

Treat your fledgling colony like any other youngster: protected it from danger, kept it warm, and feed it lots of food. If all goes well and the colony thrives and grows, there will be plenty of time for harvesting plenty of sparkling, ethereal honey in subsequent years.

We need to take care of them before they can take care of us

That new puppy of yours needs to be kept warm and fed a special diet. You don’t expect a young whelp to act like a full-grown dog, roll over on command, or guard the house. Likewise, you can’t expect much from your nascent colony of honey bees. It needs to devote all its time and energy to growing, building strength, and preparing for winter.

Regardless of whether your colony came from a nuc or a package, a split or a swarm, it is still green and untested. Most new colonies get a late start, having come from overwintered colonies that were strong enough to divide. The resulting colonies will barely have enough time to get up to speed before winter even with beekeeper help, let alone beekeeper harvests.

New colonies start life with few resources

Imagine setting up a new home when neither you nor your partner owns much besides the clothes on your backs. You rent an empty apartment with no furniture, no curtains, and barely enough food to make it through the day. It’s a tough way to start a life together (speaking from experience here).

Your new bees have the same situation. A package or swarm will have few resources, just some empty frames and maybe some manufactured foundation (or not). A nuc or a split may have a few frames of comb and some brood. But in any case, these new colonies need to increase their populations so they have enough workers to raise even more bees, build combs to raise brood and store food, and collect nectar, pollen, water, and plant resins.

All these chores require massive amounts of energy in the form of nectar and honey. By the beginning of summer, just when they start to have measurable amounts of honey stored, the summer dearth may hit. They need to eat all the food they just stored just to stay alive, and they are back to square one on winter food storage.

Honey bee activities that require lots of energy

A honey bee burns massive amounts of fuel every day regardless of what she is doing. Jobs requiring lots of food include:

  • Building comb
  • Feeding brood
  • Defending the hive
  • Cleaning the hive
  • Undertaking duty
  • Scouting for flowers
  • Foraging for nectar, pollen, water, and resins
  • Drying nectar
  • Keeping the nest warm
  • Intimidating beekeepers

Because of all their energy requirements, a colony may not have enough food for optimum growth even if you don’t harvest honey from your new hive. In that first year, they need the food much more than you do.

Why honey bees may not collect sufficient food supplies

Many environmental problems can prevent a colony of bees from collecting enough food. Here are some common issues that nearly every colony faces:

  • Bad weather: Inclement weather in the form of rain, wind, and cold may keep bees inside. Honey bees know these conditions are dangerous, so they stay home even if masses of flowers are in bloom.

  • The wrong flowers are blooming: Just because you see flowers doesn’t mean honey bees will visit them. Some flowers have the wrong shape, color, or odor to attract honey bees.

  • A small workforce: A young colony may not have enough workers to do all the work. Many bees are needed for other jobs such as brood rearing, comb building, defense, and pollen collection. This can create a lack of foragers to collect nectar.

Many new beekeepers blame the queen for a lack of honey, but no queen can overcome these four common problems. Even a prolific queen can not correct a small workforce because, with no nectar coming in, the bees won’t be able to nurture the brood. Queens work hard, but they are not magicians.

A beekeeper’s job is to help the youngsters

It’s hard to imagine just how much fuel (in the form of sugar) a growing colony needs. But without a stockpile of food, or without combs in which to store honey and raise brood, a colony cannot rest. It is way too easy for a beekeeper to underestimate how much food a growing colony will need. In short, it is unreasonable to think a new colony can prepare for its first winter and give you a honey crop.

But that doesn’t stop it from happening. I frequently hear beekeepers bragging about the huge crops of honey they harvested from a first-year hive. I’m sure some of those claims are legitimate, but more probably they are exaggerations. Don’t feel you must compete with hyped-up stories. Do what is best for your bees, not your ego.

Instead of taking their food, add more

Because it’s hard for bees to store enough food for their first winter, beekeepers often feed them sugar syrup during that first year. Many people think feeding sugar is a bad idea, labeling it as junk food because it lacks nutrients.

But decades of beekeepers from all over the world have proven that a boost of high-energy carbohydrates can grow a strong colony that will soon become robust enough to collect proper food in the form of nectar. You can think of syrup as you might think of infant formula: not as good as the real thing but certainly better than starving.

You should feed a new colony sugar syrup until the bees fully construct the brood nest, meaning perhaps two deeps or three medium boxes of wax combs. These combs are essential for colony development, providing a place for brood rearing, pollen storage, and some nectar storage.

Of course, if the colony is not interested in supplemental feed, you can stop. If they neglect the syrup and let it go moldy, just remove the feeder. You may have one of those colonies that can get by fine on its own. You’re lucky!

Look before you harvest honey from a new hive

I’m repeating myself here, but you always need to examine the entire colony for stored resources before you harvest any honey. Don’t limit your search to just the honey supers, but check each of the brood boxes. If there is no honey stored in the brood boxes and you take the honey in the supers, your bees will probably starve.

When I write about harvesting from new colonies, someone inevitably writes to say they had a huge colony that stored tons of honey and they were able to harvest and sell their first crop. All I can say is good for them. It happens.

But remember: you can’t count on it. Just be sure to check throughout the hive before you calculate how much you can harvest. In most cases, it will be little or nothing during that first year. That is perfectly normal.

Protect your new hive from other threats

In addition to providing your new hive with lots of food, you must also do all the normal things too. Don’t forget to monitor for mites, check for brood diseases, and protect the hive from environmental threats like severe weather, pesticides, and predators. Do everything you would do for a fully developed colony with the addition of plenty of feeding, if necessary.

And don’t let other insects harvest honey from your new hive, either. If necessary, protect your hive with a robbing screen. A good robbing screen will stop both yellowjackets and robbing honey bees.

Frequently Asked Questions

If I feed my bees too much syrup, won’t they stop foraging?

Honey bees are not lazy. Instead, they are hard-wired to forage for nectar, so that’s what they do. No matter how much sugar syrup you provide, they always prefer nectar if they can get it. Sugar syrup merely bridges the gaps when nectar is unavailable or unattainable.

Will my bees turn the sugar syrup into honey?

No. As talented as they are, honey bees cannot turn sugar syrup into honey. But they can evaporate most of the water from syrup and store it just like honey, which can be deceiving. But honey is made from the nectar of flowers, and sugar syrup is not.

Will sugar syrup contaminate my honey crop?

Yes, it can. This is another good reason for not harvesting honey during the first year when you are feeding lots of syrup to a growing colony. You should never feed sugar syrup to bees when your honey supers are in place because they can easily mix syrup and nectar together.

Should I use only cane sugar to feed bees?

Many beekeepers prefer to use cane sugar instead beet sugar because most beet sugar is from genetically modified plants. Genetically modified cane sugar is just beginning to be grown and, at least for now, represents only a tiny portion of the total sugar crop.

Laboratory tests have found no difference in GMO vs non-GMO sugar when eaten by bees, so many beekeepers (myself included) routinely use beet sugar. For best results, feed your bees the kind of sugar that makes you happy.

Honey Bee Suite

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  • Can we take JUST enough honey so they have energy for everything EXCEPT intimidating the beekeeper?

    Seriously, I’m not sure you said this loud enough:

    New beekeepers with bees on undrawn comb should be feeding sugar syrup AND you shouldn’t feed sugar syrup while honey supers are on the hive, because they’ll draw out the combs in the supers, and before you can take away the feeder they’ll be filling your supers with syrup and capping it. Which if someone tried to sell that as honey would be fraudulent. And if someone was just harvesting it for their own use would be … disappointing.

    • Hi Roberta,

      Yes, you are right. Thing is, I do better by addressing one issue at a time. When I try to span more than one, I get a fair number of people confused. Yes? This other post rants about feeding syrup during a nectar flow. Hopefully, if a new beekeeper makes it to the second year, we can then wean them off all that syrup we insisted on in the first year.

      Or something like that.

  • If bees fill honey supers, then that is extra honey regardless of colony age. So bees have the capability to make honey crops their first yr.

    • Greg,

      Indeed, some colonies have the strength to produce excess honey in the first year. But just because the bees fill honey supers does not mean there is enough to harvest. That’s the whole point of this post. Unfortunately, honey bees can fill honey supers without first storing anything down in the main part of the hive. This happens especially in colonies where the whole nest has migrated upwards during the fall.

      If the beekeeper harvests those supers without checking the brood boxes for honey stores, the colony will starve. I’ve seen it happen over and over when people have asked me to come over and look at their ailing colonies.

      The point is simple: look before you take. If the lower boxes are chock full of honey, then you can harvest from the honey boxes.

    • Janeen,

      It depends. If the bees have plenty of honey down in the main part of the hive, you can harvest the honey in the super (or perhaps save a couple of frames for the bees in case they need honey later on).

      If there is not enough honey in the main part of the hive to sustain the bees until spring, you can just leave the honey super in place.

  • I try to leave one super, along with the honey that’s in the hive body, for the bees to winter on.
    I also feed sugar water as long as the bees take it. Whether it’s all year or a short period, no matter the age of the hive.

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