A new beekeeper in the Midwest wrote to say that she harvested thirty pounds of honey from each of her two hives, but now her bees were taking syrup like crazy. She wondered how long she should keep feeding and if the bees would have enough stores. Then came the disturbing question:
“Why would each of my two hives make 30 pounds of honey in the shallow supers for me before they made enough for themselves?”
Okay, new beekeepers, listen up: Your bees do not distinguish between the honey they store for themselves and the honey they store for you. In fact, they don’t know it will be taken; they believe it is all for them.
I have seen new beekeepers pull off their supers for extraction without even a glance into the brood boxes to check for honey. Sometimes those boxes are nearly empty. For whatever reason, the bees stored everything up high. Later, the beekeeper is heartbroken to find his bees starved to death only partway through the winter.
Two weeks ago a new beekeeper here in Olympia told me he harvested forty pounds of honey from his first-year hive that he started from a package in late April. I’m guessing he didn’t make a thorough inspection before he extracted because that is a lot of honey for a new colony in this part of the world. It doesn’t seem right to me.
Bees are unpredictable. This year I had two particularly robust colonies right next to each other in triple deeps. I added Ross Rounds and square section supers on top of each. In one hive, those crazy bees filled the sections and left their deeps virtually empty, while the adjacent colony did the opposite: they left the sections empty and filled the brood boxes to capacity.
I can understand how mistakes are made. New beekeepers are taught that the bees store their food in the brood boxes and the honey they put in the supers is for harvesting. But wait! This is a classic case of the bees not reading the same books. You have to look before you take.
In the example I just mentioned, I was able to equalize the honey stores between the two hives because one had a lot more than it needed. But, in any case, I always hold back some number of supers. I freeze the frames and store them. Then, if I err somewhere along the line, I can provide honey during the winter.
Some very experienced beekeepers routinely hold back frames as an insurance policy, and I strongly advise it for newbees. Or, if your brood boxes are really empty, just leave those supers in place for the bees. Remember, anyone can rob a hive and measure the take, but it requires skill (and often restraint) to successfully overwinter your bees.