Posted by & filed under Insects, Processing & Food Preservation.

Once you’ve harvested your natural honeycomb from your Warré (or other kind of top bar) beehive, it’s time to get some of that goodness into jars! Fortunately, like many other aspects of natural beekeeping, getting the honey out of natural comb is easy and simple, once you know how.

We’re just at the start of our beekeeping journey, but still, even though we don’t have whizz-bang equipment, we found this a wonderfully tactile and rewarding experience. It’s pretty much just a case of crushing the comb, sieving it, and bottling the results. 100% organic yum, with all the goodness of the honey still utterly intact.

At first, this seemed just a bit to easy – don’t we need extractors, hot knives, spinning things and somewhere to store all the frames? Not when doing natural beekeeping, you don’t. You simply cut the comb off the top bar, crush it up, strain it through a sieve and, um, that’s it.


Tim cuts the honeycomb off the top-bars


Warré honeycomb, all ready to crush


Nick tucks into a spare piece of semi-capped honeycomb


The comb is crushed and mashed


Then into the sieve over the honey bucket


Getting all the crushed comb in, including some older stuff from a previous harvest


And proceed to get squishy! It’s quite a sensation


The result — pure, cold-pressed organic honey


Mmmm… honey….

The advantages of harvesting honey in this way include:

  • You get everything that was in the comb, in your honey. Pollen, propolis, the lot. Which is ridiculously good for you, in all sorts of ways.
  • Because the natural comb is not re-used year after year, there’s less chance that environmental toxins that might be present in the comb can build up, affecting both the colony, and the honey.
  • You get a big glob of organic beeswax, which you can then use creatively (we’re using ours for sealing the ends of our shiitake mushroom logs).
  • You get honey that is not heated in any way during the process, which means none of the delicate antibiotics and enzymes within the honey are destroyed. It all makes it into the jar.

The advantages to the bees by harvesting honey from hives managed in this way include:

  • The bees get to build natural comb, with no plastic or pre-set foundation. This benefits the colony in heaps of ways including but not limited to: communication (vibrating the comb to send messages), general hive health, toxin accumulation, and so on.
  • By getting to build new comb, the bees get to re-set their cell size according to what is needed in that comb at that point (did you know they make all different gauges of cell size, given the chance?).

Tim Malfroy’s tips for a happy honey harvest from Warré comb:

  • Have all your gear washed and ready, and process the comb soon after you return from collecting it in the hive. The honey will be more liquid at this point.
  • If for some reason you have to wait to process the comb, put it in the sun before crushing it to gently warm it. It will make everything quicker and easier.
  • If you’re not going to process the comb straight away, cut if off the frames and store it in slabs of comb. While it’s in the comb, it is sealed and pure, and will last much longer than broken up.

For this harvest, we placed a big sieve on top of a honey bucket with a ‘gate’ on the front, then simply crushed the comb in a bucket and then tipped it into the sieve. To speed the process up, we all squished the comb by grabbing great handfuls – this meant we expelled the honey from the wax much quicker.

At the end of this process we had about 5kg of strained honey (from 3 combs – we’ll be harvesting more later) and about 0.5kg of beeswax in lumps.

The beeswax we’ll melt down in water and skim off, from which brew we’ll be left with honey water, which is what mead is made from! But we’ll probably just drink that straight – it’s an awesome cocktail-like honey hit of propolis, pollen and honey.

So there you have it. Honey harvest the simple way. I dare say we’ll get more experimental and advanced in our techniques as we go, but as a starting point, this was great fun!

If you’d like to read more about Warré beekeeping, head to Tim Malfroy’s Natural Beekeeping website, which is full of great info about this very permaculture-minded approach to bees.


Sunlight in a jar. So many millions of flowers went into making this….
Many thanks, Milkwood bees!

11 Responses to “How to Harvest Honey from Natural Comb”

  1. Peter Willis

    Hi guys. I have a top-bar hive and a langstroth hive but your honey frames from your TB look to have sides on them (U-shaped), not just a single straight bar per comb as in a Kenyan style TB hive. I have heard of people doing this in Australia due to the higher temperatures there making the combs more delicate when harvesting. Do you find the sides make it much easier to harvest? They do look a bit more fiddly to make. The bees are definitely easier to handle in a TB since you disturb them a lot less than with a langstroth, honey yield is lower in a TB hive but it isn’t all mine to have anyway :)

    cheers
    Pete

    Reply
  2. Kirsten Bradley

    Purple pear: you could, but i think it would be more tricky than it would be worth. Especially since you’d still need to melt down the wax to clarify it, so might as well make the most of the extraction process…

    Peter: Warré hives are NOT langstroth hives – different dimensions, different management, different approach, etc etc, all for a bunch of bee-friendly reasons.

    Regarding the side bars, Tim’s developed these so that the bees still draw their natural comb but effectively build the comb to the sides of the frame, rather than the sides of the hive, which means you can pull a frame out when you need to, without breaking comb which has been built to the side of the hive and disturbing the colony unduly… these frames are slightly more work to make than a simple top bar but once they’re made, you’ve got em for life, so not a big effort in the scheme of things…

    In Australia, if a bee inspector can’t pull at least one frame per box, they can legally destroy your hive, on the spot. Doesnt happen often, but we like to ensure both we and others (especially in urban areas, where inspections are more common) are not at risk of losing their hives over this issue.

    Warré hives are extremely easy to manage, in some ways more that TBs i think, because on a honeyflow you can nadir (add boxes at the bottom of the colony) and leave the nucleus of the colony utterly in peace – no inspection necessary. Harvest off the top as the colony moves down the hive, add empty boxes to the bottom for them to move into in their own time… I prefer Warré to Kenyan Top Bar hives for that reason… but each to their own!

    Lastly, yield in a warré hive is less than a langstroth hive but that’s fine with us, for the sake of resilient, un-stressed bees allowed to do their own thing, with us harvesting the surplus…

    Reply
  3. Peter Willis

    Hi Kirsten, thanks for the extra detail, email text is a very limiting medium :-(
    I said I had a TB and a langstroth, never mentioned a Warré which I have never seen here in NZ but I know is a different beast. The bees do not build onto the sides of my Kenyan style TB, they keep a bee-space between the comb and the sides, only attaching to the top bar itself hence the question about the side bars. I have seen a Warré built on top of a TB (like an upside down T) giving them heaps of space but not really sure what advantages if any they conveyed to the bees. Did not get a look inside that one and the design hasn’t exactly caught on!.
    I have also seen very long Kenyan style hives which allowed for a large colony but also for the bee keeper to replace a top bar with a divider to exclude the bees from blocks of the hive and to make for easier harvest, then after harvest remove the divider giving the bees heaps of room to grow back into. This would be a little easier than lifting the entire Warre structure up (they get a little heavy) to set in place the new empty block at the bottom of the stack. As you say though, each to their own! :)

    Reply
  4. Tim Barker

    Hi guys
    I had heard you had Warre hives and w wondering how you got around the regulations for having frames . I was running Tanzanian and Kenyan top bars in Weipa FNQ as sentinel hives for AQIS . The chief apiarist got back to me and asked I change to framed hives as top bars didn’t qualify . I ended up changing to standard frames and boxes but allowing the bees to draw their own comb . On another note how do you go with SHB , we don’t have it in FNQ but I was wondering on your strategies with Warre hives , and if you don’t get SHB there, any suggestions for running hives in SHB areas.

    Regards Tim Barker

    Reply
  5. Tim Auld

    Hi Peter, can you give any detail about your hive or climate that might explain why the bees don’t attach the combs to the side of your top bar hive? What angle are your sides? Phil Chandler says the sloped sides discourage attachment but it happens consistently in my hives.

    Reply
  6. Kirsten Bradley

    Tim (Barker) –

    Re frames: Our Warré hives have top and side bars, but that’s it. The Bees build comb to the side bars then draw their comb down from there. This makes each frame/top bar removable for inspection as required by DPI regulations, whose mandate (from memory) is that each box must have at least one removable frame… this warré system of frames works well in aussie conditions and is no diff to allowing the bees to build to the side of the hive, only that you have intercepted the side of the hive (so to speak) –

    image of a in-process warré frame/top bar being built with comb here: http://plantingmilkwood.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/1201_milkwood_warre_hive_07.jpg

    and a full Warré frame here: http://plantingmilkwood.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/warre3.jpg

    One more thing on that (sorry – beginner bee nerd) – the reason for leaving the bottoms off the frames is that the bees do usually leave a bee-space between the bottom of their natural comb and the next top bar beneath – but if the warré frames have bases on them, apparently the bees tend to draw comb off the bottom of the frame and join it to the top bar beneath…

    Also, Tim Malfroy’s bro Sam is now a bee bio-security officer and he’s up in FNQLD frequently – pm me if you want to get in touch with him, he’d have a lot on this to share.

    Re Small Hive Beetle, good question! The Warré hives i know of in Sydney are doing fine, some of them have a small amount of SHB but the bees seem to be self-regulating. It may well be that SHB is like any other ailment for an organism (or super organism, in the case of a honeybee colony) – keep that organism super healthy and not stressed, and its chances of fighting such things are better. One Warré hive i know of is in a chook run which may be working to break the life cycle of the SHB (which has to leave the hive to pupate) as the chooks may be dealing with the grubs for the bees! That hive is super-duper healthy, right in the middle of Sydney.

    Whew. Anyway. All this stuff is also discussed over at http://milkwood.net/tag/warre/ if you’ve got the inclination :)

    Tim (Auld) – I think Peter said he’s in NZ? from what I know of conditions there they’re quite different to Aus with all our massive (unprecedented across the world, in honey production terms) honeyflows coming from the eucalypts, which would account for differences in rate and amount of comb production, maybe?… as attested to by the average honey output per hive in Oz compared to NZ… I dont know of any horizontal-chamber top bar hives in oz where the whole hive doesn’t fill up with comb choc-a-block, stuck to every wall available…

    Beekeeping is very interesting in that way, conditions (and how the bees behave as a result) in different lands vary so hugely, I’ve found so far…

    Reply
  7. Pete Willis

    Hi Tim, sorry to take a while to come back to you. I live in the Waikato area of NZ just outside Hamilton city, we are pretty temperate here, frosts in winter, down to -3C or so, max in summer of maybe high 20′s with high humidity, 1200mm of rain per annum. My top bar is about 1m long with sides sloped at 15 degrees from vertical, they don’t attach comb to the sides but they do work hard to glue the top bars together! The internals are rough sawn timber made from macrocarpa pine, but I don’t see there’s anything odd about that, the top rails are the same wood but they are machined smooth. So why they don’t attach? Not sure why not, though that was meant to be something the TB design offered normally I thought. The lady who mentors me though is keen to try a warre hive this year so I’m going to build her one next month for us to try. I have to say WOW though on your honey production per hive, I didn’t know that it was so high in Australia, perhaps the warmth and drier climes there really help keep the bees active and a little easier to produce the honey with a drier climate(?)

    Reply
  8. Tim Auld

    Thanks for that Pete. It could be the heat & humidity here in Brisbane that leads to the attachment – the wax must be softer so there’s more chance of collapse. The bees work to prevent it, and have plenty of honey to turn to wax.

    Last year was my first of keeping bees in the top bar. The first colony started small with 4 small combs (2 brood, 2 honey) and an old queen in early February. I started taking honey out in late May. By the end of the year I had extracted approximately 53kg of honey (including splits), about 3kg of wax, plus splitting off 6 new colonies. Each split took 2 brood combs, 2 honey combs, and extra bees from 2 combs. The peak rate of honey production was 117kg/yr in late August, just before I started splitting. The conventional wisdom is that the hTBH produces less than a Lang, but I’m not sure if that’s true here. I’ve just received a Lang so I’m looking forward to comparing them.

    Reply

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