Removing boxes of honey
NOTE: This page gives instruction for removing boxes of honey that were NOT installed by supering (adding to the top of the hive). If you have supered your hive and need instructions on removing those boxes, click here.
Obviously, before you can begin processing your honey, you'll have to get it off of the hive and away from the bees. It's important to remember that your bees are likely to be their most defensive at harvest time, since "stealing" their honey gives them good reason for being that way. Be sure to gear up fully and get that smoker lit really well before heading out to the hives.
I highly recommend harvesting only one box at a time, regardless of how many hives you have. One per day is work enough, and opening only one hive at a time greatly reduces the possibility that your hives will begin robbing from each other. The first thing you'll need to do is get those thousands of bees out of the box that you want to take; and for that you'll use your bee escape board. Install the bee escape board around the noon hour on a nice day and be sure that the forecast calls for nice weather the following day as well, since you'll finish removing the honey 24 hours later.
If harvesting from a modified Warré hive, the process is fairly simple. Begin by smoking the bees through the hive entrance and/or the screened bottom. Smoke them only enough to get their attention; one or two puffs is plenty. You don't want to drive the bees up into the top of the hive. Next, remove the roof and quilt from the top of the hive, pull the window screen back slightly at one end of the top bars, and blow a few puffs of smoke down into the top box. It's not necessary to remove the window screen at this time. Next, use your hive tool to break the propolis seal and remove the top hive body from the hive. Set the box on its side (with the combs always vertical) on a piece of wood on the ground, the hive roof, a log, etc., and check the combs for brood. There cannot be any brood in any box that is to be harvested. What you want to see is only capped honey at the bottom of every frame. If necessary, use your smoker to drive the bees into the box a little, so that you're able to see at least one inch of cells on the bottom of every comb. Caps over brood look like a paper bag and appear very different from capped honey. If you think you see capped brood, possible uncapped brood or empty cells, either reassemble the hive and wait a couple more weeks to try harvesting again, or remove the frame(s) in question to get a closer look. If only one or two frames contain brood, you may be able to swap with one or two frames of capped honey from the box below. If you find there is only capped honey in the upper box, proceed by removing the next box from the hive and inspecting it in the same manner. You can harvest any and all boxes from the top of the hive that do not contain any brood (again, one at a time is recommended), as long as the bees are left to winter in at least two fully drawn boxes of comb, with the upper of the two being full of honey.
Once you have determined that you can harvest a box of honey, simply place your bee escape board on top of the hive with the screen facing down. Then, place the box to be harvested on top of the bee escape board. Reinstall the quilt and roof and then you're done for the day.
The procedure for removing standard Warré (top bar) hive bodies is similar to that of removing modified (framed) hive bodies. That is, you remove and inspect each box and install the bee escape board under the box that you want to harvest. But because top bar hive bodies do not have frames, and therefore have no bottom bars to which the bees can attach the bottoms of their combs, box-to-box attachments occur fairly frequently. This means that bees will sometimes attach the combs from an upper box to the tops of the top bars in the box below, which actually has one big advantage. These attachments allow the bees to easily move from a lower hive body to an upper hive body during the winter months, often preventing them from starving to death in a lower hive body as they might when the distance from the combs below to the combs above is too great. When box-to-box attachments exist, the distance from the combs below to the combs above is only about one centimeter, which allows the bees to migrate easily. But for this advantage there is a trade-off. The possibility of box-to-box attachments requires the bee keeper to do a bit more planning and work when removing honey. Planning is key. If you are prepared for the worst-case scenario before you start removing boxes, you'll find that things go quite easily. If you have applied tung oil to the tops of all of your top bars the chance of comb damaged during box separation will be minimal, but you should still be prepared for it just in case it does occur.
The first thing you should do is set either a small piece of plywood or cardboard next to the hive for setting the removed hive bodies on. This is because if box-to-box attachments do exist, honey will drip from the combs when a hive body is removed and it's best if you don't leave any honey on the ground near the hive as that could easily lead to robbing. Speaking of robbing; since you will be opening the hive and releasing the smell of honey to the outside, you need to reduce the entrance way down (to 1/2 inch or so) before you start, and leave it that way for at least a few days afterward (if nectar is done flowing for the season, you can leave the entrance reduced until the following year). If you have multiple hives, reduce all of the entrances before you start harvesting any honey. Also, be sure to take a coffee container with a lid out to the hive with you, which is a good practice to adopt for anytime you open any hive.
Box-to-box comb attachments may be significant, minimal, or they may not exist at all. It depends on a lot of factors and you never can be sure what you'll find. Most often you will find that minimal attachments have been made. Obviously, any box-to-box connections that exist will need to be severed. There are two means of achieving this; either by breaking the connections or by cutting them. Both methods have their pros and cons. The advantage to breaking them apart is that there is very little risk of killing bees, with the disadvantage being that the breaks are not always very clean. Cutting them apart makes a nice, clean disconnect; but may kill several bees in the process. The worst-case scenario when cutting the boxes apart is that the queen is killed, but as long as you are smoking each box from the top before cutting, this risk is minimal as the queen will most likely move to the bottom of the hive. Another thing to consider before using the cutting method is that if the propolis has turned brittle, rather than being soft and gooey, cutting the boxes apart may be quite difficult. As for me, I usually just break them apart. Again, if you’ve finished the tops of your top bars with tung oil, the possibility of comb breakage is greatly reduced.
In order to cut the boxes apart, you'll need to make a special tool. Use a 22-gauge wire and tie a handle to each end. The total length from handle to handle should be about 18 inches. If the cutting is done in warmer weather, the propolis between the boxes will be soft and easier to cut. The most important thing to remember when cutting, is that the wire needs to be pulled through the hive, in between the boxes, while being perpendicular to the top bars. This way, the bees have the time and space that they need to get out of the way before being cut in half by the wire. If you cut with the wire parallel to the top bars, you will be cutting bees in half every time you pass over a top bar! Also, if necessary, use your body to brace the hive while you are pulling the wire through so that you don't pull it over! When the string has been pulled through to within 1/2 inch of the wall closest to you...stop. Pulling it out the other side will probably kill a lot of bees for no good reason, so simply leave the string where it is. Then, remove the hive body and proceed with inspecting for brood and installing the bee escape board if no brood is found.
Breaking the connections is done by simply prying the box loose with a hive tool and lifting it off of the hive. Once you've begun to pry the box up, don't let it drop back into place or you will be crushing bees! Once the hive body is set aside on the piece of cardboard or plywood, smoke the bees away from any sections of comb that are left on the top bars of the box below and use your hive tool to quickly scrape the larger pieces off of the bars and then place them into your coffee container. If there are stubborn bees that just won't leave the dripping comb, simply put them into the coffee container as well. The loss of a few bees is inconsequential and you'll only have trouble if you insist on trying to save them. Besides, once you are away from the hive you may be able to remove the lid from the container and let them clean themselves off and fly away. Once you have the top bars reasonably cleaned off (don't sweat the small stuff right now), proceed with inspecting the removed box for brood. Remember to use your smoker, if necessary, to get the bees out of your way so that you can get a good look at the cells at the bottom of each comb. Caps over brood look like a paper bag and appear very different from capped honey. Empty cells indicate possible uncapped brood or honey and that more time is needed for the bees to finish their work. If the box contains only capped honey, install the bee escape board and put the hive back together. Once the hive is back together, you're done for the day.
Return in 24 hours to remove the honey. Do not wait any longer. Waiting longer will not only not ensure that all of the bees will be out, but is likely to give the bees the time to figure out how to travel backward through the bee escape board and back up into the box that you want to remove. Smoke the bees through the entrance and/or screened bottom before removing the roof and quilt from the hive. As long as the box that you want to remove doesn't contain brood, you will find that the vast majority of bees have left it and you can remove it. You will also find that any honey that had been spilled or was still dripping after you installed the bee escape board will now be completely cleaned up by the bees.
Once you are ready to remove the honey and carry it away, you'll need to work and move as quickly as possible. After removing the box of honey, set the quilt back on the hive and high-tail it out of there with your honey.
IMPORTANT: Do not remove the bee escape board until the box of honey has been taken away and stored where no bees can get to it! Removing the bee escape board will release thousands of bees that will follow you!
Most of you will be processing the honey in your kitchen, so when you bring a box of honey up to the house, work near a door to the house and use either a leaf blower or a blowgun connected to an air compressor, to blow any remaining bees from the box. If you're going to use the latter, using an "OSHA approved" blowgun will help to prevent damaging the combs. Once you've blown out what appears to be all of the remaining bees, quickly take the box into the house. There are bound to be a few bees still hiding in the box when you go inside. Don't worry about it. Simply place the box near a window. As any remaining bees exit the box with their belly-full of honey and are wanting to go home, they'll gather on the window. Once they're all gathered there, open the window and remove the screen to let them out.
Once the box of honey is safe and sound, remove the bee escape board from the hive, shake the bees out of it, finish cleaning off the top bars and put the hive back together. It's now time to begin processing your honey!