Understandably, new beekeepers are incredibly keen to taste their first honey harvest… Right? I‘m sure you can imagine yourself proudly spooning honey onto your morning toast and saying to yourself “I did that”! (Well you did get a little help from your bees too…)
If you’re new to beekeeping you’re probably wondering just how much honey you’re going to get from your hives this year. To be honest, it’s a sticky question!
How much honey does a hive produce? With a traditional beehive setup, a strong hive could produce upto 100 lb (45 kg) of harvestable honey per hive. But taking into account unforeseen factors which can affect colonies, a better average would be anywhere between 30 to 60 lb (14 to 27 kg) per hive.
These figures are of course just a general rule of thumb. Some years you might not be able to harvest any honey at all. Honey production can vary quite a bit and depends on a lot of different factors such as:
- Weather conditions
- Temperature and rain throughout the season
- The beehive’s location
- Problems with diseases or parasites
- Competition from other colonies
- Is your beehive established or new?
- How much honey you need to leave bees when harvesting.
After all, like a lot of harvesting activities, beekeeping is subject to Mother Nature. It seems that several different things can have an influence on how much honey a beehive can produce. Let me tell you more…
Why do bees make honey?
Okay… Let’s take a step back for a moment. Why do bees make honey in the first place?
Unlike other species of bees and insects, honeybees don’t hibernate during the winter. They actually remain active during the cold winter season when they remain inside their hive. During this time the bees bunch together to retain heat (This is known as a winter cluster). The bee’s primary job is to keep the queen warm who remains protected at the center of the cluster of bees. They do this by vibrating their bodies and wings to generate heat. This constant movement requires energy which bees obtain by feeding on the honey they stored during the warmer seasons.
Honey is the bee’s principle means of storing food for the winter, but they also use honey throughout the warmer season to raise brood. When there are plenty of flowering plants, bees will feed directly on nectar and pollen from the flowers they visit.
(It’s a tremendous amount of work for bees to make honey. I’ve heard it said that during the lifetime of a worker bee it produces just 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey! )
So there’s a difference between the amount of honey produced in the hive and the amount of honey we can take from the bees. Fortunately for us when the foraging season is good they will keep on producing honey and create a surplus which we can harvest for ourselves.
how much honey do bees need to survive winter?
A good stable colony of bees can produce two or three times the amount of honey they need to survive the winter. In these circumstances taking surplus honey isn’t a problem.
The amount of honey you can harvest from bees depends greatly on your climate and the amount of time the bees will have to spend before foraging for food again. For example In a warmer climate bees can get by with as little as 40 lb (18 kg) of honey. Whereas in a cool climate they may need as much as 90 lb (40 kg) to survive the winter.
It’s very tricky to predict precisely how much honey a hive will need, so beekeepers tend to err on the side of caution and leave more honey rather than less.
Over-harvesting will just lead to honey bee starvation, but note that after harvesting, beekeepers can also feed the bees with sugar syrup to help supplement the colony’s loss of honey if necessary. In some cases I’ve even seen beekeepers giving back some of the honey harvest to keep the bees going!
A good hive inspection before you harvest will allow you to estimate how much honey you should leave. Whatever is left over you can take for your morning toast!
Factors influencing honey production
Effective beekeeping and management can help the success of your bee colonies and by consequence help increase the amount of honey they produce. A few other factors which beekeepers should look out for include the following:
Diseases and parasites
Bees can be affected by a number of pests and diseases during a season.
Varroa mites are perhaps one of the most serious since they can lead to the collapse of a colony. These critters attach themselves to the abdomen of bees and suck their blood! This transmits viruses to the bees. Nosema is another widespread disease among western honey bees. This is a micro-organism which arises mostly in the spring and can cause dysentery. Another common pest for bees are wax moths. They can destroy a large amount of comb if left unattended. Bacteria can cause what’s know as “American Foul Brood” or “European Foul Brood”, both of which can be serious for a hive, (this is also a problem when buying second hand hives if they were previously infected).
In short, just like with humans, bees can be affected by a number of pests, problems, and diseases. An infected colony will be under stress and this will reduce the bees honey production capabilities.
Dealing with these various problems is part of the beekeepers responsibility and there are various chemical and mechanical methods for handling these issues.
A good beekeeping routine will include what is termed an integrated pest management (IPM) régime. This is basically a set of practices and controls to keep any “pests” at an acceptable level.
Sometimes wasps can turn up to rob a hive of it’s honey. Another colony of bees can also come to rob your hive although this kind of thing usually happens when the invading colony is having trouble finding enough forage to feed itself properly. So it’s not a good sign for your own colony’s ability to sustain itself.
Robbing situations can be dealt with in a couple of ways. You can reduce the size of the entrance to restrict access to the robbers and allowing bees that are on guard duty to do their job more efficiently.
As part of your beekeeping routine try to observe the activity at the entrance to the hive to check if robbing is occuring. Also make sure your hive location is clean with no honey tainted tools or hive parts lying around.
Extreme weather conditions are not great for bees. They even get moody when the weather isn’t great! After all, in hard rain and windy conditions they can’t get out to forage for food.
You can’t control the weather of course. But it’s just another factor to keep in mind when estimating honey harvest levels. Better climates have better weather and bees can spend more time foraging. Warmer climates probably also mean longer periods of flowering. This favorable period of the year is known as the nectar flow.
A good long nectar flow means improved honey production.
It’s no secret that honey bees need nectar from flowering plants to make honey. The more feeding opportunities that surround your bee yard the better!
Generally speaking, bees will forage upto three miles in radius around their hives (more if needed but this tires the bees and make honey production more difficult). When you set up your hive location try to take this into account. But don’t worry, even urban locations can provide good forage for your bees. You just need to do a bit of scouting around your area during the flowering season to check. You can even use google maps to check things out.
If you think you don’t have enough flowering vegetation in your area try striking a deal with a local allotment or community garden. Bees are excellent pollinators so everybody’s plants will benefit from the presence of the bees!
Think about how much honey you WANT to produce
For a lot of beekeepers honey is the main reason for keeping bees. But if you’re not interested in simply turning a profit from your bees, you might also want to ask yourself “how much honey do I actually want to produce” ?
Beginner beekeepers are recommended to start out with two hives. The reason is because a lot can go wrong during your first year and having two colonies gives you much more flexibility if you need to deal with a problem in one of your hives.
So assuming you have two standard hives and they become well established and the nectar flow is great this year. You can potentially end up with 200 lb of harvested honey. Ask yourself honestly how much honey you want?
I’ve heard it said that many beekeepers give up beekeeping, not because of the bees, but because of the honey !
One way to limit honey production may be to choose a smaller hive to begin with (8 frame boxes rather than 10 frames) and then try to manage your colonies so you don’t get engulfed with honey!
Can you get honey from a first year hive? For all the same reasons above, the answer to this question is yes. Your chances of harvesting honey from a first year hive depend on the same factors as those for an established hive. You probably won’t get as much honey as from a more mature colony, but if the nectar flow is good and all other conditions are favorable you could be tasting your first batch of honey in no time!