Friday, July 29, 2016

Why I Want Less Honey

Most beekeepers want more and more honey because when it comes to honey, less is definitely not more. More is more. Or is it??? Before sharing some thoughts, though, I'd like to offer two caveats:

  1. All beekeeping is local and depends greatly on your own particular bees, weather, forage, and flow. All of these things greatly impact how your bees behave, so you have consider these factors. For example, are your bees swarmy? What is the timing of your flows? Do you get two big booms in spring and fall? Or do you get a steady trickle year-long? Do you have mild springs? Or do you get a lot of spring rain that keeps bees inside? The list of considerations goes on.
  2. What works for me may not work for you because of differing perspectives, goals, preferences, etc. For example, do you want splits or honey? Is beekeeping a hobby or business? How often are you able to check your hives? Is your approach more "conventional" or "crunchy"?

So bearing those things in mind. I'll share what I think works for me, but take it with a grain of salt depending on your own situation.

This year, I've come to the conclusion that although there are many Lang management techniques that can be applied to TBHs, some strategies don't work well for me. It all comes down to hive design and how that works in my area.

Crikey, that's a tall hive! You can see how expandable a Lang is, though.

People who keep Langs often have honey as a primary goal, and that's what the expandability of Langs is designed for -- super production. Many management techniques for this hive contribute to that goal. For example:

  • Reusing comb after harvesting helps increase the amount of honey bees can make because they don't have to consume nectar to build comb.
  • The ability to add boxes allows beekeepers to increase the hive volume, thereby manipulating bees into storing more honey. 
  • Building up the colony size in early spring and during summer dearth allows beekeepers to have large numbers of workers of foraging age when the main flows in spring and fall begin.
  • Never allowing the hive to swarm keeps colony population maxed out, which in turn keeps the amount of bees available for work high.
The Lang's design and associated management practices yield enormous harvests.

44" long. That's all the space I get.
Some people super TBHs, but I'm just not into that.
It negates the entire reason I picked a horizontal hive.

On the other hand, while a TBH beekeeper can expect some to harvest some of the sweet stuff, a TBH is simply not designed for maximum honey production. The KTBH design that most people use was originally a cheap way to make hives for people with minimal woodworking skills & resources. When the Peace Corp introduced it to beekeepers in Kenya, they were dealing with African bees that have a tendency to abscond frequently and a climate with short, explosive flows (as opposed to the long spring flow that I get). Essentially, there's no way these African bees would ever fill a Lang, so expandability just wasn't needed. I don't want to imply that a TBH is not a viable hive design for beeks outside of Africa; I am just saying that it's important to understand the hive in order to best manage it for your own situation. Where collecting honey is concerned, the real limitation of the TBH is its size & lack of expandability.

In my locale, TBHs generally don't have enough volume to contain all of the potential honey from a good spring flow. In fact, my problem is that there is so much nectar in spring that the bees fill the entire hive with comb and nectar, but they don't have time to cure it, which means I can't harvest it and make room in the hive. That leads to backfilling of the nest and eventual swarming. If I incorporate practices meant to boost honey production -- like giving them empty comb to fill and feeding prior to flows -- all I do is speed up their mad race to swarming. This is great if you want more bees. It's not so great it you're out of space for hives and just want honey.

After a lot of thinking about how the flow works in my area & how bees respond to it, I've recently come to the realization that when working with established TBH colonies (as opposed to new packages or splits), things go better for me (i..e., I get less swarming) if I can slow the bees' ability to collect honey. Slowing them down includes:

  • Letting them build new comb instead of providing empty comb -- Since they can't cure the honey quickly enough for me to harvest, I can't make more room. Therefore, it doesn't make sense to give them empty combs in order to increase the amount of honey stored. I might as well be ruthless in pulling old comb and let them build mostly new comb every year. In addition to slowing down the spring collection,  new wax has the advantage of increased hive hygiene.
  • Not feeding except in emergency situations -- Again, why bother having a huge build-up prior to the start of spring? They can't hold all the honey, and the population will explode on its own once nectar starts rolling in. Building up on nectar is better for them anyway. Of course, I would feed in an emergency, and I'd still feed a new split or package until they got rolling. I'm just thinking about established colonies now.
  • Letting the colony take a break over the summer -- During a good year, my fall flow can be almost as productive as the spring. To avoid late season swarming, which is hard to recover from as I learned last year, I let the bees take a break from building up during the summer dearth. The break also gives them a chance to clean out the hive. It's also the time of year when varroa populations start to climb, so giving them fewer places to lay may help knock them down a bit. (That's a naive theory of mine anyway.)

This spring/summer, Elsa provided me with an ideal experience, and I've been processing what made her great compared with my other hives. Basically, I've hit on the idea that less honey collection (relatively speaking) and more building of both comb and brood in spring is a desirable thing. In a perfect world, it would be nice to have the hive completely built out by the end of the spring flow and full of honey without casting any swarms. At that time, I could take some honey for me and make some splits. Will I get less honey than if I were using Langs? Sure, but I would never be able to expect that much because my hive isn't expandable. In any case, if I've managed spring well (a big "if"), I can still expect 30-50 lbs of spring honey from a hive, which is more than enough for me. (That number doesn't include honey that would be left for the colony or used for splits or a fall harvest. It might also vary for you depending on bar size, number of bars, and local conditions.)

This was pretty much from one hive during the fall flow last year.
It was more than enough for me and to give away, so how much do I really need? 

Deliberately encouraging the bees to make less honey seems counterintuitive, but I think it works. Swarming decreases the colony population and reduces overall productivity for awhile. Slowing the bees down actually results in more honey due to reduced swarming.

What do you think? Is this idea complete rubbish? What have you noticed in your established hives?


  1. A brilliant post! This is my second year with both Langs and TBHs and I can definitely see what you are saying. The TBHs are so much easier to work, and as you say they don't leave a lot of room for built out. I've had some unintentional queen breaks in most of my hives so they haven't quite filled up. I stole a medium frame from a hive this week to get some honey - the TBH aren't quite full enough and I'm told we don't always get a fall flow here.

    I'm enjoying the TBHs more and more, and agree with you that my goal is not to have so many hives and get tons of honey. I'll be happy with enough for myself and friends right now

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


    1. Thanks, Eric! Glad that this made sense -- wasn't entirely sure it was going to.

      Congratulations on getting some honey!

  2. I like the idea of giving them busy work and having them use the Spring nectar flow to build fresh comb. White comb is so amazing. My area of Colorado has an extended nectar flow, perfectly timed for overwintered colonies to produce a crop in September, so I generally don't feed except in emergencies, either. I want to know more about your varroa management strategy and the summer break. Are you thinking of caging the queen?

    1. The truth about my varroa management strategy is that I don't really think about varroa much. In a nutshell, I just let them be(e). :-)

      Before I took up beekeeping, I did a lot of research and decided on TF natural-cell size bees, which have survived for years and years without any treatments, from Sam Comfort. I don't know if his bees have "inoculated" themselves against varroa-vectored viruses like those British TF bees that were in the news a few months ago, but they've shown they can survive without treatments. Also, being natural-cell size, they're really tiny. Recently, I saw some bees that I assume were raised on foundation, and they were about 30% bigger than mine. Tiny bees emerge about a day or two faster than bees on foundation. It doesn't seem like much, but it makes a difference to the varroa because they have less time to incubate.

      I also think that not feeding helps. My bees have a slower start in the spring and dwindle in the summer a bit, but I think that it's advantageous for controlling varroa. Even though varroa doesn't peak until the fall when the bee population is dwindling, it seems to me that providing a smaller host population for the parasite in spring helps reduce how many varroa are present early in the season, which in turn lowers the potential varroa population in the fall. In the summer, I think letting the brood rearing slow down frees up a lot of worker bees. Instead of caring for brood, they can work on cleaning the hive and getting rid of pests.

      Brood breaks that result from swarming or splits are important, too. I've never caged a queen because my bees seem more than happy to swarm, which works out, too. Even though varroa aren't in their greatest numbers in May/June, giving the bees a brood break helps knock out the ones that are in the hive at the time, which has an effect on the fall population. The best analogy I can think of is "the law of the harvest." Sow a little in spring, reap a little in fall. Sow a lot in spring, reap a lot in fall.

      Finally, I think clean comb & letting bees eat honey is important, too, because it's just healthier for them. The way I see it (which may be completely wrong, but you asked about my opinion) is that viruses are everywhere. Overall health makes a huge difference in terms of how well an organism copes with infection.

      BTW, everything I've just said could be complete bunk. It's just what I've thought about based on reading, comments from other TF beeks, and personal observation. Hope that it helps, though.

    2. Ah, I see. Early season swarm good. Late season swarm bad. Now I understand your third bullet point. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and logic. 🐝 My neighborhood is a little too "cozy" to embrace a "let them swarm" strategy but I've been planning on using a brood break (when I have bees again) as a key part of my IPM. A small lot like mine means either requeening or a split and recombine. Either way, some squishing has to be done. 😱

    3. Caging the queen is an option, too, of course.

    4. Thanks for the explanations. In general, I follow the same IPM as you and don't worry about mites. Last year, when I tried to treat, they died anyway. I might try the queen caging like HB suggests for one of my hives this year if they still look like they have a major mite problem the next time it's cool enough to check (which might be soon!) My bees haven't regressed to small cell, but I haven't really tried to make them either. Since I don't use foundation, they will build what they will build. My backyard hives were splits and swarms, so I'm hoping the early season breaks helped with the mite control. So far, so good.

    5. @ HB -- "Some squishing has to be done." LOL!!! Yep, beekeepers have to be tough. Mike Palmer says he names all his queens Martha to avoid attachment -- so when he gets rid of a Martha, he replaces her with a Martha.

      My neighborhood is too cozy to let them swarm, too, but I usually wait until I start seeing swarm cells before I split. This year, I gave away 6 splits as shook swarms. That worked out really well. But I get caging the queen would work, too -- provides a brood break without emptying the hive.

      @ Don -- My fingers are crossed for you this year!!!

  3. I thought I'd posted a comment earlier, but HB pretty much has the same comments (fresh comb, no feeding) and asks the same question I had about the summer break.

    Also, many people are able to keep small nucs (4-6 frames) without swarming problems. I'm wondering if in a small space they just feel that's all they have and make do? I know my 12 frame nuc is just plugging along - now that the hive is full, the queen seems to have slowed down making new bees to accommodate the lack of expansion space. No signs of queen cells/cups.

    It's always a learning experience and it's great that you post your observations out there.

    1. Interesting observation about the 4-6 frame nucs. I don't know what happens. Maybe it depends on how they are used -- for instance, if frames keep getting pulled to supplement other hives, they may never run out of space and feel the need to swarm.

      Glad to hear your nuc is full!

      I let a detailed response for HB about varroa management/brood breaks. Sorry that it's as long as a full post.


Thank you for your comment! I can't wait to hear what you think!