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Bees and When to Harvest Honey

Time to change when we harvest honey, what we feed bees--old ways, a new paradigm.

By Tom Meade

Harvest honey with care to help save beesThe Death of Honey Bees

In North America, colonies of Honey bees are dying in alarming numbers.

The death of Honey bees began to make news in late 2005-2006, when beekeepers reported losses of 30 percent to 90 percent.

More recent surveys of beekeepers indicate higher than expected colony losses in the 2006-2007.

The world’s leading bee scientists and the U.S. government are studying the causes of what they call Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, and they believe there may be a combination of culprits that weaken the bees’ immune systems.

 “A perfect storm of existing stresses may have unexpectedly weakened colonies leading to collapse,” according to the U.S. Agricultural Research Service. “Stress, in general, compromises the immune system of bees (and other social insects) and may disrupt their social system, making colonies more susceptible to disease.”

Viruses spread by mites, pesticides, contaminated water, and poor nutrition are among the suspected sources of stress that make American bees disproportionately susceptible to CCD.

Online resources

USDA bee research lab, Beltsville, Md.

USDA CCD overview

Carl Hayden Bee Research Center, Tucson, Az.

Holistic beekeeping at Spikenard Farm

Pfeiffer Center

Robbing The Bees, A History of Honey by Holley Bishop

Related Articles


Don’t Honey bees eat honey?

If they have honey, they eat it.

Trouble is many American beekeepers take away a significant amount of honey.

They rob the honey when bees need it the most, during the fall and winter when there are no flowers bearing nectar, the basis of honey.

While the scientists continue to study the problem many beekeepers – including people who know that poor nutrition may be one of the culprits – continue to feed their high-fructose corn syrup and refined-sugar syrup to their bees.


Honey-harvesting Practices Need to Change
That habit bothers Günther Hauk, former director of the Pfeiffer Center in Cedar Ridge, N.Y. where an international student body comes to study biodynamic principles of agriculture.

He also is author of Toward Saving The Honey Bee, published by the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association.

Hauk is president of Spikenard Farm in Carrollton, Ill., where he teaches biodynamic bee keeping and conducts research in the farm’s apiary.

Today, Günther Hauk and his students believe it’s time to return to old ways and a new paradigm for harvesting honey.

For the sake of the bees.


Taking a Stand on the Treatment of Bees
“Many blame viruses, mites, bacteria and beetles for the bees' failing vitality, but these are only symptoms of what ails them,” Hauk writes on the farm’s website.
"Exploitive and mechanistic bee keeping methods…are the real culprits….The bee's very existence is threatened by our efforts to capitalize on her largesse.”

In his book – published in 2002, four years before the first cases of CCD were reported, Hauk spoke of a crisis in bee keeping as bees were being overwhelmed by pests and disease even then.

“Is the honey bee, in fact, trying to tell us something?” he asked.

“It is, in fact, screaming to us through its overwhelming illness and fatality statistics, that it is not merely a mite or some other invader, but, in fact, our whole approach to its existence that has continued to weaken it and caused its health and resistance to deteriorate.”


Corn Syrup Diet=Unhealthy Bees?
America is one of a small number of countries where beekeepers can afford to feed high fructose corn syrup and refined sugar to their bees.

Some beekeeping schools and beginner’s books advocate feeding sugar syrup to bees in the fall to carry them through the winter.

They recommend feeding more syrup in February to simulate a nectar flow that stimulates the queen to start laying eggs earlier than she would naturally.

At Spikenard Farm’s Honey bee sanctuary, Hauk does not feed sugar to his bees.

At a recent meeting of a beekeepers association in New England, an organic beekeeper asked, “What would happen if we fed our kids high-fructose corn syrup and refined sugar every day?”

“We already know the answer to that,” someone mumbled, hinting at America's obesity problem. “Just visit your local middle school.”


Too Big a Sacrifice for More Honey
“Then why are we advocating the feeding of syrup to our bees?” the organic guy asked.

“Greed,” someone else said.

The honey that beekeepers take is supposed to be “surplus” honey that the bees will not need to carry them through the winter.

In the northeast, a bee colony theoretically needs about 60 pounds of honey for the winter.

Many American beekeepers remove what honey they consider surplus in late summer or early autumn.

That practice began in the late 19th century. Until then, beekeepers left all the honey on the hive until spring when fruit orchards began to blossom and a new flow of nectar was underway.

Only then were beekeepers certain that the bees’ “old” honey was truly surplus and ready for harvest.

About the Author: Tom Meade is a writer, beekeeper and vegetable gardener in Rhode Island


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Bees and When to Harvest Honey

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Reader Comments
We had that happen. Took honey in the fall, fed them sugar water and lost the hole colony. That hive was always calm and relaxed and very nonthreatening when we were near the hive. This years hive we are leaving until spring, however they are a very aggressive bunch. I'm wondering if the unrefined sugar had anything to do with the docile behavior? Is there such a thing as Bee diabetes?
Kristi Guse, Deadwood, OR
Posted: 8/27/2013 9:21:44 AM
Love the article and have a comment/Question: My wife and I have had a hive for a year. One deep, two supers. Last fall we took 3 combs of honey in the fall (which we considered to be a modest amount). We never opened the hive except for the taking of honey, never fed them sugar water, and never treated for mites. Many hives in our area (NH) apparently did not survive the winter. Ours came back strong this spring and we were persuaded to add an additional deep box. The idea of waiting until spring nectar flow to harvest honey makes sense; taking the surplus honey unused by the bees during the winter.

Here's my question. In a hive our size (2 deeps, 2 supers) what would be considered a modest honey harvest posing no risk to the wintering bee's food supply and would it be wiser to harvest the honey now in late July instead of waiting until later? We may switch to the wait until spring approach but considering our modest take we feel safe with our present approach.
Jared, Wilton, NH
Posted: 7/30/2013 5:39:45 AM
I mostly agree with what this article says. But my biggest concern is what was left out. Research has proven that cell phones disrupt hives by interfering with bee navigation. This (combined with the increasing use of pesticides)is probably the biggest reason for bees failing, not beekeeper greed. Greed would drive the keeper to increase his profits and INCREASE the number and health of hives. But, there is no call from all the 'naturalists' out there to cut off all cell phone use. Hypocrisy at its finest!
Clint, Rogers, AR
Posted: 7/18/2013 6:39:05 PM
Makes sense to this first year beekeeper. I left 60lbs of honey on the top super of my only colony, but added a suger cake feeder above that for good measure. My bees devoured the large sugar cake over the winter and left the honey complelely capped. Just opened the hive yesterday only to find dead queen, dead cluster of workers surrounding her, and about 20 dead capped brood. :( 60lbs of honey above them. I'm thinking that maybe if I had just let them eat their own honey instaed of the refined sugar they might have had the strength to survive the cold spell we've experienced this spring. Any thoughts?
Chad, Green Bay, WI
Posted: 4/17/2013 8:06:12 AM
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