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EARLY COMB HONEY PRODUCTION
EARLY COMB HONEY PRODUCTION
By: Lloyd Spear

EARLY COMB HONEY PRODUCTION

May 01, 1999


 

EARLY COMB HONEY PRODUCTION
by Lloyd Spear

In 1998, almost all manufacturers and dealers of beekeeping equipment reported unprecedented demand from new beekeepers. This was wonderful news as the arrival of parasitic mites 20 plus years ago has led to a 50 percent decline in the number of U.S. beekeepers and, some say, has decimated the wild honey bees. As our gardens, many fruits and vegetables, and even our milk and beef supply depend on honey bees for pollination (honey bees are used for pollination by alfalfa growers), we need more beekeepers who can help keep these precious insects alive until the bees can develop natural mite defenses. During 1999, many of the new 1998 beekeepers will be looking forward to their first honey crop, and this article is meant to help them, as well as more experienced beekeepers, better enjoy beekeeping.

The catalog of one of the largest beekeeping equipment dealers in the United States says, 'After the bees fill the first deep hive body or two medium brood nest supers with brood and honey (beekeepers should) produce . . . surplus honey as comb honey, thereby avoiding the cost of an extractor, uncapping knife, tanks . . . etc.' Similar advice has been given by many well- known beekeepers and authors, including George Imirie, Roger Morse, Richard Taylor, and, most recently, Mary and Bill Weaver, in the January 1999 issue of Bee Culture.

I also strongly recommend that small beekeepers produce only comb honey, whether they are brand-new to the hobby or have a few years of experience. By producing comb honey, beekeepers minimize their investment, maximize the amount of revenue they receive for the surplus honey produced, and maximize their learning about bees! I was given similar advice when I started beekeeping, and for the past 30 years, I have produced comb honey exclusively. I will outline the procedures I follow to easily produce several thousand sections and a few hundred frames of comb honey every year. These procedures are applicable to a new beekeeper with two hives as well as to one with several dozen or over a hundred hives.

There are four different types of comb honey produced today. Listed in order of simplicity to produce, they are:

  • Round combs produced with plastic equipment. This is by far the simplest and least expensive type of comb honey. The equipment is sold under the trade name Ross Rounds . Round combs account for 90 percent or more of the section comb produced in the United States today.
  • Square sections produced with plastic equipment. Producing comb honey with this equipment is relatively simple, but the annual equipment cost is the highest of any of the alternatives.
  • Cut sections of comb honey produced in a full frame. This type of comb honey requires considerably more hive manipulation, and therefore more labor, than either of the types described above. However, this type of comb honey is in great demand, and many beekeepers produce both the round sections and cut comb.
  • Square sections produced with wood equipment. This type of comb honey is the most difficult and most labor-intensive of any. During the early 1900s, several million of these sections were produced annually. Initially, development of extraction equipment reduced the demand, and when round sections were popularized in the 1970s, demand was further reduced so that today very few are produced. (And many thousand Basswood [or Linden] trees were saved.)
I will outline procedures and techniques to successfully produce both round sections and cut comb, as they are the most popular types of comb honey produced. However, with some minor modifications, these techniques can also be used to produce the square sections in plastic equipment. Production of the square sections in wood equipment requires very different techniques, particularly concerning setting up the equipment and preparing the crop for market, and will not be discussed.

To consistently produce quality comb honey, the beekeeper needs:

  • Proper equipment
  • A young queen
  • A good understanding of the local nectar flow
  • A good knowledge of the bee brood cycle
I will describe simplified methods for producing, harvesting, packaging, and marketing round section and cut comb honey, starting with preparing the supers and concluding with overwintering the colonies. As far as possible, I will describe the timing of the steps by reference to climate conditions and plant flowering, so that beekeepers can readily determine timing applicable to where they live.

Beekeepers should assemble their equipment in late Fall or during Winter, so they are ready in the Spring. However, if a beekeeper has only a few hives, he or she can delay until the pussy willows and red maples bloom, as only a few hours' work is necessary to assemble as many as 10 supers. The necessary equipment is relatively straightforward, consisting of supers, frames and comb honey foundation. However, the specifics vary. Assembling Round Section Equipment
All major bee equipment dealers sell completely assembled Ross Round supers, and I strongly recommend that beekeepers producing round sections for the first time purchase one completely assembled super to use as a template. Thereafter, additional supers and equipment can be made by the beekeeper or purchased separately and assembled.

Supers for round comb sections should be 4 1/2' deep. Unless beekeepers have access to a table or radial saw, and are willing to trim 1/8' off all four sides, supers measuring 4 3/4;' should not be purchased, as the bees will produce considerable amounts of burr comb with such supers. When 4 3/4' supers are harvested, the burr comb will break, causing honey to drip down on the face of combs below, making a mess in your truck or car, and in your kitchen, garage or basement. No burr comb is constructed with 4 1/2' supers.

Each super for round sections requires:

  • Eight frames
  • 64 rings
  • Four follower boards
  • Three springs
The complete super purchased will have follower boards nailed or screwed onto three sides of the super. These largely overcome the tendency of the bees to not completely draw and fill comb immediately adjacent to the outside of the hive. Metal springs firmly hold the fourth follower board between the eight frames and the inside of the super.

By following the pattern provided by the complete super, beekeepers can make their own follower boards. Alternatively, they can be purchased from a dealer, usually by buying a 'super conversion kit,' which will include the follower boards as well as the springs.

When you are ready to assemble the frames, they should be taken from the box and opened so that the insides face the beekeeper. Place the two frame halves vertically on a table, and place eight rings nearby. Each ring has cutouts that fit into corresponding nibs inside the frames. When fit properly, the rings sit flush with the tops of the frame openings. If they are not initially flush, gently turn until they seat in place. When four rings are in each frame half, place a sheet of foundation on one frame half, and close the two halves. The frame is then complete and can be placed in the super.

Most dealers include assembly instructions in the box with each complete super, or will furnish such instructions upon request. In addition, the instructions may be ordered directly from Ross Rounds, Inc. at P.O. Box 582, Guilderland, NY 12084, or by fax at 518-381-6370 or email at LloydSpear@msn.com.

Assembling Cut Comb Equipment
There are three 'standard'-size supers for producing cut comb honey. While sizes might vary between manufacturers by as much as 1/8', the 'standard' super depths are:

4-3/4'; 5-3/4'; 6-5/8'

While any of these are perfectly suitable for cut comb production, I recommend the 5 3/4' super as best, with the 6 5/8' super a close second.

To produce cut comb honey, the beekeeper uses a full-size wood frame, and special foundation which is less heavy than that used for brood foundation. When the foundation is drawn and the cells filled and sealed, it is cut into pieces; thence the term 'cut comb.' In my opinion, the best cut comb container available is the hard plastic container, offered by all major dealers, measuring 4 1/4' square. The 4 3/4' super takes frames with an inside measurement of 4 1/4'. If cut comb is produced in these frames, they have to be perfectly filled, as there is almost no room to cut away unfilled cells. For that reason, I do not recommend using 4 3/4' supers. The 6- 5/8' supers have frames that measure well over 5' on the inside, allowing plenty of room to cut away unfinished cells. The frames for the 5 3/4' super have an inside measurement of about 5 inches.

I recommend that beekeepers use the 5 3/4' super to produce cut comb. Four-inch pieces cut from frames for these supers result in considerably less waste than those cut from frames for 6 5/8' supers and, more important, special frames with a split top bar are available for this size super. As far as I know, only The Walter T. Kelley Co., Inc. (800-233-2899), provides these frames, but they are clearly superior, as I will describe later.

Frames for all sizes of supers come with either a split, solid, or grooved bottom bar. I recommend the solid, principally because there is no space provided for a wax moth to hide her eggs. The bees will readily attach the comb to the bottom bar. If using the 6-5/8' super, I recommend the wedge top bar. As previously stated, I recommend the split top bar frame for the 5 3/4' super. Purchase the foundation most appropriate for the frame size, making certain it is termed cut comb, thin surplus or thin super. If you have a choice, purchase the cut comb foundation. Do not worry if it is not of a depth to go from the top bar all the way to the bottom bar. The bees do not care, and will draw it straight down to the bottom bar, and fasten it.

To fasten foundation to the top bar of a frame for a 6-5/8' super, break away the wedge and scrape away any loose splinters left on the bar. Lay the foundation against the frame, and replace the wedge. Holding it tightly in place, fasten by placing one nail close to the end bar on each side. Lift the frame and be certain the foundation is hanging straight. If not, redo, as wavy foundation will produce wavy comb, unusable for packaging. If the foundation is hanging straight, put three more nails into the wedge (for a total of five).

When wedge top bars are used, the foundation is held in place by the pressure exerted between the wedge and the top bar. If this wedge is not very tight, the weight of the bees and gravity will cause the foundation to entirely or partially pull free of the wedge and drop down to rest against the foundation in the adjoining frame. Since they have nowhere else to store honey, the bees will proceed to build burr and ladder comb in the space provided, and will generally ruin three combs for every frame with loose foundation. (The frame with the loose foundation, plus the two adjacent frames, will all be ruined.)

Split top bars, where the foundation can be firmly fastened, are clearly superior to wedge top bars. Insert the foundation through the slot. Most beekeepers find it easiest to do this by drawing the foundation up through the top bar, rather than pushing down through the bar. The foundation should be just flush with the top of the frame, or approximately 1/2' above the top. If the foundation is 1/2' above the top, gently fold it over so the extra 1/2' lies on the top bar. (In order to fold the foundation over without breaking, the foundation cannot be cold.) Whether the foundation is flush with the top or folded over, use a single staple to draw together the two portions of the wood forming the slotted top bar, trapping the foundation firmly within the slot. Again, be certain the foundation hangs straight in the frame. My experience is that it is much faster to fill frames with a slotted top bar, and it is much easier to get the foundation to hang straight in the frames.

Early Spring Management
When the pussy willows, skunk cabbage and red maples bloom (or the earliest of the three if they bloom at different times in your locale), treat for American foulbrood and Varroa mites, according to label instructions. Do not worry about opening your hives for the necessary few minutes, as it will not damage your bees or the brood. If it is cold, disturb the bees as little as possible by keeping smoke to a minimum. Next month I will continue to describe early Spring hive management, including procedures for swarm control and timing for placing the supers on the hive.

Lloyd Spear is a round comb honey producer living in upstate New York. And yes, he manufactures Ross Round Supers.

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