from the Canadian Honey Council's Hivelights...

Honey Combing - the Fundamentals

by Ron Miksha



I quit commercial beekeeping ten years ago. I finally had enough of small crops, low prices, high expenses. (Did you know farming is one of the few enterprises where all the input materials are purchased at retail and all the production is sold at wholesale?) I was 32, young enough to change careers, so I looked for a field that would use my beekeeping skills. I became a geophysicist. But I couldn't forget about Susie, Sally, Eleanor, Betty, and all the other bees I'd left behind. Once stung by the beekeeping-bug, you can never recover. So alongside seismic lines and tediously constructed maps of geological anomalies, I kept a smoker and hive tool. And I wanted to keep a dozen hives.

But I had a dilemma. How could I keep bees and not fuss with all that nasty honey? The curse of prairie beekeeping. It's like the eighth great plague. Along with war, disease, pestilence. Too much honey. Beekeepers in southern latitudes on this continent may only get thirty or forty pounds per hive. Lucky folks. After half a day of extracting, they can soak the kitchen floor with soap suds, burn their sticky clothing, and it's all over. Other beekeepers in the south produce queens. They've never owned an extractor. Never fought granulating settling tanks, burst honey pipes, over-flowing barrels. Then there are the pollinators. These beekeepers - the ones on the west coast, for example - keep hives on pallets and move them to almonds, cherries, pears, cucumbers. They don't even own honey supers. But pity the poor beekeeper stuck on the Canadian prairie. We have to contend with the ordeal of two hundred pound crops.

My first step in reducing the fuss and mess of a sticky honey crop after I moved to Calgary was to search the countryside for as miserable a bee location as I could find. Obviously, the irrigated alfalfa fields east of town would never do - I would practically be guaranteed a huge honey crop in that area. Nor could I place my hobby-sized collection of hives further north and east - that's a place with ample rainfall and enormous fields of canola. I needed spring frosts, too much rain. Occasional summertime blizzards. The mountains.

I set twelve hives (Australian packages, if you must know) in the Rocky Mountain Foothills, four thousand feet above sea level. Snow capped mountains almost in view (if you stand on top the tallest hive and squint to the west). Surely, my bees would not notice the hay fields all around them. Wrong.

The first year, I had a tonne of honey. Lucky for me, it was stored in deep brood chambers. Instead of extracting in the family room of my rented hovel, I simply stored the excess honey. Surely the bees would need the feed the following year. Wrong again.

By the end of the second year, I had a two-year surplus stacked in the garage. I decided to try the old-fashioned technique of let-alone beekeeping. Usually when bees are ignored, they feel rejected, unloved, and they produce less honey. Harsh treatment, to be sure, but worth a try. I ignored my bees (except to go out in the country, sit in the grass, and listen to them build swarm-cells). I figured this would teach them to make less honey. Wrong again.

I love keeping bees. A sanity break from the oil patch. A bit of fresh air, a reprieve from computer toil. But I needed a way to prevent the unfortunate flood of honey by-product that my hobby produced. A brilliant beekeeper friend, I think his name is Simon Wang of B.C., sent me a picture of his honey crop. A single super of comb honey. Produced in plastic frames. "You don't even get sticky harvesting and packaging," he wrote. I needed to know more.

I read the bee literature. The plastic frames, rings, and covers were expensive. (Do I smell a tax write-off, or what?) Per pound, bees produce half as much comb honey as extracted. (Now I was really getting excited.) Bees kept in areas where it gets cool at night, such as the foothills of mountain ranges, have trouble drawing out the wax and fill even fewer combs. (Bingo!)

So I became an enthusiastic comb honey producer. Although my friend Simon may have been able to produce, harvest, and pack combs without messy dribble, I still found I left a small puddle of honey every time I wrapped a comb. But it was much less trouble. Over the next few years of hobby combing, I learned a few tricks and almost became good at the craft. People began asking me for advice. Well, one person asked me for advice.

It turns out there are other folks who want to keep a few hives but don't want to keep an extractor, uncapper, settling tank, honey pump, and bio-engineered filtration mechanism in the garage. Maybe they need to park a car there? So I began answering more and more questions about comb honey. This naturally leads to the idea of a series of articles for Hive Lights about comb honey beekeeping.

Jim Powers once told me the three R's of good beekeeping: "Lots of honey and pollen in the hives; good young queens; good locations." OK, maybe not three R's, but certainly the sagest advice anyone can employ in the honey patch. And Jim would have known. He was once the world's biggest beekeeper. Not tall and husky, but big the way beekeepers measure each other. He had 32,000 hives of bees back in the days when beekeeping was hard work. ("Yesterday?" you ask.)

So we want to apply the Power's rules to honey production - especially if we'd like to fill fickle combs. And honey combs are making a comeback - new customers are discovering the stuff. New equipment and new beekeeping techniques are making honey combing relatively easy. And it's the perfect option for keepers who don't want to own a bright shiny extractor.

In the next issues of Hive Lights, we'll begin examining comb honey production. We'll expound the Powers' rules; look at tricks I've stolen from better beekeepers than I; study the markets; show several pictures; interview some really good beekeepers; and, perhaps motivate a few people to try a bit of combing.


Calgary, Alberta, Canada
August 2000


August 2000: Honey Combing - the Fundamentals

November 2000: Honey Combing - Bear Trouble and Honey Getting

February 2001: Honey Combing - Bee Equipment

August 2001: Honey Combing - Selling your Gold

February 2002: Honey Combing - In the Digital Age

May 2002: Honey Combing - Making Queens

November 2003: Honey Combing - Wintering Your Bees


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