from the Canadian Honey Council's Hivelights...

Honey Combing - Bear Trouble and Honey Getting

by Ron Miksha



With just a few hives, it's easy to remember how they are doing from week to week. The one on the left, with the queen from Hawaii, needs another super. The one next to it needs one less super. Sometimes I feel like a new teacher in front of a gym class. I especially remember my star pupils - the ones destined for a great season. And the poor ones that need extra encouragement. The ones in between - good solid citizens - are pretty much nameless. It's sad that hives, like people, are most memorable when they are either very, very good or very, very bad.

My best hive started a promising season in June by filling two deep hive bodies with fourteen frames of brood and fifty thousand bees, but it disappointed me. Though it occupied a prime spot under a poplar sapling just a few meters from a dried creek bed, out of the wind in a spot with decent air drainage near an alfalfa field, and though it was headed by an incredible queen, it chose to be eaten by a bear. Brood, bees, honey. Wax, wood, wires and nails. All that remained was the ugly heap of junk that greeted me on the third of July when I arrived at the apiary, expecting to stack fifteen empty supers of Ross Round comb boxes on my star hive.

I had kept bees in this same location for ten years. This was the first bear attack. I had long since become carefree and sloppy. "Never, never drop a bit of burr comb on the ground, " Earl Emde told me when I kept bees in Saskatchewan. And Earl said, "Always keep your bear fence in good repair." Another beekeeper, who doesn't want his name printed in this magazine, told me to drink lots of beer before I drive out to the bee yard. Then, he said, "Throw the empties around the yard… the bears won't come near it after that." I never tried that last trick. And I wasn't using a bear fence, mostly because I don't own one. But I was always diligent about keeping the site clean, sometimes vacuuming and grooming individual blades of grass. The bear came anyway.

My problems with bears are minor. A friend with forty hives, then thirty, then fifteen, up near Water Valley, had four different bears this summer. And his fence network rivals the one at the Drumheller Correction Facility. But the bears were hungry this year and seven strands of 54,000 low current volts couldn't keep them out of his apiary.

Why my bear ate only one hive then left me alone, I'm not sure. But I'm still not happy - she picked the finest colony I ever owned and utterly destroyed it, wrecking a lifetime opportunity for a shot at the Guinness Book of World Records. I had lots of mediocre hives for the bear to pick. Colonies with a half dozen bees. Those hives weren't likely to store much over a hundred pounds each. But my good hive was gone.

Most of my colonies received two comb honey supers, a few got more. Swarm control consisted of reversing brood chambers, equalizing colonies (by shifting physical positions and by swapping around frames of brood). As supers filled, I rotated them - most hives prefer to fill one or another side of the honey box first and, typically, the back combs before the combs near the entrance. There is one recommended procedure that I didn't do. Most comb producers suggest shifting nearly finished comb supers to the top of the hive, replacing their position with comb supers that are mostly foundation. The idea is to get the bees working on another super by placing it right on top the brood nest with a nearly full super above. And, if your goal is nice clean white cappings on the combs, you don't want the patter of dirty little bee feet trotting across your honey. Moving the nearly finished box higher up discourages the tire treads.

But there is a down-side to the super reversal procedure, and you may want to consider it. Moving a nearly finished box away from the hive's heat source might be a good idea along the Appalachicola river, just upstream from Ulee Jackson's beeyard. The tupelo honey produced there never granulates. But if canola, or some fall flower like aster or goldenrod, is a primary nectar source for you, the partially finished combs may begin to crystallize if you stick them up top. I don't have canola or much summer-time goldenrod in my alpine beeyard, but it gets cold at night at my elevation. Granulation is still a risk, and with the cool weather, I may find the bees aren't finishing the nearly completed combs if the honey box is placed on top.

I have one more tip to share before I crawl back into my bee suit. New beekeepers sometimes ask me if bees get mad when you steal their honey. Bees don't really know you are taking their honey. But they certainly know that you are causing trouble, or creating a stink, as we used to call it back in Saskatchewan when we used smelly chemicals to chase the bees from supers. So take off your honey with the least amount of disturbance you can and the bees will be the gentlest. Always use a little smoke, but don't blast your bellows non-stop at the comb honey boxes. The combs will absorb the smoke odour and then you'll have to sell the honey at Safeway's cured meats counter.

You can use stink boards, bee blowers, or Porter bee escapes. Or you can brush the bees off, one at a time. A Manitoba beekeeper tells me he thumps his combs on the ground until all the bees fall off. I've used all these techniques at one time or another. Each has some advantages, and serious disadvantages. Thumping is hard on the equipment, and like brushing, it requires extra smoke and irritates the bees. The chemicals and blowers are expensive environmental nuisances. Porter bee escapes require some special equipment and an extra trip or two out to the beeyard. And don't always work.

There's another method, which also has its hidden hazards, and may be illegal where you live. I read about it on the Internet, the place where you can learn how to build bombs, speak Croatian, and remove honey from bees. My son and I arrived at the apiary at two in the afternoon. My son, who is fourteen, doesn't like bees, and therefore, hopefully, will never have to suffer through being a beekeeper. He goes to the beeyard with me only to practice his driving skills. I digress. With minimal smoke and almost no jarring of the hives, we lifted off every box of comb honey, stacked them end-on-end (so the sun shone into all the frames) at the edge of the beeyard. Those honey boxes were full of bees. Then we went for a drive, coffee in Bragg Creek, a short hike up Elbow Falls. Got back to the apiary two hours later. Every bee had drifted out of the boxes and gone home. Every single bee! We simply stacked the liberated comb honey supers in the van and drove away.

Why doesn't everyone take honey this way? When I pulled this trick on my bees, there was a very light honey flow on. But during a dearth, the bees would not be distracted. They'd find the supers and rob like crazy. Everyone within four kilometres would know what you were doing because everyone would be getting stung by angry, frantic honey bees. And, returning to the apiary two hours later, there would be more bees in the supers than when you'd pulled them. I would never do this with the hive behind my house, preferring to brush those combs free of bees. Just in case.


Calgary, Alberta, Canada
November 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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