A Mystery of Dark & Light Honey Comb

Do frames of dark comb always produce dark honey? I’ll give you one guess.

This isn’t the first time I’ve made crushed & strained honey in my kitchen. But it’s the first time I’ve crushed combs that were this different from one another — so dark and so light. I’ve harvested honey by the individual frame before because sometimes each frame of honey in a single hive can come from such a different nectar source that the final liquid honey in each frame has a completely different colour and flavour. (That sentence seems longer than it needed to be.) I was expecting something like that this time around. But that’s not what happened.

The honey on the left came from dark comb. The one the right came from light comb.

If you can tell just by looking at this photo (and not reading the caption) which liquid honey came from dark comb and which came from light comb, you’ve got some seriously impressive colour vision happening inside your head.

So here’s my theory: All the honey is pretty much the same, not much difference between each frame despite the darker comb on some frames. The comb is dark on some of the frames because baby bees were raised in the cells before they were used for making honey. Propolis and debris from the baby-making process is darker than what we call “virgin” comb — comb that has only been used for making honey. But the actual honey in the dark comb is no different than the honey in light comb. The cells are clean. The nectar sources are no different. The honey harvest is probably not much different either. It’s like having beer in a clear bottle and beer in a tinted bottle. The dark colour is in the bottle, not in the beer.

I could be wrong, but that’s my best guess. And the reason for the dark comb is my non-use of queen excluders.

I don’t use queen excluders anymore because when my bees swarm, they always swarm from hives that have queen excluders reducing the brood nest. I know people who get amazing honey production from colonies with a brood nest reduced to a single deep, and that’s great if beekeeping is your full-time job and you know you can check on those bees every eight days like clockwork. But that’s not the case for many backyard beekeepers who have day jobs that take them away from their bees much of the time. It’s certainly not the case for me. That’s why I’ve given up on queen excluders, and that’s why my queens, if they want to, can lay eggs all the way up to the top of the hive in comb that is eventually backfilled with nectar to make honey. Hence, the darker comb. (Letting the queen lay wherever she wants is sometimes referred to as an “open brood nest” configuration.)

“Backfilled” or “backfilling,” by the way, is a term that usually refers to the bees storing nectar in comb that once contained brood, such as when, “The bees are backfilling the brood nest.” And now that we’re on the topic, a backfilled brood nest can sometimes indicate that the bees have run out of space to store nectar and are forced to use the brood area for nectar instead, which then reduces the space the queen has for laying, which in turn triggers the swarming instinct. But… near the end of the summer when the queen is naturally laying less, the sight of a backfilled brood nest is normal. At least for me it is.

This photo isn’t the best example of a backfilled brood nest, but it’s close enough. The outer edge of the brood nest can look like this anyway, but imagine that the entire frame was once full of brood comb. Then the brood on the outer edge hatched out and the worker bees, because they had nowhere else to put the nectar, filled in the now-open outer edge cells with nectar. And that’s your backfilled brood nest. Little spots of nectar inside the inner portion of the brood nest, especially if it’s happening in the middle of the summer, can also signal that there’s not enough space for all the nectar that’s coming in and I better hurry up and put in some drawn comb or an empty frame if I can.