Beekeeping for Honey, or Beekeeping for Bees?

It’s February 2019 as I revisit this post from 2011 — and I’ve deleted the whole thing except for two photos. The original title of this post was, “Still No Honey.”

This was my second summer of beekeeping and I wanted some payback for all the work I’d put into keeping my bees alive. I wanted some honey. I was midway through August and still saw no signs of my bees making honey. I always tell people that honey isn’t the reason I keep bees. It isn’t. But… if I wasn’t able to get a taste of honey at all, ever, I wouldn’t put nearly as much work into beekeeping as I do.

Let’s pause this thought for a minute and talk about keeping bees just for the sake of keeping bees. If that’s all I wanted to do, I’d do everything I normally do to build a colony up from a nuc so that it would survive its first winter. If the colony was weak, I’d give it sugar and pollen patties in late winter, early spring, to give it a boost, etc. — all the standard stuff most first year beekeepers have to do on the island of Newfoundland.

Fresh comb in Hive #1’s honey super. (August 12, 2011.)

But instead of concerning myself with harvesting honey, I’d add a third deep in the late spring and simply manage the hive as a 3-deep hive. An established healthy honey bee colony living in a 3-deep hive should be able to make enough honey for itself so that it doesn’t need syrup or sugar feeding to get through the winter. The space of 3 deeps should provide enough room for it to build up in the spring without much risk of swarming. Ideally, it would be a self-sustaining and self-regulating honey bee colony, producing enough honey to survive the winter on its own and having enough space to expand in the spring with little risk of swarming.

And by ideally I mean it’ll never work out that way. It would still require some heavy lifting by an attentive beekeeper to keep the bees alive from time to time. For instance, emergency feeding when necessary; splitting the hive or adding deeps if the population gets out of control. But overall, I imagine it would be easier to manage than a regular 2-deep Langstroth hive that’s being pushed to make as much honey as possible.

But back to wanting a honey harvest when the bees don’t want to make honey. It can’t be forced. Or it can be, but is that a good idea? In my experience, bees working off foundationless frames take longer to fill up a medium honey super. That makes sense. Even if the honey super frames are full of foundation, it might still take a while for the bees to build comb and then make surplus honey. The best situation is usually when the honey super already has drawn comb in it. The bees clean up the comb and then get to work making honey in no time. The smell of the empty comb stimulates them and signals to them that they have space upstairs to store some honey.

But even then, they still won’t do anything in the honey super until they’re ready. Like all of Mother Nature’s wonderful creations, honey bees have evolved to be extremely efficient. The bees won’t expand unless they have to. If they already have plenty of room to store honey, they’ll just stay where they are. But once the population expands and there’s not enough room for all the bees and not enough honey for them, then (generally speaking) they’ll move upstairs and go to work on the honey supers.

Most of my attempts at pushing the bees to make surplus honey when they weren’t ready for it didn’t turn out so well. Reducing the whole hive to a single deep, for instance, and giving them only honey supers up top can work. But it usually requires feeding the bees buckets of syrup afterwards so they have enough stores to survive the winter. So essentially I take all their honey and replace it with expensive sugar syrup that isn’t nearly as good for them. Commercial beekeepers do that all the time because otherwise they go broke, but as a backyard beekeeper, I just don’t feel the need to push my beekeeping to that level.

When I want my bees to make surplus honey, I add a honey super. Then I wait.

To answer the question, do I keep bees for the bees or for the honey? A bit of both, really.