Nectar and Pollen Plants

One reason for the success and adaptability of the honey bee is its willingness and ability to use the nectar and pollen from thousands of plant species of all types. The intermediate body size and tongue length of honey bees as compared with other bees enable them to utilize many different types of flowers to obtain nectar and pollen. Although their tongues are shorter than those of most bumble bees, they are long enough to reach nectar in flower tubes several millimeters long. Honey bees also visit tiny, open flowers that are too small for larger bees.

In general, honey bees must depend for their nectar and pollen on wild plants, or on cultivated plants grown for food crops, pasture, or other purposes. The yield of nectar is not sufficiently large to justify planting crops only for bees. However, there are many ways in which plantings made for other purposes can benefit bees. Agricultural land diverted from production can be planted to clovers and other legumes useful to bees. Shrubs, trees, and annual plants used for recreation and conservation areas can provide beauty and pleasure for people, seeds and berries for wildlife, and nectar and pollen for honey bees. Roadside plants used to reduce maintenance and to control erosion can also provide forage for bees.

Summer honey production depends in large part on the nectar yields of summer-blooming plants. But if it were not for the nectar and pollen of spring flowers, there would not be the force of bees required later to bring in that honey crop. For this reason, all nectar and pollen plants are considered in this section. In the spring, the food reserves in the hive are usually low and the demand for food to feed the rapidly developing young bees is high. Cool and wet spring weather often limits flight and thereby retards the growth of the colony. It is unusual for colonies to produce surplus honey from early- blooming plants such as tree fruits, berries, dandelion, mustard, and willow. However, if colonies have enough field bees, and the weather is good, they may store surplus honey from these early nectar sources. Such surplus should not be removed because it is used by the colony for food until the main nectar flow later in the year. Bees secrete wax and build combs from foundation well during a spring nectar flow. However, unless you also feed the bees, do not try to put a full super of foundation on a colony in the spring. Two or three frames are usually enough.

Honey bees visit large numbers of plant species at any one time and throughout the foraging season. The system of communication within the colony tends to concentrate the foragers' efforts on those plants that give the greatest quantity of nectar and pollen, and have the highest concentration of sugar in the nectar. A plant that is highly attractive to bees when nectar is scarce may not be visited when other more desirable plants are in bloom. When we speak of nectar and pollen plants, we include all plants visited by bees. Most of them are not of primary importance to bees and are classified as minor sources of pollen and nectar. The major, most important, nectar and pollen plants are the few that grow in abundance, usually within a mile and a half of the colony, and provide a fair return of pollen and nectar per flower head or individual floret. An English study of pollen collection by bees indicated that plants offering fair amounts of pollen must be growing within 1/4 mile of the hive to be visited by bees. The greatest amount of pollen was collected from the main nectar sources and from those most abundant near the hive. In general, this is also true in the Midwest.

The primary or major nectar and pollen plants of the Midwest, based on their yield and value to honey bees are as follows:

Alfalfa - Medicago sativa
Dandelion - Taraxacum officinale
Soybean - Glycine max 
Sweetclovers, Melilotus species 
White sweetclover-Melilotits alba 
Yellow sweetclover - Melilotus officinalis
True clovers, Trifolium species 
Alsike clover - Trifolium hybridum
Ladino - Trifolium repens 
Red clover - Trifolium pratense
White Dutch - Trifolium repens

Secondary nectar and pollen plants are as follows:

Aster - Aster species 
Basswood and related species-Tilia americana and other Tilia species 
Berries, raspberry and others-Rubus species 
Birdsfoot trefoil-Lotus corniculatu
Chicory - Cichorium intybus 
Corn - Zea mays (Pollen only)
Cranberry - Vaccinium macrocarpon 
Elm - Ulmus species (Pollen only) 
Goldenrod - Solidago species 
Lima bean - Phaseolus lunatus 
Locust, black - Robinia pseudoacacia 
Locust, common honey - Gleditsia triacanthos
Maple - Acer species 
Milkweed -Asclepias species 
Morning glory - Convolvulus and Ipomoea species Mustard - Brassica species 
Smartweed - Polygonum species 
Sorghum - Sorghum species (Pollen only) 
Spanish needles - Bidens species 
Sumac - Rhus species
Sunflower - Helianthus species 
Tree fruits - apple, apricot, plum, cherry, pear 
Tulip poplar - Liriodendron tulipifera 
Vine crops-cucumber, muskmelon, pumpkin, squash, watermelon 
Willow - Salix species 
Yellow rocket - Barbarea vulgaris

Plants in southern areas of the Midwest bloom as much as 3 to 6 weeks before those in northern areas. The dates referred to here are those for central Illinois and must be modified for locations north or south. In mid-March, the first sources of pollen and nectar are the maples, elms, and willows. Early fruit bloom, such as that of apricot, begins in April, and apple trees are usually still in bloom in early May. Mustard and yellow rocket are early sources of nectar and pollen. Dandelion comes early in protected spots but reaches its peak bloom in May.

Primary nectar flows, which produce most of the honey crop, are from white Dutch clover, the sweetclovers, alfalfa, and soybeans, depending on the area. Alfalfa is of greatest importance in the northern and western portions of the Midwest, while the clovers are of importance throughout the entire region. Red clover is a good pollen source but cannot be relied on as a nectar producer because honey bees often are unable to reach the nectar in the long floral tubes. However, bees may collect considerable amounts of nectar from red clover in dry years and from the regrowth after the first crop of hay has been taken Soybeans are a major nectar source in Illinois, Iowa, and probably most other states of the Midwest with large acreages of beans. In central Illinois, late-blooming, full-season soybean varieties such as Clark, Kent, and Wayne are of most value to the bees. They usually yield nectar after the clovers have finished. Bees obtain large quantities of nectar and pollen from soybeans, which are usually attributed to some other plant. There is good evidence that bees increase the yield of beans of some varieties. Chicory is also an important source of pollen as well as nectar. In other countries it is considered a good nectar source, but in this country it has generally been overlooked as a plant valuable to bees.

Smartweed, spanish needles, goldenrod, and aster are the latest blooming of the more important plants. They may yield nectar in August, September, and even later, depending on the weather and the soil moisture. The acreage of these plants is no longer as large as it used to be, and crops of honey from them are also rarer than in earlier years.

Honey bees also collect two other materials from plants. One of these is called honeydew. It is excess plant sap excreted by aphids and other insects that feed on plants. It is most common on trees such as willow, elm, pine, and oak, but may also occur on alfalfa and other crop plants. The other material is called propolis. It is a plant resin or gum collected from buds and other plant parts of trees such as poplar and ash. The bees pack it onto their hind legs but must have help to remove it in the hive. They also collect and reuse propolis from used beekeeping equipment stored in the open.

When nectar is not available, usually in the fall, bees collect a wide variety of sweet substances. They suck the juices from apples, pears, grapes, and other fruits that have cracked or been opened by other insects or by birds. Bees create problems when they visit sugar syrup at canneries, and root beer and other drinks at drive-in restaurants.

Swarming and Swarm Prevention

Swarming is the natural method of propagation for honey bee colonies. Natural selection has favored the maintenance of the swarming trait because those colonies that did not swarm died without leaving new colonies to carry on. For centuries man has selected bees that produced the best swarms to increase the number of colonies. The use of movable frame hives now enables us to divide colonies at will, and we must try to prevent or control swarming because it weakens the colonies and reduces honey production.

Removing frame of honey from a well-provisioned colony (Fig. 32)

A swarm consists of the old queen, some drones, and 50 to 90 percent of the worker bees of a colony (Fig. 33). They leave the colony suddenly as a group and cluster temporarily on some object such as a tree branch. Later they disperse and move to a new home selected for them by scout bees. Sometimes several swarms from one hive leave over a period of a week or more, and many of them are accompanied by young, unmated queens. Queen cells are built in preparation for swarming, and the first swarm often leaves about the time the cells are sealed (Fig. 34). Swarming is most common in the late spring and early summer periods.

Many factors contribute to swarming. The most readily apparent one is crowding and lack of room for adult worker bees. In experiments on swarming, a colony put into a small hive swarmed in as short a time as 24 hours. Swarming is also associated with the amount and distribution of the glandular secretions of the queen. When there is a shortage of the secretions, the bees make queen cells in preparation for swarming or supersedure. Queen cells are also built in crowded colonies because of the unequal distribution of queen substances among the adult workers. Colonies with queens over a year old are more likely to swarm than those with young queens. The seasonal cycle of colony growth, the weather, and the heredity of the queen are additional factors related to swarming. The colony that becomes big early in the season is more likely to swarm than one that reaches its peak later. Swarming can rarely be prevented entirely but it can be reduced to a reasonable level by good management.

Removing a swarm of honey bees. (Fig. 33)

To reduce swarming you must plan ahead to provide your bees with young queens and sufficient hive space at all times. These measures will reduce but not solve the problem. You must also be able to recognize the signs that indicate a colony is making, or will soon make, preparations to swarm. One evident sign is a mass of bees that entirely fills the hive. They may come out of the hive in large numbers when you open it. A badly crowded colony often has bees clustered on the landing board and on the front of the hive near the entrance. During extremely hot weather such "hanging out" is an attempt to cool the hive and may not be related to crowding inside (Fig. 35). Any crowded colony should be given one or more additional hive bodies filled with combs or foundation. The combs will do them the most good; founda- tion is of little value unless there is a nectar flow or the hive is being fed so that the bees can complete the comb. It is not unusual for a colony to occupy three or more deep bodies before the main nectar flow begins.

Unsealed queen cells built on the bottom edge of a comb in preperation for swarming. (Fig. 34)

Another warning sign of impending swarming is the condition of the queen-cell cups on the combs. They are always present but are usually short and small. The wax of the cups is the same color as the comb on which the cups are built. As soon as a colony begins prep- aration for swarming, the cell cups are enlarged, their edges are ex- tended and thinned, and new, white wax can be seen on the cups. The queen will lay an egg in the cup shortly after these preparations. When you find these conditions present, you must try to keep the colony from carrying out its plans. An additional super may solve the problem. If not, you can switch the location of the colony with a weaker one so that many of the stronger colony's returning field bees will be lost to it. You can also remove sealed and emerging brood to add to weaker colonies. If nectar is coming into the hive, add one or more frames of foundation in place of the combs removed.

Worker bees "hanging out" and fanning on the front of their hive because of the heat. (Fig. 35)

Prompt action is needed when you find large numbers of queen cells in a crowded colony. Check first to see if the queen is present and, if so, find and destroy all queen cells. Additional hive space may prevent a swarm from leaving, but more drastic measures have a better chance of success. For example, you can divide the colony into two smaller colonies or make one or more nucleus colonies from it. These tech- niques are explained on pages 101 to 102. There is little you can do for a colony after a swarm has left except to make sure that it has empty combs in which the new queen can lay.


Excluders are used to confine queens to one part of the hive and to prevent them from laying eggs in honey supers (Fig. 36). Unless they are kept from doing so by an excluder, many queens make a narrow brood nest up the center of the entire hive. Eventually they are forced down as honey is stored in the upper combs, but there may be brood in the supers when the honey crop is removed. Excluders can save time and effort in beekeeping in spite of persistent claims that they are "honey excluders" that reduce yields. It is true that some strains of bees seem reluctant to pass through an excluder but they may need a period of time to adjust to its presence. Put the excluder and first super on the hive ahead of the nectar flow to allow the bees to become accustomed to passing through it. The benefits of excluders outweigh the disadvantages.

Supering for Honey

As the main nectar flow begins, the colony needs additional comb pace in which to store the nectar and the honey made from it. If you are beginning in beekeeping with all new equipment, you must add supers containing frames of foundation suitable either for extracting or for making some type of comb honey. On the other hand, if you already have empty, finished combs they should be added to the hives at the start of the main nectar flow. Light-colored combs, not previously used for brood rearing, are best for honey production. Honey taken from such combs is lighter in color and contains less pollen than honey extracted from dark combs. The honey may also have a somewhat better flavor. Plan to reserve your light-colored combs for honey production and keep them free of brood by using excluders or by employing management practices that keep the queen out of the supers.

When brought into the hive, nectar is about 50 to 80 percent water. It therefore takes up much more comb space initially than it does after being evaporated and processed into honey. Colonies provided with supers of drawn comb immediately have space in which to put this large volume of fluid, so they are less liable to store it in the brood nest where it restricts the queen's laying space. Colonies that receive supers of foundation must first build comb before they can store nectar and honey in those supers. The resulting delay can reduce the amount of honey produced and also increase the possibility that the colony will try to swarm. Beekeepers can produce more extracted honey than comb honey because drawn combs can be used each season. To produce comb honey of any kind, they may reuse the frames but must use new foundation each year.

It is important to learn the best time to put on the supers. Some beekeepers do it according to the date, if they know from experience when the main nectar flow usually starts. A few beekeepers put enough supers on at the start of the nectar flow to provide storage for the entire season's crop. Probably the best way to determine when storage space is needed is to look at the combs and shake them to see how much nectar is being brought into the hive. Incoming nectar also stimulates wax production, which is evident as new, white wax on the honey cells and along the top bars of the frames. A change in the weight of a hive is another good indicator of the need for supers. Gains of 1 to 10 pounds per day may be recorded during a nectar flow. A scale colony should be weighed each morning before general flight begins. Otherwise the weight may be affected by the number of bees out in the field and by the unprocessed nectar in the hive. On warm nights the bees process much of the nectar brought in during the day. You can hear the humming sounds of this activity when you walk through an apiary at night. The activity of bees at a watering place can give you another clue to the start of the nectar flow. When the flow begins, the bees use dilute nectar in place of water, and very few bees continue to visit the regular source of water. Extremely hot weather, however, may bring them back for water to cool the hive.

A queen excluder above the brood nest (Fig. 36)

There is no formula to use in deciding how many supers to add at one time. This depends on the strength of the colony and the amount of incoming nectar. It is always better to give too much comb space rather than too little, especially at the start of the nectar flow. During the heat of summer, extra supers of drawn combs are of value to the colony by serving as insulation for the top of the hive. This insulation and extra storage space can be as effective as shade for increasing honey production. However, you must be much more conservative in adding supers if you have only foundation to give. Do not put on more than two shallow supers of foundation, or one deep one, at a time, and plan to check the colonies at weekly intervals. Add the first foundation only when you are sure that a good nectar flow has begun.

The first super goes onto the hive above the brood chamber, which is usually made up of two deep hive bodies or three shallow ones. When additional space is needed, you may either "top super" by putting the next super above the one added first, or "bottom super" by putting it between the brood chamber and the supers already on the hive. There are advocates of each system, but experiments have shown that they produce similar yields of honey. However, top supering is the better choice. Bottom supering requires much more work, invites the queen to move into the supers if there is no excluder, and makes further evaluation of the nectar flow difficult. Top supering allows you to look only at the top of the hive to determine when you need to add more supers. There are only two times when you should bottom super. Do it when adding a super of foundation after previously giving a colony drawn combs. However, if you anticipate not having enough completed combs to handle the crop, you should mix three or four frames of foundation alternately with the combs in a super and use it as if it were all drawn combs. Bottom supering may also be of value when most of the combs in the supers are capped.

Initially, an abundance of space is an advantage to the colony and will help it to produce the greatest amount of honey possible. Later, as the flow begins to wane, you should be careful about oversupering the hive. The bees will fill the lower portion of the hive with honey and be better prepared for winter if they have little empty space in the supers.

Removing the Honey Crop

Surplus honey can always be removed from the hive when all the cells are capped with wax. Bulk comb, section, and cut comb honeys must be fully capped for sale or home use. Remove such honey as soon as it is ready so the comb will not become discolored by "travel stain" as the bees walk over it. Combs of honey for extracting can be removed from the hives before they are fully capped. In humid areas, such as Illinois, this requires caution, and combs should be at least three-quarters or more sealed. Other-wise the moisture level in the honey may be high enough to lower its quality and increase the chance it will ferment. Honey may contain as much as 18.6 percent moisture and still qualify for the two top grades of honey. However, honey of lower moisture content is thicker and more desirable. Above 17 percent moisture, unheated honey is increasingly liable to ferment, and at 19 percent it will definitely ferment unless it is stored below 50 degrees F. (10 degrees C.). Even sealed honey may be high in moisture if the weather is humid and unfavorable for evaporation. In drier areas of the Midwest, especially in the western section, bees are better able to remove moisture from the nectar. In these areas combs somewhat less than three-fourths sealed may often be removed from the hives. In any area it is a good idea to shake a few combs to see whether there is thin nectar present, as explained on page 65. Honey removed in the morning will usually have less unprocessed nectar with it than that taken off later in the day.

Fully capped honey, as well as partially sealed combs, may occa- sionally show signs of fermentation when removed from the hive. Such signs are usually bubbles in the cells and a slightly sour odor. Any such combs should be uncapped and returned to the hives. The bees will reprocess the honey, which can be extracted later, usually without a trace of fermentation. If bees in a particular apiary consistently pro- duce fermented honey, move them to a higher or windier site where they can evaporate moisture from their colonies more easily. This prob- lem is most common in areas having high summer humidity and other local conditions such as evening fog that reduce the evaporative power of the air circulated by the bees in their hives.

Honey stored during the spring is usually left with the bees. Some of it, such as dandelion honey, is not good tasting, and the bees need it for rearing brood. The honey from the main sources, the clovers, soybeans, and alfalfa, is usually mild flavored and light colored, ideal for home use and sale. This crop should be removed from the hives as soon as possible, at least by the middle of August, to prevent it from being mixed with honey of stronger and less desirable flavors such as smartweed, aster, and goldenrod. Leave the partially filled supers and some extra comb space in case a late nectar flow occurs. By a week or so after the end of the summer nectar flow, the moisture level of the honey is usually low enough so that you may remove all the surplus honey, sealed or unsealed. Be sure that the colony has 40 to 60 pounds or more of honey remaining in the hive for winter. In the colder, more northerly areas of the Midwest, bees may need 80 or 90 pounds to have the best chance of surviving a long winter. Bees that did not make a crop of honey, or those from which you removed too much honey, must be fed sugar syrup in early fall to provide stored food for winter. Bees winter as well on this food as they do on honey, perhaps even better in some cases.

Bees must be removed from honey combs when the combs are taken out of the hive. This can be done by shaking and brushing, by using bee-escape boards or fume boards with repellent chemicals, or by blowing. For one or two colonies, shaking and brushing is suitable if done quickly to prevent robbing. After smoking the super, give each comb a sharp shake to dislodge the bees into the top of the hive or in front of the entrance. Those bees remaining on the comb can be brushed off with a bee brush (Fig. 37), and the comb placed in a covered empty super.

A bee-escape board consists of an inner cover or similar board the size of the top of the hive, with one or more bee escapes mounted in the center or corners of the board. The bee escape is a small metal passageway with spring closures that allow bees to move through it in one direction only -down into the hive. In use, the board is put beneath the super to be removed with the center hole of the bee escape facing upward. After 24 hours all the bees will have moved down into the lower hive bodies. Before you put the board on, be sure that there are no holes or cracks to let bees in or out of the super. If there are, robber bees may steal the honey. Do not leave the board on during the day in hot weather or the combs may melt. This system of removing honey requires two trips to the apiary and is practical only for a few colonies in a home apiary.

Chemical repellents can be used to drive bees from their filled honey combs before you remove them from the hive. The two materials now approved are benzaldehyde and butyric anhydride, the latter marketed under the name of "Bee-Go." Both are fairly effective in repelling bees and can be used at any time when conditions are suitable for handling colonies. They are applied to the colony on a fume board, I to 2 inches deep, that fits on the super in place of the hive lid. The fume board should have a wooden frame covered by 1/2- or 3/4-inch-thick pressed board such as Celotex (Fig. 38). This thick top, white or unpainted, prevents the sun from vaporizing the chemicals too rapidly and thereby stupefying rather than repelling the bees. Smoke the top of the colony well to get the bees moving before putting the fume board on it, and be careful to use the proper dosage of the chemical. Otherwise the materials may not work effectively. Always use caution in handling such products and follow the directions on the label. Butyric anhydride has a strong, unpleasant odor that is repellent to humans as well as to bees. Benzaldehyde smells like bitter almonds.

Brushing bees from a frame of sealed honey. (Fig. 37)

In the top illustration, a chemical repellent solution is being applied to a fume board used to drive bees from honey combs. The fume board is being placed on the hive in the bottom illustration.  The smike helps to drive the bees from the frames of honey being removed from the hive.
(Fig. 38)

Bee blowers (Fig. 39) are the newest equipment for removing bees from honey combs. They produce a large volume of rapidly moving air that quickly blows the bees out of the combs without injuring them or making them angry. The honey supers are removed from the hive and placed on a stand that is part of the blower. Most models have a chute that directs the bees toward the front of the hive as they leave the super. Blowers are effective regardless of the temperature and the experience of the operator. They may also be used for other routine jobs such as shaking package bees, requeening, and removing extra equipment. The operator of a blower should wear some form of hearing protection. The price of the blowers at present limits their use to cornmercial beekeeping. However, air compressors and home vacuum cleaners can be used successfully for small numbers of colonies.

A bee blower positioned in front of the hive.  The bees are blown downward toward the hive entarance. (Fig. 39)

Brood diseases of bees are transmitted between colonies in honey and in comb. Combs of honey removed from an infected colony can be the means of spreading disease in an apiary when the extracted combs are returned to several different colonies. For this reason it is good business to inspect for the most serious disease, American foulbrood, while you are removing honey and before you lose the identity of supers from each colony. This can be done by setting the covered supers on a pallet behind the hive while you examine several frames of brood to be sure they are free of disease symptoms. It is usually safe to skip such inspection if you checked carefully for disease in the spring and again when the supers were put on. Do not skip the inspection, however, if any of your bees have had American foulbrood previously or if there is any reason to think they might be infected.

When combs, empty or full of honey, are removed from a hive, they are usually infested with the eggs or small larvae of the wax moth. Such combs must be treated in some manner to kill these larvae, or "wax worms." They will tunnel into the comb making it unsaleable and eventually destroy the entire comb. The infestation comes about when the adult moth lays eggs in cracks and crevices in the hives in the apiary. Adult bees in a normal colony destroy the larvae before they do any damage. For details on how to prevent damage to honey in the comb from the wax moth, see page 108. Honey to be extracted need not be treated but should be extracted as soon as possible. The empty combs must then be treated or returned to the colonies.

Processing the Honey

Honey is a fine food product and should be treated as such from the time it is taken from the hive until it is in the final container. Honey supers should be handled so that they are protected from dust and dirt as soon as they are freed of bees. One way is to place them on clean, washable wooden pallets or drip trays that can also be used to cover each super or stack of supers. Pallets catch dripping honey, keep dirt and bees away from the combs, and allow the use of a two-wheeled hand truck to move the honey in the apiary and honey house.

The honey house, or any room in which honey is handled, should be easily cleaned and not accessible to insects, animals, or other possible contaminants such as dust. The beginning beekeeper usually uses the family kitchen and, except for getting honey on everything, has no real problems in sanitation. However, part-time and professional beekeepers producing honey for sale must conform to public health regulations relating to food-processing industries (Fig. 40). Before building or remodelling any space to use for handling honey for sale, inquire about the requirements you must meet. For convenience, the honey-extracting area should be on ground level so that you can move honey into it by hand truck either from the apiary or from a truck bed that is level with an unloading area or ramp. Plan your extracting layout to provide a stepsaving flow of equipment from the apiary, through the extraction process, and into the comb room. Look at several honey houses before building your own.

Stainless steel extracting equipment with washable walls and floor (Fig. 40)

Removing moisture. In humid areas even fully sealed combs taken from the bees may contain honey whose moisture content is so high that it will not meet the requirements for top-grade honey and may ferment in the comb. The best time to remove some of the excess moisture is while the honey is in the comb, regardless of whether it is to be extracted or sold as comb honey. Avoid storing such honey in cool, damp locations where it may absorb additional moisture. Warm, dry air passed through stacked supers of honey will remove moisture in amounts related to the relative humidity and volume of the circulating air. To handle large numbers of supers, place them in stacks of six to eight, offset from one another so that the air can pass through them on its way out of a warm room. If you have only a few supers, rest them on an air duct and blow warm air up through them. In either case, the air should be no warmer than 95 degrees F. (35 degrees C.). From 1 to 3 percent moisture can be removed in 24 hours. Commercial dehumidifiers can also remove moisture from honey in comb that is stacked within a closed room.

It is difficult to remove moisture after the honey is extracted. However, warm air passed over shallow tanks of warm honey may be of some value. When large volumes of extracted honey are involved, blending the honey with another honey of relatively low moisture content is the only suitable way to handle the problem. In humid areas, such as Illinois, honey removed in the latter part of the season tends to contain more moisture than that taken off earlier.

Comb honey. It is not necessary to process comb honey to enjoy it on your table. Long before honey extractors were invented, man was eating honey in the comb as a simple delicacy or as a sweet with other foods. For example, you can spread thin slices of comb honey, wax and all, on bread or biscuits and eat everything including the wax. Although we probably do not digest the wax, it is a wholesome material often used in pharmaceutical products and can be eaten without hesitation.

Comb honey must be handled carefully to prevent damage to the cappings. After being treated against wax moth, full combs can be readied for sale by scraping the frames to remove propolis and by packaging them in cellophane and cardboard containers. Cut comb honey is cut out of the frames with a thin, sharp knife or with a special heated cutter. The pieces should be allowed to drain in a warm room to remove honey from the open cells on the edges. The pieces can be packaged in foil trays, in cellophane or plastic bags, or in plastic boxes (Fig. 41). Comb honey can also be stored in air-tight bags or containers in a freezer at 0 degrees F. ( - 18 degrees C.). At this temperature it retains its quality and does not granulate. Containers, labels, and special equipment of all types are available from beekeeping supply companies.

Cut comb honey in plastic boxes ready for labeling. (Fig. 41)

Extracted honey. There is no neat-and-simple home method of separating the honey and wax to obtain liquid honey from a comb. The most common system is to thoroughly crush the comb containing the honey and then to strain the mixture through a coarse sieve or cloth such as cheesecloth. Heating the mixture carefully in a water-jacketed pan, such as a double boiler, to 100 degrees F. (38 degrees C.) will make it strain more easily. Higher temperatures may give a waxy and less desirable flavor to the honey.

The best method of producing liquid honey requires an extractor to whirl the honey from the uncapped comb by centrifugal force. The job of uncapping is done with a sharp, heated knife to melt and slice off the wax cappings covering the cells on each side of the comb. Power uncappers with vibrating blades, and automatic uncapping machines are available for large beekeeping operations. Commercial beekeepers often remove all the filled comb that projects beyond the edges of the frame. This procedure requires separation of large quantities of honey from the cappings and is not suitable for the beginner, who should remove only a thin layer of cappings and honey. After being uncapped, the comb is placed in an extractor that utilizes centrifugal force to throw the honey out of the cells and onto the side of the extractor. The honey runs to the bottom of the tank where it can be drained.

Extractors vary in capacity from 2 frames to 72 frames. A 2- frame extractor is suitable for a beekeeper with less than 15 or 20 colonies. With more colonies - up to 100 - a 4- frame extractor is needed, either hand or power driven. The simplest extractors have a gear-driven basket within a tank. Combs are extracted on one side, and then lifted and reversed to complete the job. Reversible extractors have baskets that pivot to extract either side of a comb without lifting it. Extractors that remove honey from one side of the comb at a time, called tangential extractors, operate very rapidly. However, if turned too rapidly, they may break combs because of the weight of the honey. Extraction of honey in a motor-driven reversible extractor is done in three steps. First, about half the honey is removed from one side of the combs before turning or reversing them. Then the second side is completely extracted. Finally, the comb is turned again and the remaining honey is removed.

Placing an uncapped comb of honey in a 50-frame radial extractor. (Fig. 42)

The large extractors, holding 20 to 72 frames, are called radial extractors (Fig. 42). Combs are arranged in them like spokes in a wheel with the top bar at the rim. The honey flows from both sides of the comb to the walls of the extractor. The natural upward slant of each cell and the centrifugal force make the movement of the honey possible. No reversing is necessary but the extractor must be started slowly and operated for at least 15 minutes to prevent comb damage and remove the honey completely.

The acids of honey react with many metals including steel and zinc used for galvanizing, and may cause damage to processing and storage equipment. For this reason, stainless steel is the most suitable material for such equipment. Piping of stainless steel, glass, or plastic approved for use in food- processing equipment is highly desirable. Galvanized extractors and tanks should be lined with a protective material approved for such use, similar to that used to line honey drums. Many products are available that are used regularly by the beverage and food industries. Most types of paint are not suitable for coating honey equipment and are worse than nothing at all. Some epoxy coatings are also unsuitable because their solvents and other ingredients are not suitable for use in contact with honey.

Filling jars with clear, bright extracted honey. (Fig. 43)

Extracted honey is most attractive when it is clear and bright (Fig. 43). To produce attractive honey it is important to prevent the incorporation of air bubbles into it. This means that you must prevent the honey from falling or dripping far enough to produce bubbles and foam. Make it flow down the sides of containers or along special V-shaped troughs whenever it is being moved. Use a strainer in such a way that the honey is collected close beneath it rather than being allowed to drip to the bottom of a large container. It is easier to prevent air bubbles than to get them out later.

After the honey is extracted, it will contain some air bubbles and bits of wax. Most of these can be removed by a system of baffles and screens in a honey sump into which the honey flows from the extractor. They will also rise to the top of warm honey in a can or tank. The resulting foam can be skimmed off after one or more days depending on the temperature of the honey and the tank size. It is important to remove the wax before final heating and straining. Otherwise it may change the flavor and appearance of the final product. Honey packers generally prefer honey that has been only warmed and coarsely strained or settled. For final packing, honey is heated to 145 degrees F. (63 degrees C.) for 30 minutes and strained through 90-mesh strainer cloth. The heat liquefies any granules present and thereby retards granulation. It also kills yeasts that can ferment honey, usually after it has granulated. After the jars and cans are filled, they should be allowed to cool before being stacked. Commercial honey processors use flash heating and rapid cooling to further prevent damage to honey by excess heat. Overheated honey is darkened and may even taste burned. Storage temperatures and the length of storage also affect honey quality. Changes in the honey are kept at a reasonable level if it is stored at temperatures of 70' to 75 degrees F. (210 to 24 degrees C.) after processing. Unprocessed honey is best stored below 50 degrees F. (10 degrees C.).

Many beekeepers feel that honey should not be heated. They are then surprised and saddened when their entire stock of honey becomes sour and off-flavored. They may also find that bottled honey begins to leak on the shelf or, in some cases, expands so much that it comes out of the bottle when the cap is removed. All these symptoms are the result of fermentation that takes place in unpasteurized honey of high moisture content (above 17 percent) and in granulated honey. We measure and speak most often of the moisture content of honey, but we are actually thinking of the sugar concentration, which governs the market quality and keeping quality of honey. Sugar-tolerant yeasts are always present in honey, but they are unable to grow in it and to change its composition if the sugar concentration is about 83 percent or higher. When honey granulates, part of the sugar crystallizes out of the solution, leaving the liquid portion much less concentrated and allowing the yeasts to grow and to produce the alcohols and acids that change the honey's flavor. The gas produced often expands the honey out of its container. To prevent such changes, heat the honey as previously explained or store it below 50 degrees F. (10 degrees C.). To retard granulation and to keep all the subtle flavors of freshly extracted honey, store it in a freezer at O degrees F. (- 18 degrees C.).

Granulated honey. Smoothly granulated honey is a pleasing product that can be handled easily on the table. However, many honeys produce coarse granules, especially after being heated, and are therefore less suitable for table use when granulated. To return any granulated honey to liquid form, heat it in a water bath or in a warm oven to bring it to a temperature no higher than 145 degrees F. (63 degrees C.) long enough to dissolve the crystals. It is easy to make finely granulated honey for home use or for sale. Use about 10 percent finely granulated honey as a starter. The commercial product called creamed honey or honey spread makes a good starter. Blend the starter thoroughly at room temperature with honey previously heated to dissolve crystals and to destroy yeasts. Avoid introducing air bubbles into the mixture. Put it into containers and store it at a temperature as close as possible to 57 degrees F. (13 degrees C.). A home refrigerator is suitable for small batches. A dry, cool cellar may also be suitable. The honey will be ready to use in about 10 to 12 days.

Marketing the Honey

Packaging and labeling. The beginning beekeeper with a few colonies has no problem in disposing of the honey. Often much is given away, and some may be sold to neighbors. As the number of colonies increases and management improves, the beekeeper must decide how to market the honey. Choices include packing it in jars and cans and selling it to consumers, packing it for sale to stores or to wholesalers, or selling it unprocessed, in 60-pound cans or 55-gallon drums, to individuals or companies who pack it for resale (Fig. 44). When the honey is sold, the beekeeper must conform to the requirements of state and federal regulations relating to food and drugs.

Honey sold in interstate commerce must meet the requirements of the federal fair packaging and labeling laws. In states that have similar legislation, such as Illinois, honey sold within the state must also be labeled and packaged to conform with the law. Honey imported into the United States must be labeled to show the country of origin, even if the honey is processed and blended with domestic honey. The following summary contains the principal requirements for labeling honey according to federal and Illinois laws:

  1. The word "honey" must appear in bold type, generally parallel to the base of the container.
  2. Honey sold by the producer must bear his or her name and address, including postal zip code. Individuals or firms packing or distributing purchased honey must include their name, address (including zip code), and words such as "Distributed by" or "Packed by."
  3. Containers holding 1 pound or more but less than 4 pounds must show the weight in both pounds and ounces. For example: Net wt. 16 oz. (1 lb.) ; Net wt. 32 oz. (2 lb.) ; or Net wt. 48 oz. (3 lb.).
  4. Containers holding less than 1 pound may show weight only in ounces; those holding 4 pounds or more may show weight in pounds only. For example: Net wt. 8 oz.; Net wt. 4 lb.; Net wt. 5 lb.; or Net wt. 10 lb.
  5. The net weight must be printed in letters whose size is governed by the area of the principal display side of the container. The area is computed as follows:



    Rectangular packages: height X width of the principal display side. Cylindrical packages: 4/10 X height X circumference of the package. Irregularly shaped packages: 4/10 X total surface area or the entire area of the obvious display panel such as the top of the package. The minimum type sizes that may be used to show the weight are as follows:

Area of display panel in square inches Minimum type size
5 or less 1/16 inch
Between 5 and 25 1/8 inch
Between 25 and 100 3/16 inch
Between 100 and 400 1/4 inch
  1. Each type size must have an equal clear space above and below it and a clear space to the left and right of the net-weight declaration twice as wide as the letter "N" in the word "Net."
  2. The net-weight statement must be on the bottom 30 percent of panels with an area greater than 5 square inches as computed by the methods given above.
Copies of the federal law and additional information pertaining to fair packaging and labeling may be obtained from the Food and Drug Administration, 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville, Maryland 20857.

Containers for honey should be new and clean. Drums for bulk honey can be reused and should be recoated as needed, but new gaskets are necessary each time the drums are filled. Five-gallon metal cans should not be reused. Plastic five-gallon containers can be reused if they are washed thoroughly with hot water.

Grading. Both comb and extracted honey are sold and purchased by grades established by the United States Department of Agriculture. The standards for grading are not required, but they allow producers and packers to buy and sell a quality product based on grades established jointly by the honey industry and the Department of Agriculture. The quality of extracted honey is measured by its flavor, its freedom from particles or sediment, its clarity, and its moisture content. Comb honey is graded for many characteristics including the number of uncapped cells, attachment to the section or frame, uniform honey and cappings, and freedom from damage. Copies of Standards for Grades of Comb Honey and Extracted Honey are available from the Fruit and Vegetable Division, Agricultural Marketing Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C. 20250. Some states have additional grading requirements.

Color is not a factor of quality in the grading system but it is important in the sale and purchase of honey, especially in large lots. Honey colors range from water white to dark amber as measured by two systems. In one, the USDA Permanent Glass Color Standards for Extracted Honey, the color of 2- ounce samples of honey is compared with the color of squares of tinted glass. In the other, called the Pfund Color Grader, a wedge-shaped glass trough is filled with honey and matched in color with a colored glass wedge. The matching area on the wedge, measured in millimeters, gives a color rating for the honey sample.

Five gallon cans of honey stacked for storage. (Fig. 44) Hand refractometer in use for determining the moisture content of extracted honey. (Fig. 45)

The moisture content and the soluble-solids content of honey can be measured with a refractometer (Fig. 45). Refractometers are expensive but essential items of equipment for anyone dealing in large quantities of honey. Only a drop of honey is needed to obtain a direct reading of the moisture content. The soluble-solids content, which consists almost entirely of sugars, is derived from the moisture reading. Honey of 17 percent moisture, for example, has 83 percent soluble solids. Honey refractometers have an attached thermometer that is used to correct the readings for temperatures above or below the one for which the instruments are calibrated.

Refractometers and color-grading devices are available from some large beekeeping supply companies as well as from some scientific supply companies that sell instruments.

Beekeepers who have a considerable quantity of honey for sale each year should routinely sample each lot of honey as it is extracted or put in containers (Fig. 46). Several samples should be taken from a day's output to get a reasonably accurate representation of the honey. All samples and the cans or drums from which they came must be clearly marked to relate them, and a record should be kept of the number of containers in each lot. A 1- or 2- pound sample will provide enough honey to send small samples to several buyers. If beekeepers send samples and know the color and the moisture content of their honey, they are prepared to bargain for the best possible price for their honey. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides valuable information about current prices and production in its Honey Market News. This publication is available from USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service, Room 2503 South Agriculture Building, Washington, D.C. 20250. The cost is $1 for single copies or $12 per year.

Filling a 60-pound can of honey.  The small nubered sample jars can be filled with representative samples of each batch of honey. (Fig. 46)

The federal government has operated a price support program for honey for many years. Beekeepers who are unable to sell their honey for more than the support price may apply to sell it to the Commodity Credit Corporation. Such honey is sampled and must meet certain requirements of class, color, floral source, quality, grade, and condition of containers. Information and applications are available from county offices of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS). This program has been changed frequently and may eventually be discontinued. However, it has helped beekeepers and the honey industry by preventing distressed sales of honey at low prices.