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Comb honey: it’s all about the wax

Did you ever watch customers sort through pieces of comb honey? They want the wax to be nearly white, they want the piece to be heavy, they want dry cappings, they want the cells perfectly formed, they want as few leakers as possible and no empties. How do I know this? Well, I have been that customer many, many times.

But that is just the beginning. Once he gets home, the customer expects the comb to be fragrant, tender, ethereal, toothsome. He expects it to dissolve into his biscuit or collapse over his wedge of cheese. If the wax is gummy, tough, chewy, or brittle your customer will not be impressed. If it smells of mold, chemicals, or fermentation, he will never return.

As a producer of comb honey, you have to overcome all these issues before your buyer even gets to the honey. We think of ourselves as honey producers, but to the comb honey buyer, the wax is everything.

I use the terms buyer, customer, and consumer loosely. Anyone who eats your comb honey is the consumer, whether it is a friend, family member, co-worker, or complete stranger. And whether they come back for more depends on the quality of comb you can provide.

Remember, your buyer encounters the elements in a certain order. The look of the product is first, the fragrance is second, the texture is third, and at the very last is taste, the honey. But if you take care of the particulars, you can get amazing prices for your honeycomb. The people who want it are willing to pay for it because awesome comb honey is hard to find.

This may sound difficult, but the bees do all the work. All we have to do is provide the right conditions. But those conditions often require management techniques that are different from those used by extracting beekeepers.

For example:

  • To lessen travel stain (from dirty bee feet), you may decide against an upper entrance.
  • To prevent campfire odor and ash fragments, you may forgo a smoker.
  • To prevent bees from ripping open newly capped cells, you may forgo a smoker.
  • To get thicker combs you may use fewer frames per box.
  • To get dry cappings, you may select a certain variety of bee.
  • To get empties filled, you may rotate your frames front to back and side to side.
  • To get the purest comb, you may advance or delay spring mite management so it doesn’t interfere.
  • To prevent odd aromas, you may decide against essential oils during early spring build-up.
  • To get corners filled, you may have to keep colonies on the verge of swarming.
I don’t want you to worry about these issues yet because I will go through them one-by-one. Right now, I want you to start thinking about comb-building as your primary objective. Of course, at some point we need to fill those combs with pure, high-quality honey. But if comb honey is your goal, you have to start with the best comb possible.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

New-white-wax.-Wikimedia-photo-©-Kabaeh49
New white wax. Wikimedia photo © Kabaeh49

Comments

cgrey8
Reply

Interesting picture. The top-bars have starter guides that look like plastic foundation. I’m curious if that works better than the paint sticks will. We’ll see…

Nancy
Reply

New wax is SO beautiful!
I will be grateful if my bees just survive this hideous weather… but I’m really interested in comb honey and appreciate the series!
Nan

David Williams
Reply

Great picture of new comb. Is that foundation starter strips?

Rusty
Reply

David,

I agree with Chris that they look like plastic foundation strips, but I don’t know for sure. I saw the photo on Wikemedia Commons, and I thought it was just really cool.

Art
Reply

I always use smoker and never noticed any odd flavors from it. I don’t think amount and duration of exposure to the smoke is long enough to have a lasting effect. Neither have I’ve seen bees “ripping” capping. Have you actually observed that yourself? I keep hearing about it from the opponents of using smokers but never seen it myself. Seems kind of far fetched. You would expect it to take some time for a bee to uncap a cell – time that is much longer than it takes for you to remove suppers or frames. Besides bees always have plenty of uncapped cells to go around.

Rusty
Reply

Art,

As I said in the post, I will be going over these items one at a time . . . don’t want to get ahead of myself.

Grahame
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I’m conflicted/confused, being a massive fan of comb honey (the only reason I have hives) I buy wax foundation for my supers (brood has a mix of plastic/wax) which is expensive and may or may not have pesticides etc in it. We have a company here (Australia is “varroa free for now yey!”) that will produce foundation using your own wax, splendid! thinks I, and then I noticed my neighbour in his orchard “spraying” his fruit trees, nuff said. My point is that even if I used no foundation I have no way of ensuring my comb is chemical free. Any thoughts on what “best practice” might be?

On a side note I’ve read your posts about “Bear honey” lol and heartily agree, but are we missing the elephant in the room? I have no idea about the US market but a friend (commercial 2000+ hives) assures me that we have supermarket honey here that has a large proportion of Asian honey blended with it, “so what?” well apparently in some countries like China it’s accepted practice to feed syrup all year round to increase production, kinda puts the oxidization discussion into a new light.

Keep up the good work Honey (pun intended ;-))

Regards Grahame

Rusty
Reply

Grahame,

I don’t have any answers for you. We can’t control where the bees go or what other people spray, so we’re stuck with it. Here too, imported honey often contains sugar syrup, which is why many of us have bees in the first place. But there are no easy answers to these problems.

Rusty
Reply

Grahame,

I don’t have any answers for you. We can’t control where the bees go or what other people spray, so we’re stuck with it. Here too, imported honey often contains sugar syrup, which is why many of us have bees in the first place. But there are no easy answers to these problems.

Vicky Garland
Reply

Amazing information and I’ll never look at buying, purchasing, shopping for or eating and consuming honey the same way! Great,and fantastic information! Please keep up the exquisite work. My husband and I have 3 acres. Is It expensive to start up a beekeeper business or making honey? Thank you!

Rusty
Reply

Vicky,

In my opinion, it is expensive. Many small-time, hobbyist beekeepers joke (or maybe not joke) that their honey costs $60 per pound to produce. Or $80. Or $100.

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