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Comb honey: Kelley squares

Years ago, square sections of comb honey in fragrant basswood boxes were everywhere. I adored the honey, the boxes, the pristine little combs. But as the years rolled by, the square sections disappeared and were replaced by extracted honey in bottles that squeeze like ketchup and jars shaped like preadolescent bears. I never quite understood the bear thing.

In my childhood, buying honey was an event; bringing home the square was a ritual. We all gathered around the kitchen table to experience that first cut. We cooed over the sanctity of the comb and exalted over each viscous drop.

I don’t think I would have started keeping bees if the squares hadn’t become freakishly missing from the marketplace. My life would have taken a different course, and right now I would be blogging about English, perhaps, or potatoes. I love potatoes.

The last comb of honey I ever purchased was also the last straw. The honey was in a plastic box, it was crystallized like quartz, egregiously expensive, and probably going on twenty years old. In any case, my mind was made up. If I couldn’t buy it, I would make it.

When I started, I didn’t know that only one company made the equipment necessary for wooden sections. I thought it was expensive, but it was doable and I ended up making section honey on my first hive in my first year. It was heaven.

For a long while I was paying $22 for 100 section boxes, $7 per 100 of the cellophane inner wraps, plus $45 per 100 of the cardboard window cartons. Not counting the super and all the fittings (lots of fittings), that comes to $0.75 per comb.

Then one year, out of the blue with no warning, the price skyrocketed to $80 for the section boxes alone. But it didn’t stop there. Instead, it goes up every year. This year you need to shell out $97.50 for 100 sections, $93.50 for 100 cardboard cartons and $11 for 100 cellophane bags. That’s over $2 per section without figuring in the cost of the super, fittings, and foundation. And all that is before you ship it diagonally across the lower 48.

Instead of getting more and more of my business, they are getting less and less. Well, none actually. I’ve heard it said that those prices are reasonable because beekeepers can get so much for comb honey, but that doesn’t make sense because you can get nearly as much for cut comb. And it doesn’t explain why the section box price increased by nearly four times in one year. The price I can get for comb honey didn’t increase nearly that much. What Walter T. Kelley Company needs is some competition.

As it turns out, however, I’m having fun trying to devise alternatives. Right now I have a partner in crime designing a section box that will fit into a standard shallow frame in a standard shallow super. I haven’t seen the finished product (nor have I seen the bill) but I’m excited about the design and I hear it’s almost ready for my guinea bees.

I am also planning a carton for the sections to fit into. The one Kelley sells now is the same design I saw as a kid. It looked old-timey then, and it looks worse now. With the low cost of internet print orders, I hope to get something that looks clean and current without breaking the bank. A dollar for a scored piece of card stock seems absurdly high.

When it comes to comb honey, many people are looking for alternatives. I’ve received a number of links to section super designs and options which I will share with you at the end of this series. I think comb honey in sections, whether round or square, would be more popular if the price for a super was not prohibitively high. In their e-mails, many people have said they would like to try it just for fun—not to sell—another reason that pricing the equipment based on how much the beekeeper can get is short-sighted. Whatever happened to the idea of selling many units at a low price versus a few units at a high price?

Regardless of the expense, the Kelley system works and can yield fine squares of honey. For those of you wanting to go that way, my next post will contain hints and tips for using the Kelley section super and making sense of all of its parts.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Kelley-section-super
A Kelley section super ready for the hive.

Comments

Rusty
Reply

Reed,

Yes, I saved this from before; it is one of the ones I will be linking to later. I so want to try this; I love the way it goes crosswise to the main frames.

Nancy
Reply

Rusty –

Maybe what you should have done all those years ago was: grow basswood?

When I started beekeeping, it was with 3 or 4 rickety old deeps scrapped from the damp dirt basement of an abandoned house. With them, and some rusted metal outer covers, were any number of notched strips and even thinner wide slats – ancient, warped, propolis-soaked comb squares, and a few shallow supers. The supers became moisture quilts, but the rest were kindling – really good kindling. What a pity.

One club in an adjacent state sponsors equipment workshops every late Winter. I’m going to suggest they try making comb supers like these.

This has been a great series (comb honey) and I agree 100% that there’s something about comb honey – even the random chunks I gouged out for my new helper from a leftover frame in a deadout – that is magical, and close to the heart of beekeeping.
Thanks again!
Nan
Shady Grove Farm
Corinth, Kentucky

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Nan. It’s great to hear from you again.

Rusty
Reply

Wes,

Yes, I’m very familiar. The Romanov frame is the basis for the design that Nick and I came up with. In fact, we call it a Romanov because it is basically just tweaks on the Romanov idea.

Wei
Reply

Can you tell me what the difference is between comb honey and what I would get from just cutting the comb and honey out of a foundationless frame and sectioning it up for sale/consumption?

Rusty
Reply

Wei,

No difference.

Lisa Whiteaker
Reply

Hi Rusty

I am a first year beekeeper (worked for a year with my neighbor and started my own hives this spring) in middle Tennessee.

I would love to try section honey next spring. My mentor/neighbor extracts and sells his honey and I really don’t enjoy that process.

You mentioned in this post that you were working on a new system. I wondered if you have any further information/advice about getting started with a wood frame/box system.

Thanks
Lisa

Rusty
Reply

Lisa,

Try reading about Romanov frames. That is the style my friend built and they worker very well.

Lisa Whiteaker
Reply

Thank you.

Keith
Reply

Rusty,

As someone in the one who has read about beekeeping for a long time, but only recently taken it up, I love your blog.

I am wondering how this project turned out. I couldn’t find any other posts with similar tags, so I’m wondering if this is something you are still working on?

Rusty
Reply

Keith,

The frames were built by my friend and filled in by the bees. I loved the system, but my friend got side-lined with health issues, so I no longer have a source. There’s a photo of the squares at the bottom of this post: How to make value-subtracted honey.

Bruce W Silva
Reply

I just moved to Washington from Hawai’i and I miss eating honey comb… If there’s a way I could buy some from you please text me
@ 808-2384208…
Thank you
Bruce Silva

Rusty
Reply

Bruce,

Where in Washington do you live?

Jess Ray
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I always enjoy reading your useful informative site. I know how time-consuming it is to maintain this sort of blog/site. Over the past three years I have been trying the Half-Hogg frame to produce comb-honey. I bought two frames loaded with plastic cubes. After two years I was able to pull one of the frames which was about 75% filled and capped. It took the bees one year to make the wax and they finished wax production and filled the cells with honey this past spring. While the product and packaging was fantastic, it is cost-prohibitive, as you point out, to continue with this version of product. Further, if I were to try it again I would not use plastic, rather wood framing. I don’t like using plastic in my hives at all. If you come up with a solution, please add me to your distribution list.

Rusty
Reply

Jess,

After trying as many comb honey methods I could find, I finally went back to cut comb. I use shallows, and they seem to fill up the best.

Bruce Wartlieb
Reply

Hi Rusty,

You wouldn’t happen to know where I could obtain instructions on putting the Ross Square Comb kit together? I’m embarrassed to ask.

Thanks.

Bruce

Rusty
Reply

Bruce,

Well, as far as I know Ross makes round combs, not squares. Kelley makes squares, not rounds. So it all depends on what you are asking.

Bruce Wartlieb
Reply

Hi Rusty,

My bad, I meant to say the basswood squares. The directions Kelley provides are not that helpful.

Bruce

Rusty
Reply

Bruce,

“Not that helpful” is an understatement. Many years ago, I developed my own way of doing it. Then, as a test, I folded 200 squares and broke only one, which I was able to fix. But have I written it up? No. Sounds like a project for me.

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