Comb honey in glass jars
The glass jar comb honey super shown below is a refinement of the one made by beekeeper Morris Ostrofsky of southwestern Oregon. A detailed description of Morris’ equipment and process can be found here: Glass Jar Beekeeping—Creating Edible Art.
After reading his account, I decided to make several tweaks to fit my own situation. The first has to do with the lay of the land. Although I adore Oregon—it is my favorite state—the Willamette Valley is as flat as a bowling alley. In fact, if that crazy river weren’t in the way, I’m sure a ball released in Eugene wouldn’t stop rolling until it reached Salem, some 70 miles away.
In contrast, my hives are perched on a hillside. To get there I have to climb a steep path crisscrossed by streams, mossy stumps, viney things with spines, and downed trees. It would never work for me to have glass jars sitting loosely on top of holes. No, my jars need to be anchored in place—virtually earthquake proof.
The second tweak has to do with being a tightwad. I have hundreds of narrow-mouth mason jars and very few wide-mouth jars, but using a smaller opening meant I needed an easier way of mounting starter strips inside the jars.
Because I am not a woodworker, I started with Mann Lake’s wintering inner cover. The thing I most like about it is the rim on the bottom (about 1/4-inch deep) which provides bee space under the jar rims. I also like the thickness of the board. The small entrance below the board is great for honey collection, but the entrance above the board must be blocked. The board comes with a pre-drilled hole in the center for a jar feeder, which I thought would be helpful, but it is in the wrong place and ended up costing me one jar space.
I designed the jar spacing around the pre-drilled center hole and settled on a 4-3-4 pattern. Without the pre-drilled hole, 4-4-4 would have been better. I could have fit even more jars in the super if I had spaced them differently, but I wanted to maintain the strength of the board. Eleven jars—even when they are empty—is quite a load, so I decided to stop there.
I let my husband do a bunch of math to find the exact location of each hole. The hole that was pre-drilled is actually slightly too big. A mason jar lid fits into it, but it is loosey-goosey. So I purchased a 2-3/4″ (70mm) hole saw that turned out to be perfect. The lid of a mason jar fits tightly in the hole with no play at all. The jars won’t fall out even if I hold the board vertically—something I do not recommend.
As Morris explains in his paper, keeping the jar rims covered with mason rings keeps the threads free of propolis. The sticky rings can be removed and replaced with clean ones when you market the honey, and you can re-use the sticky rings in the hive.
Next, I wanted to put starter strips in the jars. Morris’ method works with wide-mouth jars, but it’s a bit finicky with the narrow ones. What I did instead was cut two pieces of foundation and then slit each one halfway up the middle. The two pieces can then slide into each other to form an “x” (a picture is worth a thousand words here, so have a look).
When the foundation is warm you can bend it enough to fit into the jar and then open it up once it’s inside. I used a square stick to open the foundation once it was in the jar.
I have not yet tried this foundation method, nor have I discussed it with the lucky colony that will receive this contraption. I believe it will work. Bees normally attach any bits of foundation firmly in place, and I think they will start this project by doing just that. It doesn’t have to be perfectly square or symmetrical or even. In fact, one of the charming aspects of comb built in a jar is the shape of it.
If it doesn’t work as is, my next step will be to put a drop of molten wax in the center bottom of the jar, right where the x is, just to hold in it place. Some people have succeeded using glass jars with no foundation or starter strips at all, so that is always an option, especially if your bees are properly crowded.
Once the jars are ready, the entire super can be put on the comb honey hive. Many people put a queen excluder under the super, but I don’t think it is necessary or wise. A queen in her right mind will not put eggs in the jars. If she’s not in her right mind, she may leave a few up there, but she won’t persist. It is hard to get bees to fill odd-shaped spaces, even without an excluder, so I never use one.
An empty super is needed to cover the jars, and a telescoping lid is placed over that. Here are some additional considerations:
Remember that the jars will get very hot because there is no ventilation through them. It is best to place this type of super on a hive that is not receiving direct sunlight.
Do not allow bees into the area surrounding the jars. If bees get between the jars, they will build a mess for you to clean up, and they may decide it is easier to construct comb between the jars rather than in the jars.
You can use the center hole for a jar feeder, if you wish. Give the bees 1:1 sugar syrup to stimulate wax production but remove it before the nectar flow begins.
A small upper entrance just below the super will aid in nectar storage since the bees won’t have to travel so far. It will also give the hive a little extra ventilation.
When you are ready to remove the super, use a one-way bee escape below the super to remove the bees. Smoke should not be used because smoke odor and/or ash can persist in the jars.
For details on how to manage your bees for glass jar supers, please read “How to manage bees for section honey.”