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How to make value-subtracted honey

How can you do that? How can you lower the value of your honey? Extract it, of course.

If you think I’m kidding, consider this. According to on-line sources, the average price for a pound of extracted honey packaged for retail sale is about $8. Now go and price a pound of comb honey. Depending on where you live, a one-pound square may run $20–$25. I can sell as many 8-ounce Ross Rounds as I can harvest for $12 each, so again, that’s $24 a pound.

Yes, I’ve heard the opposing arguments. You say section frames and containers are expensive. I agree. But if you are extracting, you still need containers. You also need strainers and funnels and taps and, oh, did I mention an extractor?

The second most popular argument is about beeswax. Beeswax, you say, is valuable and expensive. True, but it’s not that valuable. Take a $24 square of comb honey that weighs about 1 pound. Extract the honey inside which goes for about $8. Do you really believe the remainder—that skinny little pile of sticky flakes—is worth $16? Not on your life.

So that’s the way it works. You buy an expensive extractor and all the peripherals, and as you run your precious honey through said device, it magically loses two-thirds of its value. Gone, gone away.

On the surface, that may seem unfair. Is it not the same product? Isn’t extracted honey the very same substance in a different but easier-to-use container?

The answer is a resounding “No!” If it were the same product, it would command the same price. But people are willing to pay three times as much for a less convenient product because is offers qualities that extracted honey doesn’t.

Taste the flowers

I became a beekeeper so I could avoid extracted honey. Before that, I scoured farmers’ markets, health food stores, co-ops, county fairs, and rural roads on a relentless quest for the comb honey I could never find. I would have paid almost anything had I found it. And now that I produce it myself, I find that there are droves of people out there, people just like me, who want comb honey and are willing to pay handsomely for it.

What’s the difference? Well, just think about it. Each cell within a comb of honey is slightly different than its neighbor. It was collected from different flowers by different bees. Although all the flowers may be fireweed and all the bees may be sisters, the plants are growing on slightly different soils with slightly different microbes and nutrients. They get various amounts of water and sun and heat. The bees—though genetically similar—are not genetically identical. Enzyme levels my fluctuate, flower preference may differ, even their metabolic processes may vary. Each of these variables—and others—affect the flavor of the honey.

The next day may bring different flowers, different fields, or different bees. Nothing stays the same, which means each cell of honey is unique. Each contains a history of the colony’s activity for that particular day—even that particular hour. Each cell is a one-time event that may never be repeated, not exactly. The joy is in tasting the flowers.

Mixing honey destroys the individual flavors

The easiest and quickest way to destroy the individual flavors is to mix them together. The high notes are offset by the low notes. The ephemeral taste of one delicate nectar is offset by a robust and overbearing one. You are left with the muddy brown flavor of supermarket honey, of honey in a plastic bear. If you melted your box of crayons together in one big pot—all the reds and yellows, the electric blues and grassy greens—you would get something similar, a muddy brown color. All the brightness would be gone.

The taste of supermarket honey is bland and unexceptional. We recognize it instantly as honey, just as we recognize the taste of hamburger meat. But like mayonnaise in a jar, the flavor is not exciting, thrilling, or memorable. Honey in a jar is just honey in a jar, but honey in a comb is an experience, a wonderment, a sacred communion with nature.

Confusing business with pleasure

Am I saying that honey should never be extracted? Of course not. Separating honey with a centrifugal extractor is a commercial/industrial process designed to efficiently handle large volumes. It has its place in agribusiness. After all, we need tons of extracted honey to make things like breakfast cereal, graham crackers, and baked hams. And a huge and growing market exists for extracted honey as a basic fast food commodity—honey-glazed entrees and single-serving packets of honey mixed with high-fructose corn syrup can be found in many restaurants.

But what you get from an extractor is a commercial/industrial product. The honey is handled, mixed, exposed to air, strained, bottled, and sometimes heated. It is degraded at every step of the process. Although this product is perfect for processed food where honey is not the main event, it was never meant for the connoisseur or the backyard beekeeper with just a few hives.

The perils of oxidation

If I had to rank the indignities wrought upon honey by the extractor, the second highest after mixing would be exposure to oxygen. The centrifugal extractor flings the honey through the air and slams it against the drum. It’s the flinging through the air business that is troublesome. Air contains oxygen, and oxygen is—get ready for this—an oxidizer.

Oxidation of food is usually undesirable. Brown apple slices, black guacamole, and gray beef are all memorable results of oxidation. While oxidation of honey is not a health concern, it can degrade the flavor as well as the vitamin content. It is my belief that oxidation is the second largest contributor to the characteristic supermarket honey flavor.

Other people dislike extracted honey because it is processed by humans. Many want the closeness to nature that honey comb confers. While this has never been my primary concern, I have seen the insides of enough extractors to know I don’t want to eat anything from them. Knowledge of the antibacterial properties of honey notwithstanding, some of these devices are gross. Then too, you never know about the cleanliness of the strainers, the containers, the utensils, and the beekeeper. People are willing to pay good prices to avoid the unknowns.

As if that isn’t enough, some beekeepers heat their extracted honey to get it to flow into bottles. It doesn’t take much heat to start degrading the precious flavors, so why would someone want to pay for that? When you add together all the negatives—the mixing, oxidizing, handling, heating, bottling—it’s no wonder extracted honey loses so much of its value. Extracted honey is, after all, processed food.

The American taste for non-food

Okay then, here’s another question. If extracted honey is as boring and nondescript as I say, why is it so popular? Part of the answer is price and part of the answer is that Americans have been trained to prefer tasteless food. We have learned how to eat by watching television, and televised commercials are all about cheap, bland, and unpalatable substitutes for real food.

Recently, I read several articles in the Washington Post that are relevant. One was about why Americans prefer maple-flavored corn syrup over real maple syrup. Really? Another was about the best-selling beers in America, of which three of the top four happen to be lite beer. What’s that if not bland and tasteless? If you want beer, drink real beer, otherwise don’t bother.

But that’s the tip of the iceberg (an unfortunate word that reminds me of head lettuce, another big winner in the flavor category). American consumers prefer artificially-flavored vanilla ice cream over the kind with real vanilla specks. And milk chocolate? Now there’s a concept: a convenient way to ruin both milk and chocolate. Diet soda: zero calories, zero sodium, zero caffeine, zero nutrition, zero taste. Why on earth would you pay for multi-syllabic chemicals in a can when you can get multi-syllabic chemicals out of your faucet for free?

Depression era thinking lives on

The most sought after honey in the United States, and the one that commands the best price, is clover honey. Clover honey embodies bland and tasteless. It is light in color as well as taste, with no assertive flavors whatsoever. Actually, if you read historical references to honey, you can understand how this preference came about. During the world wars when refined sugar was scarce or unattainable, homemakers used honey for canning fruits, jams, and jellies. Considering how strong honey can taste, you can understand how a mild-flavored honey would be the best choice for showcasing the fruit. Nondescript clover honey fit the bill.

Years ago, I remember people complaining about dark honey and telling stories of unpleasant encounters with honey-canned products. I understand that, but the war is over and has been for 70 years. It’s been decades since anyone had to can with honey, so let it go. Today we should enjoy robust honey for all it has to offer and stop trying to make all honey taste like corn syrup.

Another article I read discussed the fast food industry and how much it prizes the idea of consistency. They want the meal you buy in Shanghai to taste exactly like the one you buy in Sydney. If you think about that, you realize that to make products taste alike, they need the ingredients to taste alike. How do they guarantee consistency of flavor when it comes to honey? Easy. Just mix it all together. Nuff said.

The ubiquitous extractor

Newbees often start talking about extractors before they receive their first colony of bees. Even after years of blogging for beekeepers, this cart-before-the-horse thinking still surprises me. A person plans to try beekeeping. He is going to start with a hive or two or three, and for some reason he thinks he needs to buy a piece of downsized commercial/industrial equipment to care for his 100 pounds of honey. Whoa.

I want to say, “Stop and think.” If you want supermarket honey, go to your local store or farmers market. It is way cheaper and a lot less work. If you want to enjoy the wonders of the hive, if you want to experience indescribable flavor that nearly knocks your socks off, if you want to taste the flowers, forget the extractor. That’s not why you keep bees.

If later you decide to expand and sell your honey (at a reduced rate) to all the folks who want bland in a jar, you can add an extractor. But honestly, I have never—not even once—put a single frame of my honey into an extractor. Go ahead and read that last sentence again.

Finger-licking good

If I wanted honey “purified” by a human, I wouldn’t be a beekeeper. Extracted honey is everywhere and ridiculously cheap. It’s cheap because it’s like stew—individual parts mixed together until they all taste the same.

At my house we keep a glass container of comb honey on the table the way some folks keep a sugar bowl. Plenty of honey oozes out of the bottom for those who want their share “extracted” or for use in a recipe, and plenty remains in the comb.

Our breakfasts are often punctuated with comments: “Oooh. Taste the upper right corner!” or “See that darker section? That’s mine.” Or smug in discovery, someone gloats, “All gone.” I sometimes wonder what we would talk about if it all tasted the same, if we couldn’t unpack an individual cell and report back. Would we discuss convenience? Matching jars?

Now, I fully expect someone to respond that their canola honey will crystallize in a heartbeat so they need to extract soon and extract often. I understand that. Someone else will say they don’t have a way to store, market, transport, or _____ (fill in the blank) a whole lot of comb honey. I get that too. You’d be surprised at how much I understand, including the fact that I’m a fanatic.

But if I could get beekeepers to do a single thing, it would be to harvest at least one super of comb honey to eat and to share. Lick your fingers. Play with the cells. Give some to your friends.

Consumers don’t know what they don’t know

We often make the assumption that customers want their honey extracted, but more than likely they don’t know there’s a choice. Time after time, after I’ve convinced, persuaded or cajoled folks into trying comb honey, they became transfixed.

For example, my neighbor with young children wanted to try my honey. I decided to be accommodating and asked if she wanted it extracted or in the comb. She didn’t know what I meant, after all, honey comes in a jar, right? So I went home and mashed a comb and strained it for them, but I also gave her a section of comb honey with instructions.

A few weeks later, her kids asked me if they could have more honey. “Sure,” I said, “I will strain some for you tonight.”

“Oh, no!” they chorused. “We want it in the comb! In the comb!”

I’ve been through that same scenario dozens of times, always the same. People aren’t aware of the option of eating honey in the comb, but once they learn, they love it. They can’t get enough.

Just last week, my husband gave some comb with instructions to some people at work, simply as a gift. The very next day, one person put in an order to purchase five more. A day later, another ordered five as well. One time I gave a square to a store owner who thereafter purchased as many as I could supply over the next several years. It turns out she was giving them to A-list customers, and it was considered a very special, extremely personal gift.

Beyond the bear

Whenever I go the the local farmer’s market I always stop at the honey booth. I always ask if they have comb honey and they always say no. They recommend a plastic squeeze bear instead. So convenient. They are making the assumption that everyone wants extracted honey and, because of that assumption, they are losing sales—top dollar sales—the “I-will-pay-anything” kind of sales. We are frequently introduced to their value-added honey products, which are often just value-subtracted honey in a fancy container.

Selling comb honey, even if it’s only part of your offering, will set you apart from the grocery store, from the farmers’ market, and from other beekeepers. And if you believe a market doesn’t exist for comb honey, just give some away. Those gifts can repay for years as people develop an interest in comb honey and tell their friends who tell their friends. That is the real gift—the gift of knowledge.

Extracting honey just because everyone else does is not a valid reason. In fact, it is a good argument for doing the opposite. I find very little value in doing what’s expected, and very little charm in doing what is popular. So go for it. Take the plunge. Leave your honey in nature’s container and keep its value intact.


Note: I hesitated many months before writing this post, knowing I’m in the infinitesimal minority. Still, it’s what I believe and why I write so much about comb honey. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Comb-honey-squares
These experimental comb honey squares fit into a standard shallow Langstroth box. The squares nest into a shallow frame, four across, yielding 40 squares per super. Nick Nickelson of Kent, WA designed and built the prototype shown here. ©Rusty Burlew.

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Comments

WesternWilson
Reply

OK Rusty, you have convinced me to convert a couple of my honey hives to make comb section honey. I loathe extracting! What method do you recommend for production? Do you use Nick’s frames?

Rusty
Reply

J,

I use a number of different methods, most of which you can find by going through the posts on my comb honey tab (main menu). I also had a seven-part series on comb honey production in Bee Craft magazine last year. By far the easiest method is simply to make cut comb by putting a starter strip in an empty frame. Nick’s frames are still experimental, as far as I know. I will contact him and find out more.

christina
Reply

I am interested in purchasing this – is it available anywhere, or might it be available soon?

Thank you!

Rusty
Reply

Christina,

I will have to find out.

Ruth
Reply

Now you’ve gone and let the cat out of the bag. Ever since I started beekeeping, I could tell that the comb honey was oh so much better than what I got at the Farmers Market in town. This year, I was finally able to harvest 8 beautiful bars of comb honey from my top-bar hive. Each one was unique in its flavoring and when I took some into work in small containers, many people asked if I could sell them some more. I hope that next year I can start doing just that. There are plenty of local people selling extracted honey (although not always raw) but no one has it in the comb for sale.

Rusty
Reply

Ruth,

I’m so glad I’m not the only one to notice the strange lack of comb honey for sale—it’s not just my imagination. When people find out I have it, I quickly run out. At home we eat the “dregs”—partially-filled combs, burr combs, broken combs—but it’s equally delicious.

Eppo S.
Reply

Interesting! Thank you for making me stop and think about why I am going with the flow 😉
Eye-opening.

I enjoyed reading this post, your experiment was a success.

Jeff in the Adirondacks
Reply

Well! Looks like I will be harvesting comb honey from now on. I had an unusual honey crop in July this year and it was so good, that one person bought the entire crop. He said it tasted herbal. I don’t know about that but I saved some (2 lbs) for myself and it is the best I have ever had. Wait till he tries my comb honey!

Rusty
Reply

Jeff,

Good news! Glad to hear it.

Glen McCray
Reply

Amen …

and

AMEN!!!

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

Thanks!

Bonnie G.
Reply

Bravo, Rusty, Bravo! What an awesome article!

This was my first year at beekeeping and almost fell for the mind control hype about extracting honey with all that expensive equipment and having to extract to save the comb so the bees don’t have to work building it back. I gave it a lot of thought, and said “phooey” on all that. I have taken all the plastic foundation out of my frames, put popsicle sticks in the groves and next year, my ladies are going to do what they were designed to do… make wax, make honey, make more bees as naturally and organically as possible. I do have a bucket and strainer just in case I want to bottle some, but after eating the comb and honey straight from the hive… well, that was incredibly delicious and I want more!

I really like those sectioned frames, too. Does Mr. Nickelson sell them?

Thanks so much for sharing your honest, down to earth common sense. I have learned so much from you.

Jason
Reply

I became a beekeeper because of not only my love and fascination with bees but my love of comb honey, And yes, I swear I can taste the individual types of flower in the cells. Its amazing.

Rusty
Reply

Jason,

That is very good news. Congratulations.

George Sherwood
Reply

Can I please get more info about the experimental squares.

Rusty
Reply

George,

Working on that.

Barry Walsh, Australia
Reply

Dear Rusty. That was a really interesting article and it made me wonder what I am missing. I grew up on extracted honey and have never been served or seen others eat comb honey. How do people like to eat it? I would like to know what the instructions are.

Robert L
Reply

Rusty,

I have been keeping bees for about four years and have 11 hives. I still do not own an extractor. While I do manually extract, I try to box up as much comb honey as I can. It is hard to find and when I have it, it sells very quickly.

I would love to see the plans for your experimental comb square setup. I think it would add some flashiness to my comb honey.

I have thought about Ross rounds but have yet to take the plunge.

Rusty
Reply

Robert,

A reader made the prototypes for me and kept some himself. It’s been two years ago. Last year I had a large pesticide kill that affected the strength of most of my hives so I didn’t get any comb honey. This year I got lots, but I don’t know if Nick has continued his project or let it go. I will find out and let everyone know, since there seems to be a lot of interest.

Dennis Steadman
Reply

Very interesting article Rusty, but how about telling us extracted honey eaters what is the proper method of eating comb honey?

Madame Beespeaker
Reply

Hi Rusty,

You make an eloquent argument. I think comb honey is the perfect souvenir of a time, a place, and an expression a beekeeper’s love for her bees.

Erik Brown
Reply

Rusty,

What a great post, love it. Didn’t mind the longer format at all. My grandfather kept bees and as a boy the comb honey was always my favorite. I started beekeeping this year but my hives struggled to fill the frames so did not take any honey or comb. Looking forward to the comb next year.

For the record, I only buy pure maple syrup, can’t stand the commercially stuff. I do prefer lite beer and milk chocolate, however (sorry!).

One of my three hives is a top bar hive, and I read recently that some keepers sell the full comb cut straight off a top bar. Quite an interesting concept.

Thanks again for the post, now I know I don’t want/need an extractor!

Erik

Rusty
Reply

Erik,

Before I began keeping bees, I used to buy a whole frame of comb honey from a beekeeper. She’d say, “When you’re done, just leave the empty frame by the back door.” And that’s exactly what I did.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

The only thing tastier will be the Rusty Burlew Honey Bee Book of Practical Knowledge and Sparkling Wisdom.

Rusty
Reply

You flatter me, Glen. BTW, I’m glad you liked the cookies.

Herb
Reply

Well, Rusty, I grew up on comb honey. All we had was feral colonies that dad robbed in those days. Mom cooked and canned with it during the war and we learned to love eating it.

My friend Albert Chubak sells and promotes the Eco Bee Box Mini hive from which we produce mini frames of comb honey. they sell for $20 each and contain about a pound. As you say, that brings in much more money than extracted honey which contains you know what?

Thanks for a good enlightening article…

Rusty
Reply

Herb,

I used a the shallow Eco Bee Box this year that holds 26 mini-frames. I’ve never gotten so much comb honey in one box: 40 pounds in a shallow. Unbelievable.

Lindy
Reply

Dear Rusty,
Once again a wonderfully insightful text regarding the work and treasure of honey bees. Thank you for the encouragement. I too am more than aware of the subtleties in comb honey and you have put words to all that I have experienced in my tasting. I hope you don’t get blasted for the ‘plain truths’ regarding the oneness of tastes of food that is presented to consumers these days. In this country customers want ‘lean’ meat from butchers shops…. When I come to the butchers shop and want to see the chunk of meat before the steaks or chops are cut so I can choose which fat I want, the butchers are always delighted. The fat does for meat the same enhancing as the different flowers and soils do for honey. Other customers are aghast when I specifically ask for the fat to be left on….. Devilish pleasure……
If and when the time comes that there is surplus honey in my hives then it will never be extracted in a centrifuge. I will enjoy passing on your text in Dutch if you agree with that.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Lindy. And yes, of course, translate away.

Jerry Holman
Reply

Very interesting. I have always loved honey in the comb but never really stopped to think why. I am going to give it a try. Do you need special frames? What about top bar comb that isn’t as standard in size? I am a first year keeper so I have lots to learn.

Do you find honey that is drained from the comb but without a extractor still has a better taste? At say honey flavored! I see honey in the store is not even real honey but if you read the bottle it says honey flavored!

Rusty
Reply

Jerry,

If you go up to the Main Menu and click on the Comb Honey tab, there are many, many articles I’ve written about comb honey. They are listed most recent first, but if you scroll through them, you can read a lot about equipment. You don’t need anything special for cut comb honey, just empty frames and a starter strip. Same goes for top-bar hives.

Nancy
Reply

Good information, Rusty.
But we have a lot of ‘splaining to do.
Locally, people who offer comb along with extracted honey do more explaining than selling. We get that weak, half-smiling “IN-teresting…” (Customer talk for “not interested”) and “Guess I’ll take a pint of the clover.”
I love comb honey, I get the math, and at local farmers’ markets we’re in the information business as much as the food business. But comb honey is where kale was 20 years ago: “What do you do with it?”…..”IN-teresting.” Thanks for the encouragement.
Nan
Northern Kentucky

David Robertson
Reply

Now that is a curve ball that I was not expecting, I have read over your articles on comb honey but usually placing them in a category as something maybe to try in the future. I never intend to get real big in the honey business maybe ten hives here on the farm and another ten in an offsite apiary. While I have just fallen head-over-heels for the bees, they have helped open my eyes to their/our world and just how marvelous and fragile it is, keeping bees above the hobby level is a business and I do need to recoup some of my expenses.

About once a year I have a friend that passes very close to a honey bee supply house which helps a lot on freight costs so I usually try to work up an order for supplies that I think I will need. His stop is coming up in a couple of weeks so with that being said I have been up since 4 AM this morning working through the math of changing packaging on my extracted honey trying to see if I could save a few cents. Pleased with my numbers I decide to check my mail and here you are talking dollars…..

Where is my catalog, where is my pencil, can I benefit by adding another product line?….Maybe a hive or two to start…I need to go back and reread your articles…..where is the coffee pot, the sun will be up soon and I will have to be out and about…..but I have a feeling that as I go through the day my mind will be wandering back to this article………

Rusty
Reply

Sorry, David. I didn’t intend to upset your world order or keep you up at night. The post kept me up all night too, fearing what the comments might say.

Kerry Biamonti
Reply

Ooh Rusty, what a can of worms you might have started here. I can see why you thought long about it , before writing for public viewing. Brave woman ? What you say about buying an extractor by newbies, is , I’m guilty of this, absolutely true.

I’m not a fan of comb honey personally because I don’t like chewing wax, but am also , I confess, fed up with the faffing about and all the time and mess that are used and created by extracting. It’s starting to feel like a huge waste of time going through all the rigmarole of setting up , manually turning the wheel, and not being able to get much honey for all the mess it creates.

So you’ve given me some food for thought for next year !

Dave
Reply

Hi Rusty!

I have a friend that is a comb honey person and he sells everything he has every year; he even has orders for next year. He wants me to try it, and he will show me how. He will even loan me the equipment just to see how I like it (and buy everything I get).

You just convinced me even more to go for it.

Dave
Reply

Are those honey comb squares for sale yet? I might be interested in buying some. If so, please post a link.

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

I will check it out.

Kris
Reply

Okay, I am convinced. My efforts in producing comb honey begin now. Thanks Rusty!

Eddy Radar
Reply

I would love to try these — does Nick sell these? I am on Vashon —
-E

Rusty
Reply

Eddy,

I don’t believe he sells them, but I will contact him see what’s up.

Michael
Reply

Next year I’m starting to transition to foundationless frames for comb honey. I’m still going to extract some, just for the ones who prefer only honey.

AramF
Reply

I found one of the best ways to bend pieces of wood into the squares is to put the wood pieces into your dishwasher prior to bending They come out so soft and pliable and then easily bend into the square frame shape. I lighly ran the utility knife over the bend for proper direction.

The bee behavior guy in Canada, I think Romanoff, talked about sections like that, but I don’t think they fit perfectly into the shallow frames.

Rusty
Reply

Aram,

Interesting because when I talked to Nick about designing this, I told him I liked the Romanoff concept but I wanted the squares to fit inside standard shallow equipment. If I remember correctly, Nick put the basswood strips in the dishwasher—or maybe he boiled them. It’s embarrassing that I can’t remember because he showed me how to do it and made me practice bending some, but I forgot anyway.

When I fold Kelley section boxes, I always just wrap them in wet towel overnight, and that works well too.

Nick
Reply

Rusty, Rusty…

It seems like just yesterday. 🙂

Aram, yup. This was Rusty’s fault. The Romanov Method (Google) will turn up a number of hits. This is indeed what the Blonde Troublemaker was pointing at, saying something like, “I want…” From that initial bit, well, it took a life of its own. More on that further down.

I tried a couple of different tricks for bending the little boxes. First was a long soak, at least overnight. It worked but still would snap a joint now and again. Too, I had to let the things dry out for a day or two before they would actually glue up.

The ‘Much Better Method’ was to give them a little soak, maybe 30 minutes and then hit them on the ironing board with the ‘Linen’ setting (pretty much “Ultra-High”)… having steam doesn’t hurt. Works like a steam box for bending wood, turns the little thingies into limber noodles. No more corner issues as far as breakage.

It’s the heat, not the water, that helps the bending. Even better if you can score air dried lumber versus kiln dried lumber for the project. Kiln dried ‘fixes’ the lignins..

No clue what happens to the good bright white shirts and such if you iron those after ironing Basswood. Experiment there with due domestic cautions… if’n you know what I mean?

Okay.. . more to add on these

Nick
Kent, WA

Mark Luterra
Reply

Interesting perspective. For the first two years we saved frames of comb honey to give as gifts. Then we started to find – almost without exception – those gifts still sitting on shelves a year later. People didn’t know what to do with it, or they loved the flavor but wished they could have it without the wax.

I was a bit chagrined to see you contrast the every-cell-is-different comb honey with bland, blended supermarket honey. Those are not the only options. We extract each super separately – fifteen supers this year that fit into roughly six distinct flavor categories of early, mid-season, and June blackberry from two apiaries. No heating involved, probably some oxidation but I can’t personally taste it. Admittedly there is a good deal of blending, and when I get a super of half-light, half-dark cells I sometimes wish I could separate them.

Most of our beekeeping is centered around meadmaking though, and the single-box extraction method happens to produce distinct-flavored honeys in the right amounts to make one or two mead batches.

I love eating honey from the comb, but for now we’re happily ensconced in the small-batch extraction camp.

Rusty
Reply

Mark,

Like I say in the post, there are good reasons for extracting; certainly mead-making is one of them. I like the small batch idea, especially for that purpose.

Regarding the the comb honey gifts: People object to the wax because they don’t know “how” to eat the comb honey. I don’t like to eat a wad of plain comb honey either, and I totally dislike the “chewing it like gum” option. I developed and printed the comb honey recipes on a business card for that very reason, and it has worked better than I expected. When people have a how-to in front of them, they are more likely to try it. And if they try it in a way that highlights the flavor and not the wax, they begin to love it.

Send me your address via e-mail and I will send you some sample cards to try.

Lolly
Reply

Two years ago I stopped by a local farmers market and purchased some comb honey out of curiosity. It was not cheap. Needless to say I was delighted. I went back for more. My heart broke when I found out there would be no more until the next year. I joined that farmers markets CSA to assure myself I would absolutely not forget to go and get my honey comb the next year. Last year there was none. I’ve been longing for a taste of that comb ever since.

I have since become a struggling college student and a wannaBEE beekeeper. I would like to thank you Rusty for all of your wonderful posts. I planted a bee garden this year (Autumn Joy included) and will probably start my first hive next spring. I was recently given advise to use plastic foundation (when I start keeping bees) because it holds up better during extraction. I replied “the honey is really not my purpose” and the seasoned beekeeper looked at me as if I had 3 heads. I’ve heard and read much about keeping bees. And for the most part everyone agrees on one thing: It is fascinating. Id like to have some bees and hang with them for a while. I’ll worry about the honey later.

Rusty
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Good for you, Lolly. I find that if you concentrate on raising healthy bees, the honey takes care of itself. Once we put our own wants (more honey) ahead of the bees’ wants, everything goes awry. I’ve met lots of those “seasoned beekeepers” and I know exactly what you are saying.

Jeffrey Rosas
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Your two most inspiring blog posts for me to date have been “The beginner hive: Langstroth or top bar?” (caused me to leave the gifted langstroth empty on my porch and go with four home-made TBHs) and “Like honey in the bank” convincing me that not going the langstroth-extractor system would not stop me from sharing honey and perhaps getting salmon in return. At that point you said you did not sell honey; apparently that changed. Having given away several Dollar Tree candy jars full of comb honey and gotten maybe one beer from one giftee, I’m ready to try selling comb. Is it the packaging that brings $12 for 8oz? and is the Ross packaging unique? Is it the colorful labels? By the way, the extracted honey in my cupboard always crystallizes. Each cell of comb honey stays perfect while I eat around it, until I break the seal, and then its always the best honey I’ve ever tasted. No comparison.

Rusty
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Jeffrey,

I don’t know what sells it. Ross Rounds are very plastic intensive, which is the thing I don’t like about them, but consumers seem to love them.

I still don’t actually market my honey. I don’t have signs, I don’t sell it at farmers’ markets or on the roadside, I don’t advertise. In fact, I pretty much keep it a secret. But sometimes, after people beg me to sell them some long enough, I relent. It goes really fast, even though I don’t try to sell it.

Nick
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Rusty,

Those two frames of yours above are just drop dead gorgeous. The only thing prettier would be blackberry packaged by Italians. They really do make a dressy looking comb! However, if our local ‘mutt-bred Carniolans’ are what we have, they will just have to do, eh? 🙂

For those looking for the slicked up Romanov frames, which is what these are, I really do not have plans to market them at this point. As a Do It Yerself project it is a bit of a rabbit hole. The time investment to make up the frame spacers and the box parts was fairly long and that isn’t counting the saw fixtures and design tests (and a few failures) to get set to make them.

The advantages to using this or the original Romanov are the same: 1) Can use a standard box size and 2) (the best reason) Can manipulate frames. The real plus of this over the Romanov is only (assuming there is some) a little better appearance of the finished comb. I doubt the bees care.

The downside to making these at home starts with a bit of ‘wood shop safety’. Slicing the thin slats for the boxes is a bit tricky at best. The tolerance for part thickness doesn’t have a large range, I held .093″ to .110″ which is pretty good on a table saw. You really have to have the saw tuned up well, use a zero clearance table insert and have some real skills to do this part somewhat safely. No kidding, ripping the thin stock is NOT a good ‘starter’ project. (Think teaching the baby to swim in the deep end of the pool…) Seriously, that can get you hurt.

That said, after that, the rest of the woodworking side went well once I got fixtures made up. Forming the little boxes, inserting the starter strips and then assembling the frames is a bit of a time sink. Definitely more than setting up a shallow frame with foundation. Way.

I’ll kick it around a little bit more. Right now, I don’t anticipate making a bunch more of these things… but I do have a thought or two to chase down.

I hadn’t quite forgotten about the little boxes but I did have them well on the back burner. (Mine didn’t get to go on hives this year. Darn it.)

Rusty, how did the bees take to these? That’s one thing we were wondering… if they’d fill them better than the classical boxes??

Nick

Rusty
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Nick,

I wrote a bit about their acceptance in the post, “Try-its: what worked and what didn’t.” The photo there is of the bottom of the Eco Bee Box which, as you can see, it is entirely welded together with burr comb. The bees in your box did not do the welding thing, so the the combs turned out much nicer.

I didn’t have any trouble getting the bees to build comb in your super. I put them on the hive just as I received them from you, with the tiny bit of starter strip. I did make one change, and that is I put an empty shallow frame with a starter strip in the end positions (frames 1 and 10) instead of the basswood sections. Since bees often don’t fill the end frames, I thought there was no sense in making it more difficult than necessary for them. They filled everything, sections and end frames, so there’s no telling what would have happened if I hadn’t made the change. Maybe they would have filled ’em, maybe not.

My box of Ross Rounds went untouched this year (a first) and I didn’t use any Kelley frames. But it’s hard to assess the relative ease of getting the different styles filled because they were on different colonies, which makes all the difference.

What I want to do next year is stack these up with entrance holes in every super as per Tony Planakis. We’ll see if I can overwinter some good strong colonies for this newest try-it.

Glen Buschmann
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Could you do this without gluing together the boxes? Fold the wood, fit them into the short frame, and let the tension hold the boxes in place until the bees do their thing with comb. Might need a jig and have to practice a few times.

And then there is this guy from Durham Honey who just cuts squares out of a short frame, no Nick box, no Ross round — what do you think of this way? He has a measuring jig, cuts 4 lovely squares out of a short frame, and drops them in the boxes. VIDEO: https://youtu.be/DsXp9gWhLxg

Rusty
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Glen,

I know you’re addressing Nick, but I don’t think he glued them together. I think they just were forced in there, like you said. But when I’ve had section frames break in the past, I just used a piece of masking tape on the outside to hold them together. Once the bees glue it up, you can remove the tape.

Also, you are talking about cut comb honey in the second question. See my method for cutting: How to cut comb honey.

Are you thinking of getting a colony?

Glen Buschmann
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In Nick’s first post, Oct 7, he talks of letting things dry before gluing.

Thinking about getting a colony — no — I’d need more property, more organizational aptitude, and probably a divorce lawyer. But I like how bees work. So far being an “on-line” honey beekeeper has provided adequate inoculation against the real deal — and gives me occasional ideas on ways of “keeping” bumbles, leafcutters etc etc.

catherine
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Rusty: i have never tried making comb honey intentionally, although i already let my bees build their own comb. i guess i never considered that each bee, each flower, every day would create a different nuance in the honey flavor…. i have access to an extractor, but it is a real pita and i’m not getting any younger. so i’m definitely giving your idea a try! i love all that you write for us beekeepers and for all the bees.

Rusty
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Thanks Catherine. Let me know how it works out for you.

Eddy Radar
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I did a little research on the Ross Rounds, but how is it you check the little frames with that spring-loaded spacer? I can’t see me getting the springs out, not dropping the board INTO the lower hive, then getting the whole shebang back together in my GLOVES!! Do you install the spacer as a permanently-fixed modification?

Rusty
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Eddy,

You don’t have to remove the springs to see inside. I never touch the springs until I take the super off the hive. I just glance in now and again, and when the rounds are full, I take them off.

Hans Gutbrod
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Thanks for this great post. Writing from far away, in the Caucasus Mountains, this is super interesting. The problem here is that there is huge distrust by customers, as there is an overwhelming belief that most of the honey that is on the market is entirely adulterated, with sugar and water. Consequently even honest beekeepers can find it difficult to sell their honey at all.

Selling it by the comb may be a solution, precisely because it tells customers that the honey has not been tampered with. Your neat little business card may be a great help for that. We will let you know how it goes – thanks again for this!

Diana A
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I’m sold! I am a beginning beekeeper. In fact I don’t even have hives yet. I have two packages on order for the spring and two hives in my shed trying to get painted. I have been doing gobs of research and happened across your site. I think your argument is sound and while I was not planning on selling my honey I know that after a few years there will probably be plenty to sell. I have only seen comb honey at the Beekeeping Supply store which is a 2 hour drive from me. I did get some and I have not had it yet (we are waiting for Thanksgiving) but I can see that appeal. I think our neighborhood farmers market needs a comb honey stand. 🙂

Izzy
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Oh my goodness, you have just reaffirmed my current thinking. I am a new beekeeper, and will be getting my first order of bees in late April. I am only interested in producing comb honey, but was concerned that I would need to also make extracted. I now feel so much better about my conviction.

Now, the only decision I still have to make is if I should do it “old school” and just cut the comb from my hives (I am using foundation-less frames); OR do I purchase one of the 4 systems I have found online (Ross rounds, bee-o-pack, cassette or the basswood system you show here). I am leaning towards this wooden one only because I’d rather use as little plastic as possible. Your input/suggestions are greatly appreciated.

I can not wait for my first harvest this fall!
Izzy

Rusty
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Izzy,

Elsewhere on this site I’ve written about all those systems, but I agree with you that I prefer to avoid plastic. That said, the square sections are the most difficult to get filled and Ross Rounds are the easiest (in my experience). The best way to get plastic-free comb honey is just to cut it from a frame.

Herb
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Izzy,

Join Albert Chubak’s facebook group and learn all about comb honey, raising queens and much more. You can buy the complete system from him or just the parts you need and build your own. I build them, frames and all, but that is me. True, the squares may not fill to all edges but they look very unique to most buyers. Sell frame and all for $20 and the buyer can use the frame for decorator use or return to you for a dollar off the next purchase… Sell it as pure honey, untouched by human hands!! 🙂

Rusty
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Herb,

Although I love the Eco Bee Box comb honey super, I hesitate to endorse it because every order I have made to them turned into a fiasco, from receiving the wrong product, to it being late, to never receiving it at all. I would say great product, but poor customer service. My opinion only. My bees did fill every frame.

Herb
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Yes, Rusty, I have read some bad comments when he first started. I am sure some were justified while there are always people who are never happy. Add to that, EVERY business has startup problems. Like the old saying, “They bite off more than they can chew”. So, like all things, “Let the buyer beware”.

I am a woodworker by trade so I make all the part in my shop. Even the mini frames. So, I haven’t bought anything from Al, but I will give him credit for the original design. However, I do NOT feel the metal corner brackets are worth using, except for someone who can’t screw the corners together. I have written Al that in our northern area, those metal corners act as refrigeration units. Copper, alum., and brass are good conductors. bringing the cold into the hive. I suggested that if he felt they were so great, make them out of a type of plastic for the north.

The metal looks nice when new but will tarnish in a year or so besides all the other negatives, cost, having to buy extra parts which likely will never be used anyway. Just simply cut the sides the right length and screw them together. If they split or warp. make a new box…

BTW I am making some mini hives out of Styrofoam! Cut it with a knife and glue together, 🙂

dan3008
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Hi,
In my top bar hive, I add suppers to make “novelty items” such as comb in jars, and I wanted to add some mini frames like the ones at the end of your post. Any advice on what sizes work? Thanks 🙂

Rusty
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Dan,

Since all top-bar hives come in different dimensions, you would have to start there. But the bees don’t really care. They will build in most any size frame.

Daniel Radcliffe
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True true. My top bar is actually made from 3 old 14*12 box’s stuck together (A lot more to it than that, I’ll have to share my blog once I’ve written it), so space is pretty much the same as just about any standard hive*3… I just wondered if any particular sized mini frame was better than any other. But I suppose if the bee’s dont care, its more down to what I, as the bee keeper, prefer, and what the people I give them to prefer.

thanks 🙂
btw Love the blog 🙂

Adam Hargus
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Rusty,
I have worked with my father-in-law in the bees for years. It’s the typical, “chemically treated, liquid honey” production. I’m not complaining, it’s paid the bills, but it has never felt quite right. Well I’m stepping out on my own now. Moving from Florida to Georgia. Reading this article has really been refreshing to my beekeeping needs. I look forward to learning more on your blog. Thank you…

Rusty
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Adam,

I have a handful of all-time favorite posts, and this is one of them. Glad you like it.

Caroline
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Loved the post about comb honey! Just curious about the “instructions” that go with the combs…

Dave
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How convincing you are!

I started with 2 hives last year and have fumbled my way to 6 hives this year. I was looking for an extractor and now my honey will be crushed out of the combs and I will be transitioning to foundationless in order to eventually make comb honey. I am in northern Ontario. Our local bee club talks about extract extract extract so I will be in the minority, a perfect place to be.

Thank you for the info and to all the amazing comments that are posted.

KindPharm
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I am new this year to bees and I grew up on comb honey and miss it dearly!!!!!
Thank you for this article… I have not read thru all the comments (you are popular!)
How do I get started saving comb honey? For myself and to sell? Are there any programs that help one get started?

Thank you from Arco Idaho!

Rusty
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Arco, Idaho? Amazing. Arco and I have quite a history! Long story.

I don’t know about programs, but you can review all my comb honey articles here.

KindPharm
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You have my email… I would LOVE to hear that story! We just moved here a year ago.. The hubs and I are originally from different time zones 😀

Love what you do! Thank you!

Rusty
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Okay, I’ll do that.

Adam Hargus
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I am right with you on all of this. Beekeepers at the local farmers market have been downgrading my comb honey to customers and I have decided not to sell there anymore. Where and how do you sell your comb?

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