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Making comb honey should be simple and fun

When the sun slants golden through the barren trees and the north wind shivers the browning reeds, I begin thinking of honeycomb. I dream of next year’s harvest, the neatly packed cells oozing to the press of my knife. Nothing brings me closer to my bees than nature’s perfect fast food—preserved, packaged, portion controlled, and ready to eat.

As magical as comb honey is, many beekeepers think it’s difficult to produce. Many believe it’s an “advanced” skill, available only to those with years of experience. But I disagree. Anyone with bees can make comb honey; after all, the bees do the tricky parts.

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 157 No 11, November 2017, pp. 1205-1208.

Today, we have more equipment choices than ever. You can make comb honey in squares or rounds, in wood or plastic, in big chunks or small. You can make comb honey in standard frames or mason jars. And now, thanks to a happy mistake, my favorite shape is free-form. Honeycombs with undulating arcs that nest within each other are edible art. A curved wall built of hexagons seems mathematically impossible, but honey bees do it with ease.

Small colonies can produce comb honey

For years I read everything I could about comb honey production. Most articles were aimed at commercial beekeepers trying to make a living with comb honey. Some of the suggested routines were onerous and required lots of equipment and colony disruption. But if you would like to make a super of comb honey for yourself and your friends, you can easily do so with little effort, minimal equipment, and only modest colony disturbance.

In recent years my beekeeping practice has been influenced by those who believe small colonies fare better against some parasites and pathogens, and I have gradually switched to single-deep hives. Since the conventional wisdom states that one large colony will produce more honey than two small ones, I was fully prepared for a loss in comb honey output.

This past season was my first running single deeps exclusively, and I was in no way prepared for the results. I spent the spring scrambling for more honey supers. It seemed I never had enough, and my bees just kept cranking out more honeycomb—lightly flaxen with snow-white cappings. In the end, I averaged three times as much per hive as usual, even though I lost the entire crop from one hive to a queen who moved into the supers.

Of course, one year’s results doesn’t mean much; it could simply be an anomaly. But I wonder if the rule “bigger colonies make more honey” may have been truer in the days before Varroa destructor, rampant viruses, Nosema ceranae, and small hive beetles. Regardless of colony size, vigorous bees will produce more honey. If larger colonies have disproportionate mite or viral loads, they may be at a disadvantage. I don’t know the answer, but it’s a possibility.

Comb honey equipment options

The first thing a beekeeper must decide is where he wants the bees to put the harvestable combs. I’ve gone full circle with comb honey supers. I started with cut comb, then went to Kelley squares, Ross Rounds, then to a homemade system of four squares that fit in a shallow frame. After that I went to the Eco Bee Box, mason jars, and now I’m back to cut comb.

Cut comb is the easiest to produce. You simply cut the comb from a frame, drain it, and place the pieces in a container. You can let the container determine the size of the pieces or use a variety of containers that suit the shape of the comb. Because honey bees build as they see fit, the artistry of the comb should be visible. Having perfectly square or precisely cut pieces is not the point, rather we should showcase what the bees have created.

Kelley sections are a lot of work to assemble, but they make a fun wintertime project. I find bending the basswood section boxes to be more art than science, and it becomes a game to see how many I can fold without breaking one. I like the scent of the wooden boxes, and the basswood and honey combination is a rich, earthy experience. Plus, a wooden section in a cardboard box makes a nice presentation for sale or for gifts.

Ross Rounds are easy to assemble, easy for the bees to fill, and make a sanitary-looking package. Filled Ross Rounds make perfect gifts because they look clean and neat. I often give them to first-timers—people who have never tried comb honey before. I tape my instructions, “How to Eat Comb Honey” to the top of each plastic box. Considering the woeful state of the modern diet, it’s amazing how skittish people can be about food they don’t recognize. Without some direction, first-timers will often store the box of comb in the cupboard for years before it gets tossed in the trash. A few serving tips seems to help a lot.

Comb presentations: From left is a Kelley square in a homemade box, a Ross Round in a plastic box, and cut comb in a plastic clam shell with serving instructions.
Comb presentations: From left is a Kelley square in a homemade box, a Ross Round in a plastic box, and cut comb in a plastic clam shell with serving instructions. © Rusty Burlew.

Other super choices

Of all the honey supers available, I am most surprised by the one made by Eco Bee Box. Whereas other supers often result in empty or partially-complete outer frames, all 26 frames of the Eco Bee Box fill every time.

The reason for the filled frames is related to their orientation. The Eco Bee Box frames are arranged in two columns that run perpendicular to the brood box frames. For the sake of clarity, imagine that most of your bees are on the middle four frames of your brood box. When you add the Eco Bee Box, a portion of each small frame is directly above your four heavily-populated brood frames. The bees move straight up and begin building in each and every one. Once they begin work, the comb expands to fill the frame. In a normal super where the frames are running parallel to the brood frames, the outer frames are often ignored.

Another comb honey option is the Hogg Half-Comb Cassette, in which the bees build literally half a comb—one side only with no midrib. With no midrib or foundation, the comb has no “chewy” portion. The different styles of honey super come with pros and cons, but with all the choices available, a beekeeper should be able to find one that’s appealing.

Don’t waste those free-form pieces

My latest rendition of comb honey happened quite by accident. A swarm of bees moved into an empty brood box. Once I discovered them, I added all the customary hive parts plus a used candy board for them to finish. The candy board, made of a three-inch eke and a queen excluder, was nearly empty, containing only crumbs.

In true distracted-beekeeper fashion, I walked away from this new colony and forgot about it. Weeks later when I finally checked on them, I found a gorgeous structure inside the eke. The curved combs resembled a geologic formation of mesas and canyons, all white and pristine and filled with molten honey. Using dental floss to sever the attachments, I was able to recover 12 pounds of free-form comb with little damage. I cut it into chunks, drained them on a rack, and packaged them in clear plastic clam shells. Their artistry—curves and arcs and valleys—only added to the appeal. And the best part? No foundation, not even starter strips.

The comb honey in the eke simply illustrates that you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment or dozens of years of experience. Honey bees are hard-wired to build comb, so when a beekeeper asks, “How do I make my bees build comb honey?” I explain, “You don’t make them, you let them.” Given the right conditions, they will build honeycomb in any kind of super you provide.

Random shapes: Even random shapes make beautiful comb honey. They can be cut and placed in a box or eased into a jar and covered with extracted honey.
Random shapes: Even random shapes make beautiful comb honey. They can be cut and placed in a box or eased into a jar and covered with extracted honey. © Rusty Burlew.

The secret to tender comb honey

Whenever someone says that eating comb honey is like chewing gum, I cringe. When you eat comb honey, “gum” should be the furthest thing from your mind. The wax should disappear like ice cream, leaving no trace. So even though eating comb honey is all about eating the comb, you want to minimize its impact. The wax needs to be impossibly thin, ethereal, barely noticed.

If you let your bees make the comb, they will do this automatically. If you “make” your bees build comb by supplying foundation and establishing rules, you are more apt to get a thick and chewy midrib. Your bees want to get on with it without reading specs or deciphering your intent, so make it simple. We need to let go of the idea that all corners need to be straight and all sides parallel.

Regardless of the tenderness of your comb, remember that comb honey should always be paired with another food, such as crackers, cheese, salad, or bread. When eaten in combination, the wax mixes with the other food and prevents the formation of chewing gum.

Comb with thick midrib: Across the center of this comb you can see the thick midrib that is made of embossed foundation. It often has a chewy texture.
Comb with thick midrib: Across the center of this comb you can see the thick midrib that is made of embossed foundation. It often has a chewy texture. © Rusty Burlew.
Comb with thin midrib: In this photo, the center line is just as thin as the side walls. This results in tender, flaky comb honey.
Comb with thin midrib: In this photo, the center line is just as thin as the side walls. This results in tender, flaky comb honey. © Rusty Burlew.

My comb honey work flow

To make delectable honeycomb, you need healthy colonies that are moderately crowded. Your bees need a strong nectar flow and convenient access to their honey supers. The furious pace of spring nectar collection yields comb that is light and thin without propolis-reinforced edges. In preparation for the nectar flow, I do not cut queen cells, re-queen, rearrange brood boxes, or provide foundation.

I get the best results by using a single deep hive with a queen excluder, a honey super with an upper entrance, and a screened inner cover for good ventilation. The upper entrance gives the foragers quick access to the honey supers without having to go through the brood nest or the queen excluder. The foragers simply fly in, hand over their nectar to house bees, and leave. I’ve also noticed reduced travel stain when I’m using an upper entrance, possibly because the pollen carriers tend to use the main entrance which is closer to the brood nest.

Once a honey super is about 80% full, I add another super with another entrance hole. Any of the supers described above will work, but I load them with starter strips only—never full sheets of foundation.

When the main flow begins to ebb, I plug the entrance holes and place a medium box and an escape board directly above the queen excluder, and then replace the supers. The medium super gives the bees a place to go and a place to store honey. In a day or two, after the bees move down, I remove the honey supers and freeze the frames overnight to kill any wax moths.

Removing the comb honey supers a bit early in the season gives the bees plenty of time to store honey for the winter. Even so, I always reserve some frames in case a colony needs a supplement. Since I prefer not to feed my bees sugar syrup, I like to keep a back-up supply of honey for winter.

Swarms are inevitable

Since the best comb honey is made by crowded bees, swarming is always an issue. But researchers, including Thomas Seeley, tell us that frequent swarming is one of the best controls for Varroa mites, so I think of swarming as a good thing. If a swarm issues from one of my comb honey hives during the major flow, I do nothing. The bees will raise a new queen without my help so there is no need to interfere with nectar gathering. I will see how they did once the supers come off.

In practice, I surround my apiary with bait hives and I’m able to recover most swarms. If I put a fresh swarm in a small brood box—say a medium—and add an excluder and honey super, I can often get comb honey within a few weeks.  Later, though, that colony will need help getting through the winter, or it may need to be combined with another colony. Each case is different.

Swarms from single deeps are much smaller than swarms from multi-box colonies. Although either may lose up to 70% of its adult population, the small swarm is less intimidating to neighbors and passersby. Still, if you live in an area where swarms are a problem, comb honey may not be a good fit.

A word about mind games

Using this system, I rarely find a colony that refuses to pass the queen excluder. If you open your hive and find bees giving you side-eye instead of comb honey, it usually means the colony isn’t strong enough to build upstairs. Give them more time or remove the comb honey super and provide a regular super instead. Don’t try to trick your bees into something they don’t want to do.

As I general rule, forcing bees to do something is counterproductive, and playing mind games with bees is one of the worst things you can do for your emotional health. In the end, you will lose. Worse, once you start comparing brain efficiency—yours against theirs—you risk a fractured ego. Instead, try to work with your bees. Don’t dictate, just suggest. And remember that comb honey should be simple and fun.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Dry cappings are preferred by consumers. The dry appearance is caused by a small pocket of air just below the cappings. Cappings that appear wet lack an air pocket.
Dry cappings are preferred by consumers. The dry appearance is caused by a small pocket of air just below the cappings. Cappings that appear wet lack an air pocket. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

MB - Ohio
Reply

Oh Rusty I totally agree! I love comb honey and it is so each this newbie beekeeper did several nice containers of comb honey ont of her first 2 frames of spring gather from her first year hive. I didn’t want to totally rob my new hive so I only pilfered 2 frames in early June, right after my Linden Tree bloom. The hoeny comb was band new on foundation-less frames and the wax so delicate and white it was perfection. The flavor was remarkably similar to orange blossom honey with a light citrus note And my Bees filled the frames completely with NO queen excluder in there to prevent a brood frame from developing if they so choose to do so. (not that I would expect them to always do that).

I’ll send you photos of the frame and the cut comb for the webpage if you want to post them.

The comb was so simple to cut with a good sharp knife and store in a nice ziplock container to give away to friends and family, How difficult can that be? To commercialize it would not take much more than ordering some see-through clam shell containers and printing up a pretty label for the bounty.

My linden tree provided such a bounty that it did carry over and last far into the winter. I pulled frames from my poor “frozen solid” dead hive just last month (late January) that are still delicate white and capped light Linden Honey. Into the freezer they went for storage (along with all the pollen frames)

At least my two new colonies of bees I have on order for the spring will have a nice bit of “Linden Honey Special Reserve” and many newly pulled frames to start off with.

Think spring everyone…

MB – Ohio

Jack Sutherland Lake Nova Scotia Canada
Reply

Thanks Rusty very informative and not just the comb honey. I will now go to your index and read all of what you have about swarms and do a more diligent read about how to eat comb honey as I must have missed the part about the crackers.

Mike Serio - TN
Reply

You are correct, comb honey is even sweeter when used with other foods. I use either a saltine cracker or a Triscuit, put a thin slice of sharp cheddar cheese on it and top it with a bit of comb honey — this will melt in your mouth! One of my customers owns/runs a local coffee shop and she will use it on top of a cupcake. Mighty good eating!!

Ray
Reply

I often have a good chew on bits of cappings when extracting, but you have inspired me to have a go at ‘proper’ comb honey this year Rusty. The words “tender” and “flaky” are calling me!

Rusty
Reply

Ray,

The comb honey I got last spring is exquisite. I still can’t get over how thin the walls are.

sgrams
Reply

Thank you for the information on comb honey and especially the detailed “My comb honey work flow” section.

Deb Western Catskill Mtns NY
Reply

Good morning Rusty, thanks for the rehash on comb honey. I have read all your posts on this subject, there is a wealth of information on your site. This year I was going to try and go to a few single deeps for two reasons, one being comb honey hives, and having one brood box to keep an eye on their health sounds simple except for taking off all the supers to do an inspection. I’ll still have a few with unlimited brood nest too. A question, you mentioned a screened inner cover which I know you use for your local climate but also mentioned using that for comb honey. I have entrances in most of the supers and have popsicle sticks glued to the inner portion of the telescoping cover for added ventilation of our hives anyway. Should added ventilation be requisite for comb honey?

Deb

Rusty
Reply

Deb,

It sounds like you have plenty of ventilation. If propping up the telescoping cover is working for you, you probably don’t need the screened inner covers. I like the screens because I can take off the cover and look down into the honey super to see how it’s coming along without having the bees fly out, but that’s just a small thing.

Tim
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Thanks for the information; I was especially interested in the concept of one deep for a colony. I am interested to know success or failure of others that have done the same. I was always told and never questioned that the brood chamber had to be one deep and one medium or another deep or three mediums. Any other insight you have or from any others that have gone to a single deep for the brood chamber would be appreciated.

Thanks,
Tim

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

Thomas Seeley has written a lot about single deeps and their ability to co-exist with varroa mites. You might search for articles on Darwinian Beekeeping.

John Zone 5
Reply

I can’t remember, do you use queen excluders or not? Also, how many supers do you place in spring at once on a hive?

Thank you.

Rusty
Reply

John,

With singles, I always use excluders. But whenever I use excluders, I also use upper entrances so the bees don’t have to go through the excluders if they don’t want to. I start with one honey super. When it’s about 80% full, I add the next. Some people say placing more supers at the beginning yields more honey, but I haven’t found that to be so. Still, you could experiment and see which works best for you. I don’t think it’s a make-or-break decision.

David
Reply

You mentioned Rusty in previous articles that upper entrance would be helpful for the bees to avoid going through the brood nest. I tried last year using them but the bees didn’t use them. I put mine on the side of the hive body. Should the upper access holes be in the front where the bottom entrance is?

Rusty
Reply

David,

I put mine in the front, two inches from the top and three inches from the right (facing the box). That’s arbitrary, I just wanted them to line up. If you look at this post on upper entrances by TonyBees, you can see how the bees march up the front of the hive. Tony puts them on both sides of the main entrance and he uses platforms, whereas I put them all on the same side and use no platforms.

karen
Reply

Hello

I’ve only ever used single deeps. Much easier to work alone with one large brood chamber and mediums for all the rest. Easy-peasy (sort of!)

I only keep a few hives for comb honey. Thanks for the reminders here!

Emily
Reply

I’ve always had my super frames running parallel to the brood box because I was taught that was the best way to do it, I think to assist the bees in coming up from the brood box. After reading your comments on the Eco Bee Box super, I’m wondering if all super frames would actually be better running perpendicular to the brood box?

Rusty
Reply

Emily,

Do you use Nationals? If I could, I would try a shallow super turned sideways to see how it worked. Unfortunately, with Langstroths I would have to design a box and frames before I could even try it. I’ve used the Eco Bee Box three years now, and each time it filled to capacity—every last little frame. I’m wondering if it is solely due to the orientation, or if there are other factors.

Bill H.
Reply

Everyone puts out swarm traps in areas that have bees close by, but what to do if you are in area that has no known bee hives.

How can you attract a swarm of bees to an area where they have not swarmed before. I put out several swarm traps, and also put a feeder with sugar syrup on top of one of the traps,

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

A swarm can travel a long distance, let’s just say five miles. A circle with a five-mile radius is 50,000 acres. Do you really know what’s living in the 50,000 acres nearest your house? Maybe you overlooked a couple colonies, either managed or feral?

Tim
Reply

Rusty,

As you suggested I did some research on single deep brood colonies, but all the research I saw was on 10 frame deeps; I have 8 frame deep equipment. Do you think that would be a limiting factor?

Tim

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

I imagine so because it’s only 80% as big. I wonder if you could use a deep and a medium instead.

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

I imagine so because it’s only 80% as big. I wonder if you could use a deep and a medium instead.

Tim
Reply

Thanks Rusty,

Yes I think I would feel better with the added medium; still would make it easier to see what’s going on and manipulate than two deeps.

Tim

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