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Bee-Centered Beekeeping and the Harvesting of Honey

Where does harvesting honey fit within the ethos of bee-centered beekeeping?

Bee-centered beekeeping holds these priorities in this order:

  • Caring for the honey bees themselves in natural, holistic, and sustainable ways with the goal of helping honey bees return to the vibrancy that they deserve and that the earth needs.  The goal of bee-centered beekeeping is to be able to answer "yes" to this question: If one of the colonies I am stewarding swarms and moves into the wild, will they be prepared to survive and thrive there on their own?
  • Helping to make the earth more flowering and fruitful by caring for these super-pollinators.  We greatly improve the health of the earth as we learn to improve the pollinator habitat in our community.
  • Enjoying the benefits to our soul that living in community with honey bees produces.  Hosting honey bees, and creating a healthy habitat for them, connects us to the earth in profound and deeply satisfying ways.
  • Enjoying the benefits to our property that the pollination services of our own honey bee colony(ies) provide.  (More prolific blooms, more fruit on our trees, an all-around much healthier and more robust ecology on our property.)

Honey bees produce and store honey in order to survive the winter.  It is both the food they ingest to provide nutrition for themselves, and the fuel they consume to produce the heat they need to live through the winter.  Combs of honey are also highly insulative; the more honey a colony has stored in their hive, the better insulated the hive will be.

This is an interesting phenomenon.  More honey stored means a better insulated hive, which means they will need to consume less of the honey in order to survive the winter.  So, harvesting honey is a “double-whammy;” we are both removing their insulation, and removing the fuel and food they need to stay warm through the winter in their now-less-insulated hive.

How much honey does a colony need to store in order to survive the winter?  That depends on many factors, but the longer and colder the winter, the more honey they will need.  A healthy colony of honey bees in central Colorado may likely need to store as much as 80 to 100 pounds of honey to survive a particularly long and cold winter in a conventional Langstroth hive.  Less is needed in a better insulated hive where the bees can control their ventilation, such as in a Bee Tree Hive.

Producing and storing honey is an extremely laborious process.  It requires the efforts of tens of thousands of bees working together in incredible harmony throughout all of spring and summer, and even into the fall.  A single forager honey bee will fly approximately 500 miles in her very short life.  She will make hundreds of flights to bring nectar and pollen back to the hive.  But, even so, the result of all of her work will be the production of just 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey.  That’s just 0.02 ounces!  It therefore takes the lives of about 80,000 forager bees to produce 80 to 100 pounds of honey.  (Don’t forget that they are also consuming it, as they go, during their busiest season… so they actually must produce considerably more than 80 to 100 pounds in order to go into winter with enough stores in central Colorado.)

Hopefully, each season, every colony can produce and store enough honey to survive the coming winter.  If they do not, they will likely starve.  If they are able to store enough, but we take honey from them to the point of leaving less than they need, they will starve.  That is called “bee consuming,” not bee keeping.  If we take honey and feed them sugar syrup instead, that is abuse, in my opinion, and is not sustainable.  More and more research is revealing that feeding sugar syrup to honey bees harms and weakens them in ways we’ve never before imagined.  (Picture yourself living on nothing but Twinkies for an entire winter.  How would you fare?)

Keep in mind that, for a honey bee colony, there is no such thing as “surplus honey.”  What if they experience a long cold winter, followed by a drought during the subsequent summer, followed by another long, cold winter?  This phenomenon is possible in central Colorado.

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  • Ethan Worthen on

    What a great article! Bee “keepers” stress about robbing all summer long, yet they can’t recognize that they are the greatest robbers of them all.

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