Harvesting top bar hive honey requires almost no additional equipment. And the honey and beeswax obtained are the best quality that can be produced.
To harvest honey, appropriate brood and pollen free combs are selected from the honey storage area:
- bees are brushed off the comb
- the comb is cut off the top bar
- top bars are returned to the hive
- hive products are taken home for processing
Processing the comb harvested from a top bar hive is an exercise in simplicity. It can be:
- used as is
- strained as liquid honey
- prepared as traditional cut comb honey
- packed as chunk honey
And top bar hive beeswax is a beautiful by-product of processing. It’s the ultimate, premium beeswax a beekeeper can harvest from a hive.
Other than a few buckets, not much else is needed. No supers, fume boards, fumes, blowers, extra supers, bee boards, bee escapes, honey boards, super carts, warming rooms, uncappers, scratchers, extractors, sumps, pumps or holding tanks are needed when harvesting top bar hive honey.
Honey and beeswax are the only products coming back from the bee yard. So, no extra storage space is needed for all that other stuff.
Only combs free of brood and pollen should be selected. Small areas of brood or pollen can be cut out. Or areas of honey can be cut off, leaving the brood and pollen comb attached to the top bar.
Sometimes it’s best to leave a pollen filled comb as feed for the bees isnefit from it.
Brushing the Bees
After a comb is selected, the bees must be brushed off. Brushing bees is a delicate process and the bees hate being brushed. When it’s done wrong, an angry, sticky mess can result. It’s imperative to:
- use a yellow plastic bristle bee brush
- never use a horse hair or animal based brush
- wear a veil
- have a smoker ready
- have a bucket of clean water ready to keep stuff clean
- keep the bee brush bristles clean, free and pliable
- use smoke judiciously to keep bees under control
Before cutting attachments on a comb to be harvested, brush the bees off its exposed surface. Use a quick but gentle flicking motion directed toward the bottom board. The bees that fall there will promptly march toward the front of the hive with little commotion.
Cut the comb free of all attachments. Remove the comb. Hold it close to the bottom board. And brush all remaining bees off. They will march toward the entrance.
Cutting the Comb
Access the comb. Quickly look for any small patches of brood or pollen. These small areas can be cut off and salvaged by the bees. The comb can be further separated into portions that are suitable for comb honey. And the rest can be processed as strained honey. Separate bee tight containers should be available for each:
- check again for any stray bees left on the comb
- now simply slice off appropriate areas of the comb and put them in the appropriate container
- stack the larger comb pieces vertically
- for as is honey fill in the empty spaces with smaller comb pieces
- for strained honey just fill up the bucket 3/4ths full
- for comb honey don’t backfill empty areas with comb pieces
- leave a little comb attached to the top bars as a starter strip
- cover the container to keep curious bees out
- keep hands, tools and brushes clean and honey free
Returning Top Bars
The top bars are returned to the hive and honey production continues.
If it’s the end of the season, the broodnest and feed combs are consolidate near the entrance to mimic a natural broodnest structure. And the empty top bars are placed at the far end of the hive.
Processing the Comb
Use As Is
This is a easy at it gets. All the work is done in the field. Just use the honey comb and honey out of the field bucket as needed.
If wax moths are a problems, put the buckets in a freezer for a week.
Not everyone prefers comb honey. And not every piece of comb is esthetic enough for it. Fortunately, getting strained honey is easy. First, you’ll need a strainer. They are cheap and easy to build. Check out my Honey Strainer page.
After the honey was strained, a small amount of foam rises to the top. It can be skimmed off and used for cooking.
But it’s a messy operation and I seldom do it. For me, the additional mess isn’t worth the effort, as I store most of my honey in the buckets. And the small amount of foam doesn’t detract from it’s appearance.
Bottling strained honey requires avoiding the layer of foam. Here’s how to do it:
- install a plastic honey gate into a bucket lid
- firmly place the lid on a honey bucket
- tip the bucket on its side with the honey gate down
- allow it to set undisturbed for a few minutes before bottling
- fill jars until foam appears
- then tip the bucket up
- and switch the lid to another bucket and continue
Emptied buckets are inverted and allowed to drain into a single bucket consolidating the foamy honey. I don’t mind the small amount of foam and use this honey for myself. It’s actually a treat!
Cut Comb Honey
The cleanest, whitest, fully capped comb can be prepared as traditional cut comb. There’s much that’s been written about the process. Basically:
- comb is cut with a stainless standard sized cookie type comb cutter
- the cut comb is allowed to drain
- then it’s put into commercial packaging
Every top bar hive beekeeper should prepare some cut comb for himself. No need for the expensive stainless cutters or the commercial packaging. Just:
- use plastic food storage containers
- cut a template to match the containers bottom
- use a serrated knife to cut the comb to the template
- allow the comb to drain on a bakers rake
- put the cut comb in the container and store in the freezer
This is absolutely the best tasting honey possible. Probiotic qualities are maintained. And it will keep forever.
Chunk honey is a combination of cut comb and strained honey is a single jar. It’s one of the most beautiful ways to pack honey. Much was written about preparing chunk honey. In addition, here’s what I’ve learned:
- use smaller jars as chunk honey is prone to granulate
- use a template to cut the comb
- rinse all comb in cold water to remove any wax particles
- strained honey must be heated or it will quickly granulate
- let strained honey thoroughly cool before pouring over comb
- pour honey down side of jar to avoid incorporating air into the honey
After straining honey, beeswax comb pieces will remain in the strainer. This strained wax can be feed back to the bees. They remove every trace of honey from it. Or it can be rendered as is. The remnants can also be washed, per Brother Adam, and the resulting syrup used to feed bees or make mead.
There’s a lot written about rendering beeswax. So, I won’t go into that here. Most methods involve melting remnants above water or in a double boiler.
It’s a messy business. And it can be dangerous when done wrong. Overheated beeswax can burst into flames. And over heated water, confined below melted beeswax, can suddenly flash into steam, blasted melted beeswax everywhere. Don’t even think about doing it in a microwave!
Some points to think about:
- carefully control the temperature when melting beeswax
- never use an open flame
- have dedicated beeswax rendering equipment
- never use the kitchen or kitchen utensils
- copper, nickel, zinc and iron discolor melted beeswax
Consider a solar melter. They are a great top bar hive accessory which can safely handle those constant small scraps of beeswax and comb accumulate when working top bar hives. They:
- keep the mess outside
- are efficient and safe
- require minimal attention/time
- can extract wax from dark comb
Rendered beeswax is usually not clean enough for making candles. It still has too much pollen and propolis which eventually fouls a candle wick.
A grease filter, used to filter hot restaurant deep fat fryer oil, is the best beeswax filter available. They are sold at commercial restaurant supply houses. And cost about 50 cents apiece.