Pulling Honey, Balancing Hives, & Extraction at Brookfield Farm, WA


Summer time in a Brookfield Farm bee yard

Up-River Hives in Summer

This has not been a good year for honey in this northwest corner of Washington state: ten months of rain is not good for beekeeping. I did manage to harvest a very small amount of honey from my more westerly, farmland, bee yards.   However, the majority of the honey from these hives went into the up-river hives, which were lacking enough food for the winter.

The Two-Finger Lift

No, this is not rude, just rudimentary.   The way I knew that my up-river hives were lacking stores was to lift them with two fingers.  If I can reach under a hive and pick it up using my index and middle fingers, there’s way too little honey in that hive.

Brookfield Farm hives in farmland

Brookfield Farm hives down-river at Spring Frog Farm at Holistic Homestead, WA

Sadly, the up-river hives were very easy to lift.  Because of this, I began to pull honey from the westerly farmland hives first.  These hives didn’t deliver a lot, but they had some to spare.  As I worked my way up-river, the majority of these frames were put into hives that lacked stores.  Yes, I could have fed more sugar syrup, but honey is better for the bees.

How I Balance Hives:

All my bees live in westerns.  I can lift a full western, but I have issues with deeps and three-quarter hives.  So, all my hives over winter in three westerns.  When I pull honey, I do it frame by frame.  It’s slower, but I average about 50-60 hives, so I have the time.

If the bottom western is left alone.  Usually it is filled with pollen and brood.  If the bees like it like that, it’s fine by me.  The next western, if manipulated, has the remaining brood with honey on each side of it.  The top western is primarily honey.  If there is a lot of brood, I’ll leave a fourth super on top, with honey.

Winter Frame Formation

Now these are not packed side to side.  My hives over winter in 8 frame formation.  I might use follower boards in the 1st and 10th positions.  Follower boards are simply pieces of wood the same size as frames of honey.  Or if I run out, I’ll put in empty drawn comb.  If there is a fourth super on the winter hive, that will have only 6 honey frames in it.  These are in the center, with follower boards on either side.

This configuration has worked over the years.  When I first began, it soon became clear that my bees never would go to the 1st and 10th frames if there was honey there.  Our winters are very cold, and damp.  I figure by November the bees never leave their cluster, and simply eat their way up through the hive.   You can find a blog post I wrote on research about temperature and cluster size here:

Extraction Made Depressingly Quick

Dark, Rich Brookfield Farm honey pouring from the extractor

A Darker Honey This Year

With the hives balanced, often through donations of honey frames from stronger hives, there was little honey left to extract: three and one-half supers.  Quite a change from last year when I had the extractor going for three days straight.  It took longer to set up, and then clean the extractor than it did to actually extract the honey.  The honey, however, is delicious: one of nature’s great gifts.

The depressingly small harvest from the summer of rain at Brookfield Farm

yep, that's all there was left to extract

Interesting Observations From Bad Times

Nature is always interesting, if frustrating at times.  Some of the up-river hives had enough stores for winter, but nothing to offer up to extraction.  These hives were simply left as they were.  No honey was put in; no honey was taken out.  I have never before gone into a winter without manipulating a hive, because the hives have always had extra honey.

Next spring will be interesting.  The hives that were simply left alone were not in the textbook formation of “how to set your hives for winter.” Some had honey stores above the brood; some had brood all the way to the top (I over winter in three westerns).  But I figured: they must know what they’re doing better than I do.  I certainly hope I’m right that they are right, but I shall see come spring.

The bees have traditionally shown me that they really do know much more about themselves than I know about bees.  This makes perfect sense to me.

How about your bees?

The weather’s been nuts all over the world this year.  Have you had any new experiences because of the weather?  If so what did you, or your bees do?  Do share, we can all learn together.


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