Most beekeepers keep bees because they will ultimately harvest the sweet spoils of honeybee stewardship: honey. One of the most common questions new beekeepers will ask is, “how much honey can I take from the hive?” It’s a complicated question, and the answer is largely dependent on a number of factors including geographic location, overall climate, bloom schedule, and size of the colony. Although the answer can be complex, I’ll do my best to explain a bit of the beekeeper’s calendar throughout the year and how much honey might be available to rob from a hive.
The entire reason bees produce honey is to use it as a food source during the wintertime when there is a dearth in available nectar for the bees to collect. Honey serves as the carbohydrate source for the bees, and the colony must have ample stores to meet the heating demands of the hive during the cold winter months. In addition to the honey, the bees need to store pollen, which is their primary source of protein. The best way to ensure a healthy hive survives the winter is to effectively manage the hive throughout the year. Understanding the bloom schedule of your geographic area is important to reading and anticipating the needs of your colony.
In South Carolina, we have a pretty temperate winter. Some people might say we have two seasons: Spring and Summer. In reality, there are some cold winter days in the South, and a beekeeper needs to make sure that their hive is well prepared. In the Charleston, SC area, we often see a significant uptick in hive activity on warmer February days. During this time, the queen is becoming more active, and the colony is resuming a normal work schedule instead of its winter cluster posturing. As the queen begins to lay eggs, beekeepers will notice foraging worker bees collecting pollen for protein which is an important resource for young bees. In March, the population of the hive really begins to explode, and the food demands of the colony are enormous. Foraging bees are working overtime to collect nectar and pollen. At this time, beekeepers might notice the beginning of swarm activity. This swarming activity will usually be the highest in April but does sometimes continue into the early summer. During the heavy nectar flows of April, May, and June, the hive will be producing honey at an ever-increasing rate. Many beekeepers will underestimate their equipment needs and find themselves without additional supers to capture the nectar flow. Without adding additional space, the hive could be more likely to swarm or miss out on vital opportunities to collect winter-stores of honey.
Towards the end of June, we start to see a tapering off of the nectar flow in South Carolina, although there are still flowers in bloom through July. A colony might continue to make honey through the summer, although usually at a diminished rate. Beekeepers should monitor their hive’s productivity and add boxes as necessary. When the bees stop making honey, surplus boxes should be removed leaving one super for the colony’s winter-supply. At this time, weak colonies are susceptible to being robbed of their honey, so entrance reducers should be used if necessary to prevent robbing. Usually, in September, we’ll start to see the colony expel the drone population from the hive as the bees enter winterization mode. At this time, the population of the hive will begin to decrease as the queen slows egg-laying. It’s important to make sure that weak or queenless colonies are combined with stronger, queen-right colonies to ensure their survival.
The most frustrating answer to the question “how much honey can I rob from my hive?” is that it really just depends. There are so many factors that go into deciding how much honey is appropriate to rob from a hive that it's a decision the beekeeper will have to make on a colony by colony basis. It's always important to remember: honeybees are living creatures and, as beekeepers, we are their stewards. They don’t exist to produce honey for our enjoyment, and any honey we do get is a wonderful gift to be treasured. The most important thing about beekeeping is the bees themselves. The best way to make sure there is excess honey is to take effective measures to promote a strong, healthy colony.