What Do You Do with Open Honey?


Ready or not? This frame is 60% sealed.
To be sure it can be safely extracted, test it with a refractometer.

Yesterday, I droned on and on about how beekeepers who are smart and mature don’t know anything. It’s the new beefolks who have all the answers. I’m not quite at the point where I know nothing, so I’m going to try to tackle a few questions that I heard from some bee folks.

Here are some of the questions tossed around last night:

  • My honey isn’t capped. What should I do with it? (I heard that one from three different beefolks.)
  • Wasps are attacking my hives. How can I stop them?
  • What’s the best extractor to buy?
  • There was a pile of brood in front of my hive. Why?
  • I have four good hives, but I think that the fifth might be queenless. What should I do?

Each of these deserves a long, winding, exhaustive answer, so that’s what I’ll do. And I’ll just answer the first one on this blog post.

My honey isn’t capped. What should I do with it?

It depends on the moisture content and on your plans for your bees. Since it’s mid-September and we are in the Ice Kingdom of Canada, our honey season is pretty much over. Especially out here on the western prairies were minus thirty is only a few sleeps away. So, get those stupid boxes off the bees and quit hoping that they will seal everything. They probably won’t. (Though there was late September 1987 when the bees gained 40 pounds around October 1. And a huge late flow in 2008.  So, I may be wrong.)

Most beekeepers properly worry that unsealed honey will spoil. That’s what they’ve heard at our beginner bee courses. It’s true – it may spoil, but maybe it won’t. Usually (but not always) bees reduce the moisture in honey to a non-fermenting level (below 18.6% water) before they seal it with wax. If honey has less than 18.6% water, yeast usually can not grow in it.  Below 18.6%, the honey rarely becomes a bubbly, fermented or sour product best suited for bibation. Bees usually don’t seal properly dried honey. However, the bees are sometimes wrong. A beekeeper in our area came to my house last week with a sample taken from sealed combs. We tested it with a refractometer. It was 21% moisture. Why was it so wett when it came from sealed frames?  I don’t know – maybe the hive was in a damp forest, maybe the honey was gathered and sealed during mid-July when we had four inches of rain in a week. I’d not seen sealed honey with such high water content, but bee stuff happens.

Just as wet honey may be found under cappings, dry honey can appear on unfinished frames. Late in the season, if the flow abruptly ends, the bees usually won’t cap half-finished frames even if the honey is completely cured, dry, and ready for storage. In a dry climate, it’s entirely possible that unsealed honey will be dry enough at any time – even mid season – to be harvested and extracted. The only way you can be absolutely certain is to test the honey with a refractometer.

Not sure what a refractometer is or how to use it?  This video will help:

So, here’s my suggestion. Bring the boxes in from the bees. Prepare your bees for winter – in our area, that may mean feeding and medicating. If the bees need feed and medicine, those should have been on the bees yesterday because the season is getting late. For those using Apivar to fight varroa, treatments must be removed from the hive within six weeks, so you need to be on that right now. All of this means that pulling the last honey supers is something that needs done immediately.

In the extracting shop, scoop a few drops of honey directly off the frame from a few different unsealed spots and blend it together on the refractometer prism. (Connfused? See the video above.) Test the honey with the refractometer. If it’s below 18.6% moisture, you may sell it or use it without too much concern for spoilage. If it’s over the moisture level and still in the frame, you may try drying it by keeping the combs in a warm, dehumidified room for a few days (or at least use an electric fan to circulate dry air – you’ll remove some moisture).

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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4 Responses to What Do You Do with Open Honey?

  1. Pingback: How Can I Stop Wasp Attacks? | Bad Beekeeping Blog

  2. Pingback: Bright Shiny Extractors | Bad Beekeeping Blog

  3. Pingback: Brood in Front of the Hive?!? | Bad Beekeeping Blog

  4. Pingback: Double or Nothing? | Bad Beekeeping Blog

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