When it’s time to harvest honey, you will need to remove capped honey frames from the hive and leave the bees behind. There are several methods/devices you can use for this task:
- Shake or brush bees from the frames
- Blow the bees off
- Add a fume board, or
- Use a bee escape (either by using a device that attaches to your inner cover or using a specially designed board).
We’ll explain each of these bee removal methods and discuss their pros and cons.
With each of these methods, you’ll be removing frames or boxes from the hive. If removing frames, replace them to avoid cross-combing issues. If removing boxes, consider adding a box below the super to provide adequate space for the colony.
Once you get honeybees off the frames, you need to keep them off (as best you can) to transport indoors for extraction. Move your honey frames to a closed box. Once they’re in the box, the bees cannot access them.
Take the boxes full of honey away from the apiary. Limit the amount of time it takes to transfer the frames into your honey house. The goal is to minimize (or even eliminate) the chance of any bees hitching a ride indoors with you.
Shake Or Brush Bees Off Frames
Shaking or brushing bees is a simple way to remove bees from any frame.
Lift the capped honey frame from the hive, hold it firmly and give it a good shake in front of, or over, the hive. You can also use a bee brush with a gentle, upward stroke to knock the bees off. (We often use a large turkey feather instead of a bee brush when we want to move bees around).
This is the most cost-effective method for removing bees from the frame as it requires no additional equipment (assuming you have a brush or feather as a primary tool anyway).
Since you lift individual frames to remove bees, you only shake bees from entirely capped honey. Other methods involve getting the bees out of the entire super before you take out frames.
Removing bees one frame at a time can be time-consuming. It might be fine if you only have a few colonies. As your apiary grows, this is probably not the most efficient method of harvesting your honey.
Pay attention to the bees. If they become defensive from the shaking and brushing, your job can get more difficult. Usually, your smoker comes in handy in such a case. However, you need to use it sparingly, if at all, unless you like smoke-flavored honey.
Blow Bees Out Of Honey Supers
To blow bees out of honey supers, you can use a specially designed bee blower (which can be very expensive especially if designed for “commercial” use) or a leaf blower (which may benefit from an attachment that directs the air more effectively).
To blow out the bees, set the super on its short side (frames are perpendicular to the ground) near the front of the hive. This arrangement will keep frames aligned and blow the bees out close to home. Using a stand to keep the box off the ground makes the task easier.
Aim the blower from the top bars to avoid blowing the frames out of the box. If needed, move frames slightly to create more space to blow air in between them as you go.
Blowing the bees out of the super should be relatively short work. I can see the value of this method if you have a lot of hives to work. But moving a lot of heavy supers is probably a two-person job.
If you opt for blowing the bees out of the super, make sure the queen is not in the box by using a queen excluder.
For the hobby beekeeper with only a few hives, the work of manipulating heavy supers into proper position plus the cost of an effective blower may not be worth it.
The fume board is a wooden frame with a cloth cover (typically felt) that serves as a temporary cover when you want to remove bees from the supers. Treat the cloth with a bee repellent that drives the bees out of the super into lower boxes.
Some bee repellents vaporize better on hot days. A black cloth can add to the solar power of the vaporization process.
Fume boards work very quickly. We’re talking minutes, not hours, for bees to vacate the super. The speed and relatively low cost of fume boards make them particularly useful in commercial honey operations. One trip to the hive is all it takes.
If you have a queen excluder, remove it so you don’t impede the bees movement downward.
Some examples of repellents are Bee-Go, Honey Robber, Honey-B-Gone, and Fischer’s Bee-Quick. Follow the directions of the repellent carefully. Pay attention to the temperature requirements needed for any repellent to be effective. If it has a particularly noxious odor, try hard not to spill on your clothes, in your car, etc.
You don’t need a fume board for each hive. Fume boards work so quickly you can move them from hive to hive as the supers are cleared of bees. If you spread the cost of repellent and fume board over many colonies, this is a relatively inexpensive option, and can be a huge time saver.
Bee Escapes And Bee Escape Boards
Bee escapes and bee escape boards (also called “clearing boards”) are placed below the honey supers you plan to harvest.
Bees move down from the super, through the escape, attracted to the queen’s pheromones or to join the rest of the colony as temperatures drop at night. The escape’s design keeps the bees from easily navigating back through it to the super.
All escapes work similarly and require certain steps to be effective.
Place the escape below the honey super, making sure the exit is on the downward-facing side. This assures the return is difficult.
Make the super “bee tight.” If your inner cover is notched for ventilation or as an upper entrance, close it off. If you put a hole in the super for similar reasons, close it off. Once bees are out of the super, you don’t want them coming back quickly.
Bee escapes require no chemicals and do not agitate your bees. They are relatively inexpensive.
Bee escapes should vacate most of the bees in 24 – 36 hours. If you leave the supers on longer than that, bees may figure out how to get back and any openings you missed can be exploited by the colony, robbers, wax moths, etc. to ruin your honey supply.
The time lag required with a bee escape means multiple trips to the apiary to complete the process.
With any bee escape, a few bees may remain the super. A little shake is all it takes to remove the stragglers.
Like the fume board, you don’t need a bee escape for every hive. However, due to the time needed for the bees to vacate the super, bee escapes require multiple trips to the apiary to harvest all your honey making them less efficient in large apiaries or for outyards that require travel.
Since you don’t want to leave bee escapes on too long, check your weather reports before starting. Coming rains may delay your ability to get back in the hive.
Types Of Bee Escapes
There are a variety of bee escapes available. We’ll cover some of the most common ones here.
Porter Bee Escape
The Porter Bee Escape is a small device you insert in the oval opening of the inner cover. Place the inner cover below the honey super you want the to clear.
Bees exit the super through the inner cover opening and the Porter Bee escape, unable to easily return. Porter Bee Escapes are very inexpensive and make use of your existing hive inner cover.
Rhombus Bee Escape
The Rhombus Bee Escape is a variation on the Porter Bee Escape and attaches to the inner cover. Rhombus escapes are a little more expensive than Porters.
What the heck is a rhombus? A rhombus is a geometric figure with four equal sides in which opposite sides are parallel.
8 Way Bee Escape
The 8 way bee escape is another variation on the Porter escape and . Shaped like a starburst, this escape has 8 exit routes for bees and attaches to the inner cover. As with other, the 8 paths take time for honeybees to figure out how to return.
Triangle Bee Escape Board
Instead of using your inner cover, the Triangle Bee Escape Board is a specially designed board placed below the honey super you want to harvest. We’ve used this type of bee escape with great success.
Rhombus…triangle. No one told me there would be geometry!
The side facing up (into the super) has a large circular opening, much like your inner cover. Bees exit the super through this opening into a screened triangle. The triangle forces bees to choose a direction out into the main hive body.
The complications of the triangle make re-entry very difficult.
Ceracell Bee Escape Board
Ceracell in New Zealand makes a variation of the bee escape board. It is made from durable plastic and has a large screened area for the queen pheromones to reach the super.
Bees exit through small cones, making re-entry to the super difficult.
The Ceracell escapes are reputed to be effective, but we’ve seen them at more than double the price of triangular escapes. The triangular escape has worked well enough for us so far, making the Ceracell too expensive by comparison.
Also, check out our video about bee escapes.
If you do anything other than shake bees from individual frames for harvesting, make sure there is no brood in the super. Brood indicates the queen may be in the box. Also, you don’t want to chase nurse bees out of the box as they attend to the brood. You’re unlikely to encounter this issue with a queen excluder.
The goal of removing bees is to have bee-free frames for extraction and to avoid getting a lot of bees in your honey house or home. When you start the removal process, have a box ready for the honey frames where you can stop the bees from jumping on board again. Cover the box with a lid or damp cloth to keep bees out.
Avoid harvesting honey if you spot robbing activity. Robbers make it extremely difficult to keep the pulled frames and boxes bee-free.
As a beginner or backyard beekeeper, we recommend either brushing bees off of frames or using a Triangle Bee Escape to remove bees from your honey super at harvest time. We think it strikes the right balance of cost, minimal bee agitation, ease of use, and effectiveness.
As your apiary grows, consider some of the alternatives, particularly a fume board.
Porter Bee Escapes: Methods Of Removing Honey in Bee Culture has information about even more variations on the bee escape and its history.