Honeycomb Built in the Jar
By Bryan Immink
Editor’s Note: Bryan is Vice President of “the legendary Holland Area Beekeepers Association,” in Holland, Michigan. He, along with wife Connie and children Gracie and Grant began beekeeping the spring of 2011. They have “high hopes to go into winter this year with 12-15 strong hives.”
While flipping through some newly acquired antique beekeeping books, I came across the intriguing idea of coaxing the bees to build the comb directly in jars. My family and I enjoy comb honey, plus I thought it would be a unique item to market with our other honey products. So we gave it a try and were pleased with our first attempt.
I started with a piece of ¾” thick plywood and cut it down to hive body dimensions. In our case we run 10-frame equipment so I cut it to 16 ¼” x 19 7/8”. I placed an empty hive body over the board to give me an outline to avoid placing jars too close to the edge and interfere with the empty hive body surrounding the jars when it is placed on the colony. I then positioned the jars on the board and marked the layout for subsequent drilling. Any mix of jars can be used, you are only limited by the different sizes of hole saws you would need to purchase to accommodate the jars openings. For drilling, pick a hole saw slightly smaller than the jar mouth and drill the holes. Now you are ready to move on to melting some starter comb in the jars.
Melting starter comb into jars may not be necessary if the bees’ drive to store nectar is great enough, but it definitely helps get the bees started drawing inside the jars. I say this because in one jar the starter comb detached and this was the last one the bees got into. I melt starter pieces by placing the jars near the wood stove and allowing them to heat up just enough to attach a small piece of white burr comb. Use long forceps or pliers to hold the comb when attaching to the jar bottom. I use only a small piece of burr comb so as to allow the bees the free will to build the comb as they see fit. In the future I plan to try some patterns of attaching burr comb to see how this impacts the final comb shape. I would also imagine strips or small pieces of foundation would work as starting points for the bees in the jars.
Next is preparing your hive for the jars, preparation will be akin to preparing a hive to produce regular comb honey. You will need to crowd your bees as they do not readily use the jars to draw comb and store nectar. We used an existing hive with a new queen to try and quell the bees desire to swarm when crowded. As a general rule crowding two deep hive bodies down to one deep and one medium would be a good starting point.
With this above work complete you are now ready to install the board with drilled holes directly over the brood chamber of your hive. We don’t typically use queen excluders and have had no issues with the queen laying up in the jars, I expect a queen excluder would just be another obstacle making it more difficult to get the bees to draw in the jars. Once the board is installed, place your jars over their respective holes. We used a variety of jar sizes and left the screw-on ring in place. This made it easy to remove and clean at harvest time if the bees had propolized the jar to the board for a good seal in the hive.
Place an empty hive body around the jars to keep them from being knocked over and to let the bees work in their natural darkened state. Cover with your standard hive cover. It’s important to place the jars on just prior to a nectar flow. Duration of the flow, strength of the hive, and weather will determine how quickly the bees fill the jars. It’s easy to keep track of the progress—just crack the hive cover and look, no worries of the bees flying in your face as they are contained in the jars.
Now we are to the final step, harvest. Harvest in stages as all the jars aren’t capped at once. When a handful was fully capped, I placed a bee escape between the jars and the brood chamber overnight. Completed jars can be replaced with empty jars. I suspect if the jars are left on too long there would be staining just as on regular comb honey. Freeze the jars for a day or two to destroy any wax moth larvae. All that remains prior to completion is to fill the jar with liquid honey and install the lid. For any jars just partially filled at the season’s end, just freeze a couple days for wax moth control, cover jars for storage, and install back on the hive the following spring. Enjoy and good luck.