Let’s talk about comb honey! Many beekeepers produce comb honey for a variety of reasons. Mike Palmer of French Hill Apiaries in St. Albans Vermont, told me that cut comb honey is his “cash cow.”
Producing quality and attractive comb honey is an art, and there is much work and management involved. I am going to tell you how I produce comb honey, what works for me and what doesn’t work for me. As a note, just because a system or procedure does not work for me, does not mean that you shouldn’t try or use that product. I also want to state that I am very partial to Kelley Beekeeping’s equipment and customer service, and most everything mentioned can be found at their site or in their catalog. Pick up a copy of How to Keep Bees & Sell Honey by Walter T. Kelly, to read a short course on comb honey in Chapter 8. That was my first exposure to comb honey years ago.
A Cash Cow?
Why is comb honey called the beekeeper’s cash cow? For starters, harvesting comb honey is less labor intense, and there’s no need for expensive extraction equipment and a honey house. Comb honey can be prepared in a small clean area, or if your wife is not home, in the kitchen.
Comb honey production is like regular honey production in that it is beekeeper and weather-dependent. You can be the best manager in the beekeeping arena, but if Mother Nature is not cooperating, the crop is down.
During the 2010 honey season, Mike Palmer produced and distributed just under 6,000 cuts of comb honey. Then in the following 2011 season, he produced a little over 600 cuts. Same management style, same equipment, queens came from the same source…but a big difference in cuts produced. Mother Nature intervened and decidedly cut the profit margin for that season.
Let’s do some math before we get into the production and marketing. I run nine frames in a shallow super. So if the girls built and capped all nine frames, and my Kelley comb cutter is sharp and clean, I will get 4 cuts per frame. 9 x 4 = 36 cuts, plus the trimmings that my crew devours. I get $8 a cut at the market, which makes $288 from a super of comb honey, with no extraction costs. There is a cost for the box and label; I also tape the lid on the box to prevent leakage in the customer’s tote.
Now let’s look at liquid honey. Before we go any further, allow me to state that I currently produce both comb honey and liquid honey to accommodate my customer base. If I had a choice, I would go with comb honey all the way. I am old and extraction is heavy work for me.
A shallow super of honey should yield about 30 pounds of liquid honey or at least it does at our apiary. We put the same price on a pound of liquid honey, so $8 x 30 pounds = $240. Extraction labor and handling has to be added to the bottom line. If you are a good shopper, the bottle and label for liquid will cost close to what a box and label will cost for comb honey. When I was traveling down to the Green Markets in New York City, and in South Salem New York, I got $12 a cut for comb honey and $10 a pound for liquid honey. Charge what the market will handle.
Let’s talk about some of the different methods used to produce comb honey:
- Cut comb foundation in shallow wooden frames
- Ross Rounds
- Wood Sections made of basswood
- Plastic equipment, examples Bee O Pac and Hogg Half Cassettes
I have had great success with the cut comb method and the Basswood Wooden sections. My Italian bees will build in the Ross Rounds, but my Russian bees have to be forced down to build in them. I had no luck with Bee O Pac at all, not to say they are not good. I have a friend that only uses Bee O Pac. My girls would not go in them, even with a coat of beeswax and honey water sprayed on them. On the Hogg Half Cassettes, I have never tried them. There are several websites that discuss them in-depth.
I talked with Lloyd Spears, who owns and operates Ross Rounds. He mentioned that sales are on the rise as more beekeepers are using Ross Rounds as a marketing tool. I have to say that the Ross Round finished product is impressive. With Ross Rounds, there is no cutting o
r draining. You clean up the rounds; caps go on, put your label on and collect the cash.
The Basswood Wooden sections take a little labor to assemble but produce a great finished product. You can get a Basswood Section Kit here.
With all of these methods, if the beekeeper does not know his bees or the honey flows in their area, and does not have good management practices, it’s not happening. Putting supers on at the right time is key. Getting them off before the travel stain occurs is important. My customers like the bright colors of capped comb.
You should attempt to produce comb honey from only your best and strongest colonies. Good queens are essential. Several of the books referenced mention various techniques, procedures and shook swarms and artificial swarms. I have to admit, some of my best comb honey has come from freshly caught large swarms.
Because you only use the best and strongest colonies, swarm management is essential; you are crowding the girls down for comb building. I do a lot of frame rotation and super rotation. I also spend a lot of time watching the hive entrances, you can learn a lot from just watching the entrances.
I had discussion with a beekeeper at one of the Vermont Beekeepers Association meetings who runs a two-queen system to produce comb honey. He advised to let the bees build-out all frames. I have never tried it, but he is successful at it. He also added swarm management was very important to his success.
I only attempt to produce comb honey in the start of the season and for the first few vigorous flows. In our region, the mid-season and late flows are mostly Goldenrod and Aster. Goldenrod and Aster honey granulates quickly up our way, and is not as appealing as I would prefer in cut comb honey production.
Let’s talk about most beekeepers weak link: marketing. Beekeeping is not just about making honey or cut comb honey, marketing is a big part of game. What good is a warehouse full of honey if you cannot get rid of it? Your product has to look good, taste good and be easy to carry and use at the family dinner table. If you cannot get folks to buy the fruit of your labor, you are going to be eating a lot of honey. Not a bad thing, but it’s hard to pay the bills with honey.
If I am going to specialty market, I like to put cut comb in mason jars and fill the void in the jar with light amber liquid honey. Put some colored checkered cloth over the lid with a bright ribbon. Just a note: If you are going to market your comb honey in jars filled with liquid honey you will need some type of extraction equipment depending on how much you are producing.
Now it’s your turn to do some research and give it a try. A good thing about comb honey production is that you can just do one super at a time, no matter what method you decide to try. If I can be of service to you, I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have fun and prosper.