What does it take to maximize your honey production

The major objective of keeping bees is to harvest the honey that bees store in their hives though other hive produce may accompany it. In practical term; honey yield fluctuates from year to year and also varies from colonies to colonies depending on manageability and available food resources within the apiary environment. It is a known fact that some bees’ colonies will be active during the season foraging and store more honey while some will be less active and produce little honey.

The quantity of honey produced per colony mainly depends on a number of factors. The most important amongst the factors that affect honey production are:

  • Availability of bee pasture
  • The queen’s condition
  • Hive population
  • Nutrition
  • Swarming
  • Space in the hive for expansion of the brood nest and storage of honey
  • The colony’s freedom from pests and predators
  • The beekeeper’s experience in both apiary and hive management
  • The weather

No doubt, adequate nectar producing plants and trees, colonies with biological efficient queens and large number of foraging bees, proper hive management techniques and favorable weather conditions will definitely ensure greater honey crop.

Ways to help achieve high honey yields

  1. A good apiary location with good nectar producing plants for the bees to forage should be chosen. The most important honey-producing plants and trees are citrus, apple, guava, pear, banana, bean, peas, garden egg, cucumber, melon, sunflower, cotton, sesame, eucalyptus, acacia, cashew, Moringa spp., Baobab spp., mango, pawpaw, soursop, thistles and many flowering herbs and shrubs.
  2. Hives should be located near nectarous plants not more than 1 kilometer radius. This is the economical distance for honey gathering. In fact I prefer planting nectar-producing plants within the apiary for the bees to feed on. It isn’t obnoxious for the bees to fly more than a kilometer away from the apiary but honey production increases if nectar is nearby. Hives located near the nectar source will have their combs filled up with honey very early than others not within the same vicinity.
  3. The rule of thumbs for bumper honey yield is to locate apiary about 3 -5 km away from other apiaries in the area to secure the maximum output of honey. Putting bee yards closer is not good management. Do not overstock at one spot because overstocking will lead to competition for the forage thereby producing low honey harvests. In a standard apiary, put 3-4 hives per plot (100 x 100 square meters) of blooming trees or crops for maximum production. This depends on the attractiveness of crops and the strength of colonies.
Fig. 1: An ideal apiary set up with 6-10 meters distance apart between the hives

4. A good virile queen must head the colon for maximum performance. Although a queen bee may live up to about two or more years, but egg-laying decreases significantly after each year and drastic reduction after the second year which weakens the colony and reduces the honey production capability. For this reason; it is advisable to replace queens at the end of second year in mainly honey production apiary. To monitor the efficiency of the queen, you need to check as often as you can; whether the queen is laying one egg per cell. If not; it is an indication of old age or no queen at all; therefore you need to replace her with a new one. A young queen in full lay in early season will assist the colony in building up strong populations capable of collecting a large honey crop. Some colonies may continue to have high production in their 3rd year and are still going strong into their 3rd years, but then you expect them to swarm or supersede. Bees replace a failing or an old queen with a more efficient queen by building a few supersedure cells near the center of the comb without being initiated by the beekeeper. If only a few queen cells are found on the face of the comb during hive inspection, do not destroy them; these are supersedure cells and indicate a failing or an old queen. Allow them to develop. It is better to allow the bees to replace the queen than to do that for them if they’ve already done those themselves.

Fig.2: A strong bee colony can be easily observed through the entrance activities

5. Strong colonies produce more honey. Prepare colonies to build up to full strength in time for the start of the bloom of major nectar-producing plants by feeding colonies sugar syrup 1 part sugar, 1 part water (1:1) six weeks before the nectar flow begins to incite bees to brood activity. It takes about 42 days for an egg to develop into a forager bee. Colonies that build up their peak populations during or after the main nectar flow will usually produce small honey crop. This is due to the small foraging force and the fact that they spend most of their time gathering food for feeding the brood. A strong healthy colony will have 40,000 – 60,000 bees or more in early dry season. The appropriate time when beekeepers should prepare their colonies for the major nectar flow is between mid-September and November.

Provide colonies with combs when brood extends over 4 or 5 bars or frames. This gives space for the queen to lay eggs and the brood nest to expand and to avoid over-crowding. Overcrowding can result from too many young bees, combs filled with pollen and honey, and lack of space for brood expansion. Check beehives every 7 – 10 days during this period to assess their development. If a colony is getting crowded and has 7 or more bars or frames covered with bees, shift the division board to create more room for comb expansion. Managing bee colonies for population build-up before nectar flow starts is a priority. So; it should be borne in mind that more bees is equal to more honey, essentially a strong bee colony makes a big crop of honey.

  1. Provision of potable water for the bees closer to the hives is necessary because bees need water to dilute honey and for cooling the hive during hot weather. A source of nearby water will save time spent in gathering nectar and less time collecting water thereby buoy honey production.
  2. A good hive management is to add five bars at a time for the bees to draw the combs until the hive is completely filled. To achieve this, start your colony with just five bars and save the other bars by blocking them with division board. When the first set is full, add empty bars by shifting the board and continue adding the bars in this order until when all the bars are fully built with combs. With this method, you will have enough combs that will accommodate incoming nectar and the large bee population. This will also stimulate foraging and limit early swarming tendency.
  3. Check your hive from time to time for ripe honey combs especially during flow period. Remove fully capped combs and extract as soon as they are ready and return to the hives.
  4. Remove queen excluder at this period because it hinders the work speed of bees and slow the process of honey storage in the combs.
  5. Swarming reduces honey production due to the loss of large numbers of bees, as the old queen leaves, taking more than 30-60 percent of the bees of the parent colony. The most important factors that cause swarming are the presence of a queen more than a year old and congestion in the hive (population explosion). The signs of swarming are large numbers of queen cells being constructed, large numbers of drones being raised and hive congestion, so try as much as possible to control swarming. The more common ways of preventing and controlling swarming are:
  • Re-queening: Use young queens. A colony with a new young queen is less likely to swarm. A colony with an older queen has about a 30 per cent tendency to swarm. Changing the old queen is best done before the nectar flow season i.e. between September and December preferably, with a young one is an ideal way to suppress swarming.
  • Removal of queen cells: Inspect the brood nest during the swarming season regularly every 7-10 days to make sure that queen cells have not been built. Once this happened, destroy all queen cells before they hatch.
  • Providing sufficient space: Bees need enough space to rear brood and store honey and pollen during the active season. When a colony grows too big and becomes crowded and has shortage of space the next available option is swarming. Congestion may be relieved by taking a few brood combs into a weaker hive that you wish to strengthen or by making a nucleus. The nucleus can be added back to the parent colony later in the season, when the risk of swarming is over.
  1. Weak colonies will not build-up a population adequately and produce little honey. For best results unite weak colonies to strong or medium colonies with good queens after removing the inefficient or weak queen.
  2. Protect bees from poisoning emanating from the use of insecticide sprays when hives are located near cultivated crops. To protect bees from insecticides spray damage, block the entrance of the hive with a mesh net to confine the bees during the spray period, and wrap up the hive to provide little space and ventilation. Keep the period of confinement as short as possible. If the period of confinement is to be more than one day, provide a feeder with syrup and container with water. The best method is to move the colonies out of the area and move them back when the effect of toxicity is over. Be careful not to move bees to another area that is about to be sprayed in order to reduce the chance of bee losses.
  3. For good strain of bees to be retained in the apiary; raise your queens from the best colonies with good temperament and little ability for swarming, such queens should be used in future for re-queening and increasing the number of your colonies in the apiary.
  4. Keep a few spare young queens in nuclei raised in the season to be available for immediate use in an emergency to replace missing or failing queens during the nectar flow. When the hive becomes queenless, bees get themselves occupied in constructing queen cells and raising a new queen. The effect of this is the dropping of hive population at about 1000 -1,500 bees per day. It requires 15 -16 days for the new queen to emerge, and about 7-10 days to mate and start laying eggs. The eggs in the brood cells take twenty-one days to develop into adult bee, and another twenty-one days to become foragers. Imagine the number of bees lost during this period and what the resultant effects will look like on your colony in terms of productivity.
  5. As earlier mentioned, good colony management between August and January will assist the beekeepers in harvesting good quality and quantity of honey. To produce well populated colonies of young bees, feed a light sugar syrup (1:1) and supplementary protein, using dried, ground and sieved baobab leaves mixed with granulated sugar. Provide bees with an ample supply of food and protect them from winds and cold. REMEMBER to stop feeding during nectar flow.

To your beekeeping success!!!

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