Q & A with a Natural Beekeeper: How does natural comb impact production of honey?

From Chris:            Kevin, thank you for your wonderful website! I have just ordered 5 packages of bees I will pick up in the spring from a beekeeping operation in my state. I am working with another local beekeeper who keeps 15 hives on my farm because of my blackberries and cover crops. He uses plastic foundation, and I expressed to him my desire to use empty frames and he said it was not feasible or cost effective. We sell this honey along with my produce, and it’s how I make a living. So my questions are:

Q: How does using natural comb affect the rate/frequency of harvest? Will cutting out all the comb at once leave the bees starving? Or do you only cut some at a time? How long does it take the bees to draw out new comb?

Thank you very much for any info you can provide!

Hi Chris,

First, Welcome To Backyard Ecosystem. The rabbit hole is deep. There may be no turning back. You might want to take the blue pill instead.*

A: Natural Comb increases the rate of production because creating space in the brood nest throws the hive into overdrive.

I am not a commercial beekeeper, and will never be one. I am not suggesting that you cut out all the existing comb at once. That could set the hive back months. I am suggesting that you rotate the frames up and out two frames at a time. You introduce new frames in the brood chamber and you harvest capped off honey from the top box. You could experiment with doing this four or even six at a time. If I were to try it I would never be creating more than three spaces in the brood box and three in the top box. For a commercial beekeeper that means they have to go in the hive far too often.

I am not in this for money, I am in this for the future of humanity. Without pollinators we are in a pretty bad place. We seem to be experts at exterminating pollinators of all kinds.

My advice to commercial beekeepers is to:
1) Stop selling honey except as an artisanal product. Corn Syrup from China labeled as honey is underselling you at every grocery story.
2) Wax is worth more than honey these days. My way produces a constant stream of used and fairly uncontaminated wax.
3) Sell pollination, to chemical free farms. With chemical free bees.

Number three is easy for you, since you are only concerned with your own farm, if you run the farm and the bees chemical free you will do fine. Any other way is going to leave you without bees sooner or later, once there are no bees we are all going to be very, very hungry.

I am glad that you are interested in what I have to say. I really thought all the commercial beekeepers would have to kill all their bees before they start paying attention to what I have to say. I applaud you for being concerned and looking for another way.

Let me know if you want me to come open a hive with you sometime. You will be appalled at how slowly and smoothly I work. I can barely get through three hives in an afternoon. But I know my bees and they know me. The hives I work are healthy and they produce like there is no tomorrow. I let them actually consume what they produce. I don’t steal it and feed them sugar water. Or corn syrup labeled honey. I take what they can afford to part with without forcing supplemental feeding.

My total ongoing costs are zero. My start up costs are the cost of an all medium box hive and empty frames. How much is it costing your friend every season on a per hive basis to dump in chemicals and buy nucs to replace losses? In the long term I am going to win, but I am not trying to make a living at this either.

I am sorry I don’t have any happy answers. I wish I did. I wish I had a way to do this commercially that would stop the death spiral of more supplements and more dead bees. I really do. Maybe you can figure out something that I am missing. The only way you are going to find out is if you stop pumping chemicals into the hives and if your agricultural partners stop pumping chemicals into their fields.

I would love to hear from you. Thank you for your questions.

*Gratuitous Matrix reference

Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That's how we're gonna be -- cool. Critical is fine, but if you're rude, we'll delete your stuff. Please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name and do not put your website in the comment text, as both come off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch and Tim Ferris for the inspiration)
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Backyard Ecosystem began as an expression of my determination to make a difference in our own backyard. Literally and metaphorically making a difference at the micro level of my yard and to operate at macro level of treating the entire planet as something I am an integral part of and whose destiny is shaped everyday by what I do in my corner of the world.

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