Six questions to ask your beekeeper

Not everyone has the time, the space or the inclination to keep their own bees, but buying honey can be confusing. Meme Thomas, instructor for the Honeybee Conservancy classes at Rodale Institute and founder of Baltimore Honey, shared with us the best questions to ask your beekeeper (and the answers you want to hear in return) to ensure he or she is focused on keeping the bees healthy.

Q: Is the honey from your own hive(s)? Do you package honey from another source? If so, from where?

A: Ideally, you want to buy directly from the beekeeper or someone who is very familiar with the practices of the beekeeper(s). Never support a vendor, processor or packer who doesn’t know the origin of the honey he or she is selling.


Q: How are you as a beekeeper contributing to the health of honeybees?

A: Know your beekeeper’s methods and management practices during honey production. How the beekeeper cares for the honeybees makes a big difference in the quality of the honey for sale. Sustainable beekeepers should have planted nectar- and pollen-rich plants for all seasons, especially for the months of late winter to early spring (February through April), through the summer dearth and into the late fall (June through November). If they don’t mention omitting the use of chemicals, you’ll want to ask specifically about their use of miticides, antibiotics or artificial feedings, including cane/beet sugars, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup and pollen patties.


Q: How do you ensure your honeybees are well hydrated?

A: Honeybees need water to stay hydrated but also to regulate the thermodynamics within the hive and colony. They use water inside the hive as a means for evaporative cooling (air conditioning within the hive). Honeybees will place water over and on top of the wax comb to prevent it from melting and to keep the eggs and young developing honeybees in cells laid by the queen bee from overheating and dying. That said, beekeepers should always provide clean water at each hive, especially when honeybees cannot forage outside the hive due to cold temperatures or cloudy, foggy or rainy weather.


Q: How do you prevent your bees from starving during the winter months?

A: Beekeepers should leave 100 pounds or more of capped honey in the hive for honeybees to feed on over the cold months of winter and into early spring.


Q: How soon do you remove honey from a hive after setting up a new colony?

A: The first honey harvest should occur sometime after the fifth season of placing a honeybee colony into its hive. For example, if a colony is set up in a hive in the spring, a beekeeper would wait five seasons—summer, fall, winter, spring, summer—and the first harvest wouldn’t take place until a year after establishment. And only the excess honey (above the 100 pounds) will be harvested while the remaining will stay on the hive for honeybees to feed on through the winter. The five-season rule allows for honeybees to establish themselves and to store away enough capped honey for winter survival.


Q: How do you prevent your honeybees from stinging you when you take their honey?

A: Cross your fingers and hope their response isn’t “with a smoker.” The materials that are burned in smokers emit over 20 volatile compounds into the hive. Over time, the smoke will create residue build-up on the wax comb of brood and honeycomb which, in turn, affects both the honeybees and the natural flavor of the uncapped and capped honey.

Photo by ~my aim is true~/Flickr

18 Responses to “Six questions to ask your beekeeper”

  1. Doug

    For the uninformed honey buyer, I don’t know how they would even know what questions to ask and if they would know the right answer.
    Most all bee keepers use a smoker in there hive inspection.
    A bee keeper can not plant enough flowers to keep even a part of a hive going/living. They must forage throughout the area, even up to 4 miles away to collect nectar/pollen.
    I have to say that most of the question you want folks to ask are off the wall.

    • Meme Thomas

      These six questions were provided to give people guidelines to follow when buying honey.
      While many beekeepers do use a smoker, honey harvested without smoke taste un-bee-lievably delicious and clean, without any aftertaste from a smoker.

      As for foraging, a hive steward’s responsibility is to insure the surrounding environment to an apiary CAN SUPPORT honeybees with a diversity of nectar and pollen. Should your area suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder, then plant, plant, plant and ask others to help with the restoration of honeybee foraging areas in your area.

      In 2012, the USA experienced the 4th warmest winter in history ( Honeybee colonies in the winter of 2011-2012 broke their winter cluster, took flight on warm, sunny winter days…consuming significant amount of winter stored honey–if a honeybee colony was lucky enough to have honey left in the hive by their beekeeper. Hive Stewards who left 100 pounds of honey stored on the hive as extra winter insurance for their honeybee colony did not have to deal with honeybee colony starvation losses as seen in the winter of 2011-2012. Winterization of a Honeybee Colony starts at the beginning of the NECTAR FLOW…with 100 pound of honey going into the fall/winter months

  2. Maura

    I like the idea of working with nature as much as possible. Letting clover and dandelions grow to lessen the need for feeding. Working them differently to avoid using smoke. It’s scary at first but I am going to keep trying. When I smoked them, the guards would go in the hive and hornets seemed to take advantage of that. I know they are insects but the less toxins involved, the happier I will be about what I am doing.

  3. C

    100lbs!? Wow that must be some winter! In the UK we leave 40lbs of honey for a winter colony. What is it about your winters/bees that they need so much more?

  4. anna

    For a healthy colony that is strong at the end of the season, I leave at least 80 lbs for the winter. I am in Canada, just west of Montreal, to give you an idea of winter lenght and temperature.

  5. whisperingsage

    Why not give more info to create an interest in beekeeping? My husband would like to keep natural bees but doesn’t know much to begin with. Also, the documentary, the Vanishing Bees coveres CCD and goes back to europe where they have already dealt with it there and found it was GMO crops- they got video of the neurotoxins in systemic and GMO insecticide and herbicidal cropped flowers and showed bees landing, and within seconds were having siezures and falling off the flower. Never to return to the hive.

    So there is another concern- farmers and backyard gardeners that use things like Round up, and weed and feed. and round Up ready alfalfa or anything round up ready. I would love to say the backyard birders are a key help in encouraging diversity of species, but not if they use Round up.

  6. amanda

    Hi whisperingsage,

    Check out our Honeybee Conservancy page for beekeeping resources. We have a 2-day class we offer, and for those who can’t get out to Rodale Institute, there are some good books listed to help get natural beekeepers started.

  7. Red Bee

    Honey is most likely harvested in the second season all depending upon the region, season and health of the colony. Most colonies these days do not survive 5 seasons. 60 pounds of honey is sufficient to over winter a colony,
    Happy beekeeping!

  8. Philip Hardy

    Why is there never any consideration given to the victims of beekeepers (their neighbours)? Search for ‘aggressive bees’ and ther are hundreds of hits from beekeepers along the lines of ‘my bees are so agrressive, I’ve tried everything but nothing works what can I do’. It seems to be the number one problem for all beekeepers. If the bees are attacking their suited up keeper they must also be attacking their defensless neighbours a few feet away.

    Enjoyment for the few causes misery to the many.

  9. DrewInCharlotte

    Weird that we keep reading about planting flowers for bees. In my area (Piedmont NC) honey is made from trees–Red Maple, Poplar, Ligustrum, Sourwood…). A single tree has thousands of blooms, whereas an entire perennial garden has far, far less.

    Want to really help bees? Plant mid-to-late summer-flowering trees to help them through the dearth period, and fall-flowering plants (I.e. Aster, Goldenrod) to help build up winter stores. Though it takes acres of aster & goldenrod!

    Add a seventh question: What treatments does your queen supplier use?

    If we beekeepers continue to buy queens from breeders who keep their bees on life support instead of breeding for survival traits, we’re spinning our wheels and ruining the genus. We should seek out treatment-free queen breeders, and/or breed (at least some of) our own treatment-free & naturally-mated queens.

    Btw, we typically overwinter with one deep brood box and one deep full of capped honey here.

  10. Mike

    I have a top bar hive and I know that you should not move your hive more than 6 feet or the bees won’t find there way back. cAN THE HIVE BE MOVED TO A DIFFERNT JLOCATION IN THE WINTER without that problem. I would fvblike to relocate my bees to a sunnier spot. Thanks Mike

  11. William

    Do bees make honey from the sugar water I prepare
    for the hummingbirds?


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