Can I Feed Frames of Honey Back to My Colony?
Ask the Expert!
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Laurie Housel writes:
I live in the NC Piedmont. I prepared my hives for winter last Sunday by removing the top supers and adding a quilt frame and a candy board. These are two first-year hives. The honey was not capped last month. This month it’s all capped including eight full frames in the supers and four that are about half full. These frames were treated for varroa so technically I can’t harvest it. I was going to give them back to the bees in the spring as a head start. Can someone verify that I am supposed to freeze the honey to kill any larvae or eggs (e.g. Beetles)? How long? How quickly? After they are frozen, can I defrost them and store them? I don’t think I have enough freezer capacity for all these frames.
There are also a few frames with only a little honey. Can I just set these by the hives for them to clean up? The bees are still active and I see the, bringing in pollen.
Rusty Burlew answers:
Congratulations! It sounds like you have made excellent preparations for winter.
You mention that you can’t use your honey for human consumption because it was exposed to varroa treatment. This is usually the case, but always read the fine print on your package insert. Some preparations, especially those where formic acid is the active ingredient, have no such restriction, and you can harvest the honey as usual. Most package inserts can be found online for those of us who lose them.
In any case, the frames of honey can be fed back to the bees, either now or later. Freezing the frames is certainly not necessary for storage, but it does ensure that any parasites on the frames are killed. Freezing kills organisms because water expands as it freezes. The water expanding inside individual cells causes the cells to burst, which kills the organism. Since honey contains very little water, the honey cells maintain their size, meaning the honey comb is not damaged.
If you haven’t had a problem with beetles or wax moths, you may not need to freeze, but I always recommend it as a precaution. To be effective, you must freeze the frames soon after they are removed from the hive because the growth cycle of these pests is short. Eggs grow into larvae and then adults very quickly.
The length of time you need to freeze the honeycombs depends on two things: the temperature of your freezer and the number of frames you add at one time. A colder freezer simply freezes things more quickly, but the addition of lots of warm frames all at once means it will take longer for the freezer to get everything frozen.
The cells of the pest organism will burst as soon as they are frozen solid, so they only need to reach the solid point momentarily before they can be removed from the freezer. Generally, I freeze two or three frames overnight. After about 24 hours, I take those out and put in two more. I have a small but very cold freezer, so the rotation method works well. Your situation may be different, so you need to experiment to see how long it takes.
When you defrost the frames at room temperature, condensation will form on the honey. You want to avoid this, if you can. The best way I have found is to wrap the frames in plastic wrap, freeze them, and then thaw them with the plastic wrap still in place. This assures the condensation will be on the outside of the plastic instead of on the honeycomb itself. Once the condensation evaporates, you can remove the wrap and store the frames in a cool and dry place.
However, if you remove the wrap and store the frames where moths or beetles can access them, the pests will lay their eggs again and take you back to square one. On the other hand, if you store honeycombs in a damp environment, such as inside a plastic storage container in a cold garage, you can get mold on the frames. A perfect storage environment is cool and dry, gets some ventilation, and is protected from pests. A garage or basement can work, as long as it’s pest-free and doesn’t have large fluctuations in temperature that causes condensation to form.
I would definitely not leave the partial frames outside for the bees. Depending on your local environment, those frames could attract raccoons, bears, skunks, mice, voles, opossums, other insects and spiders. It’s best to put the frames in a super above the brood or just store them along with the others.