Keeping bees requires a huge learning curve and one of the biggest is at harvest time. Each beekeeper will have their own way of doing things and most will gladly share their experiences and their tips with you. Seasoned beekeepers are always happy to help beginners out, to ensure the survival of the bees and to help make sure you get good rewards for all your hard work.
I am going to share a few tips with you to help make your harvest easier. I have already mentioned a couple of these above, but they do bear mentioning again – some things can’t be said enough and if it makes your life easier then it’s all for the better:
- Always allow plenty of time for a harvest. It is not a five-minute job! Harvest season can take all day, sometimes two or three days, depending on how many hives you have. Allow at least 30 minutes per hive for removing all of the supers. Plan to spend at least an hour setting up your harvest and extraction area. Plan to spend at least a few hours extracting the honey and filtering it. And then plan to spend at least an hour cleaning up afterward, as well as a couple of hours for bottling the honey.
- If you are planning to harvest and extract in your own kitchen, please reconsider! It is extremely messy and honey will get everywhere. It is very sticky and will take you a long time to clean up. Set aside a specific area, like a shed or the garage where you can do this – try to keep it separate from your own living quarters. It must also be away from the bees and where they cannot get to as well.
- Make sure your honey harvest area is well ventilated but enclosed. It can take hours and the bees will smell the honey. If you have windows in the room, open them to keep air circulating but make sure they are fitted with bug guards to keep the insects out.
- Do make sure you have enough honey to make the harvest and the mess worthwhile. It is much easier on the extractor and you will only have to clean it once, instead of several times. Remember, it takes the same amount of time to set up the area and then clean up afterward for a small batch as it does for a large batch.
- Let the honey flow freely. Remember that honey flows better when it is warm so if you are harvesting on a cool morning, set up a heat lamp or a small light with a normal lightbulb under the extractor. This will warm the honey up and let it flow better.
- Do keep an old towel and warm water to hand for washing in. You will get sticky and you will want to wash your hands off on a regular basis.
- Think about doing the extraction on one day and then leaving the bottling until the following day. You will want to make sure all of the honey has drained through the filter bag so you could leave it overnight. This will also ensure that you are fully rested and refreshed for the next job – bottling can take a few hours so you don’t want to be working through the night!
- Make use of your bees to help you clean up afterward. They will clear the wet frames of any honey – pop the empty frames in the supers and leave them on top of the hive for a few days. When they are dry, you can put them back in the hive. You could also pop the extractor next to the hive – the bees will happily clean this out for you, as well as any other equipment that has been used. All you need to do then is rinse it out and put it away, ready for next time.
- Do enlist the help of someone else. Harvesting and extracting is hard work and an extra set of hands is always welcome. The more help you have, the quicker you can get done but do not have too many people, as you will all be getting in each other’s way!
How to Remove the Bees from the Honey Supers in Your Beehive
No matter which style of honey you are harvesting, the bees have to be removed from the supers first. The last thing you want is a few thousand bees entering your kitchen or extraction area!
The bees must be left with some honey for the winter, typically around 60-70 lbs., although if the climate is warmer during the winter, you can get away with less. Anything over that is yours to take.
To work out roughly how much honey is in the hive, assume that each capped frame is going to weigh around 7 lbs. If you have 10 frames, you have 70 lbs. So anything over that, you can take.
There are a number of ways to remove the bees but, before you attempt to do this, you must smoke the bees in the same way you would when you are opening the hive for an inspection. The bees will be highly protective of the honey so, as well as putting on your beekeeping veil, make sure you wear the proper gloves. If another person is helping you, they must also be dressed appropriately.
Shake the Bees Out
This method involves taking the frames out one at a time from the supers and shaking them in front of the entrance to the hive. Put the frames that are clear of bees into an empty super and cover it to stop the bees from stealing the honey back. You could also use a bee brush to brush the bees off.
However, when you do this, you should make sure you brush upwards – this is to make sure you do not injure or kill any bees that may be partially inside a cell when you brush them out.
These are not the best methods for a new keeper to employ because they are time-consuming, especially when you have many supers. Not only that, things can get very intense around the hive when you are doing this.
Blow the Bees Out
One of the fastest ways to remove the bees is to blow them out but beware, the bees do not like it! Remove the supers from the hive, including the bees and stand them up on end. Make sure they are between 15 and 20 feet away from the entrance to the hive and use a leaf blower or a special blower designed for the purpose of blasting the bees out.
They will come out of the frames at around 200 mph and can get extremely disorientated, not to mention very irritated!
Use a Bee Escape Board
This method is not quite as dramatic and involves putting an escape board in between the upper deep hive body and the supers that you are clearing bees from. There are many different models of escape board, but they all use the same principle – the bees are on a one–way trip; they can get down the brood nest but not back up to the supers.
Use a Fume Board and Bee Repellant
Apply a liquid repellant to the fume board and put it on top of the supers, replacing the inner and outer covers. Within about 5 minutes, all of the bees will be forced out of the supers and will go down to the brood nest. The supers can then be taken out and taken for extraction
Do use natural repellents – chemicals ones are toxic and highly combustible. They may also cause depression in the central nervous system, damage to the respiratory system, liver damage and dermatitis.
Bear in mind that a shallow super that is full of capped honey can weigh between 30 and 40 lbs. Take a hand truck or wheelbarrow with you when you are shifting the supers to your harvest area. Otherwise, you will be exhausted and run the risk of injury.
How to Extract Honey
In some regions, the weather conditions may make it possible to extract honey twice a year; of course that will depend on the amount of nectar available so make sure you have plenty of bee attracting flowers planted in your garden all season.
Try to wait until at least two of your supers are full and make sure that the combs are at least 80% full of capped honey – capped on both sides. Extracting the honey is time-consuming and messy so make sure that you have sufficient honey to make the job worthwhile.
To extract the honey you have to get the frames out of the hive. I talked about that in the last chapter so, once you have removed the frames and removed the bees, you can take the combs for extraction. Do remember to leave the bees some honey to feed on; don’t just leave them sugary syrup.
The next job is to transport your frames to the extraction area. His needs to be well away from the hives and in a place where the bees cannot gain access. Some people use their own kitchens, their garage or set up a shed as a dedicated extraction area. If you are using your kitchen, just keep in mind that his does take time and can be messy!
Wherever you use, line the floor with plastic sheeting and then cover it with a good layer of newspaper. Put the extractor in the center of the floor and place a small table next to it. Put a large baking sheet on the table and your uncapping tool. Have a bucket of warm water to hand, along with a towel – you will want to rinse your hands off during the process!
Bring the supers into the extraction area and close the door and any windows. Remove the frames from the supers, one at a time. Hold each frame over the baking sheet and use your uncapping tool to remove the caps – start from the top and work down, then turn the frame and do the other side.
Set the uncapped frames in the extractor until it is full. From here, things get busy so it’s a good idea to have an extra set of hands for help!
Many beginners start with a hand crank extractor and crank in one direction for around five minutes.
Then repeat for another five minutes in the other direction. Check your frames – they should be very light. They will still have wet honey in them but will be almost weightless. Put the wet frames back into the super.
Once you have extracted the honey from all frames, the supers will be put on top of the hives. The bees will clean them and, within a day or two, they should be dry and empty.
When all of the frames have been extracted of honey, put a large food grade plastic bucket beneath the spout on the extractor – at least a 5-gallon bucket. Line it with mesh so that you filter any stray bits of wax or anything else out of it. Open the gate on the extractor and let the honey flow down into the bucket. Make sure you scrape the sides of the extractor to get the maximum amount of honey out.
When you are done, tie the mesh up with string or rope and hang it over the bucket. The honey will flow through the mesh – you may need to leave this overnight to make sure it all goes through – you don’t want to waste any! When the bag is empty of honey and only contains the debris, you can start to fill your jars with the honey. The debris that is left in the bag can be plated up and set in the garden – make sure it is away from the hives, though.
The bees will clean the honey out of the bits and you will be left with nothing more than a pile of dust. This is wax that can be melted down as beeswax and used to make candles and other things.
Take the bucket full of honey into your kitchen and put it over the sink. Try to get a bucket that has a spout on it, as it will make life easier. If you are using narrow neck jars, place a funnel in the top and pour the honey through it; you don’t need to do this for wide neck jars.
Fill the jars up to the neck and cap them off. If you can’t get a bucket with a spout on it, you will need to use a jug and funnel, which can get a little messy!
Make sure that you clean your extractor thoroughly. Use a little bit of dish soap and a lot of water to clean it out and then rinse it thoroughly. You can clean the bucket and the mesh out in the same way and then set them out in the sun to dry.
Don’t be surprised if your honey changes color and taste as the season progresses. This always depends on the blooms that your bees visit – different ones give different flavors and, later on, I am going to talk about specific varieties of honey. As a rule, spring honey tends to be lighter in both taste and color while a fall harvest will be darker, more amber in color and with a richer taste.