What must be your focus when you are beekeeping? This one important factor largely dictates your approach to beekeeping.
Are you in it for business? Or are you simply fascinated by bees and wish to further a good cause toward humans and the earth by keeping bees?
If you are into beekeeping for business alone, then your beekeeping processes would include tactics and strategies that would maximize honey production and help you bring in higher revenue.
Like frequent honey harvests, suppressing the swarming impulse, etc. But this is not always helpful to the bees in the long run. Instead, if you are in this to help bees and their health and well-being are what matters most to you, like for most Top bar hive beekeepers, then frequent honey harvest is for from your mind.
You would only harvest honey when the bees ‘need’ you too. If they have produced so much that they need more space to expand and harvesting would help them, that’s when you do it.
Either way, it’s what any beekeeper would eventually do at some point or the other.
Whether you keep bees as a pleasurable hobby or as a business interest, the biggest reward of beekeeping is honey.
Even beekeepers who keep bees for the sole purpose of enjoying the beekeeping process and for encouraging their good role in the natural ecosystems enjoy the perks of honey.
A natural sweetener, fresh from a hive, raw and unfiltered, is the joy of every soulful beekeeper. It is amazing to know that the bees you worked hard for, safeguarding them through winter, provide you with wonderfully beneficial honey.
At the end of the year, it is the fruit of both your and the bees’ hard work. But how does one know when to harvest? What is the right time to remove what amount of honey?
When to Harvest
As the bees begin their brood cycle and the work of foraging flowering plants for nectar in the spring, it means the bees need to complete one year and brave the winter to be able to successfully finish their annual bee cycle.
If you have taken care of your bees through the winter and they are up and about, out of the hive, foraging again for flowers, then that is cause enough to celebrate.
If it is the first year of the hive, then it is important to not touch the honey until the next year because the bees need the honey to get through winter in their very first year.
If you acquired your bees through a package, then you must understand that the bees are not acclimatized to the new queen, to living in a hive, to your area, which would be new for them, and so many other things. It is indeed reasonable to not expect the bees to be able to store a great amount of honey in their first year.
Their nectar collecting troubles start from fall itself, so it is through this time that they start stocking up. How much honey they would actually be able to produce, and how much they would need for their first winter depends on a lot of factors.
As the nectar flow in your area, the severity and duration of winter, the presence of favorable weather during collecting nectar, how large the colony is, how much honey the beekeeper has already harvested, and so many such similar factors.
But once the winter is passed, you can look for extra bars of honey now because the bees would begin collecting nectar once more. If one wishes to harvest honey from a top bar hive in the first year of a hive before winter, then one must look to see if all the bars in the hive structure, and there are about 28 to 30 of them are full of combs.
If all the top bars have combs on them, then you can safely harvest at least a couple of bars, so you leave the bees a chance to make up honey that you have removed before the arrival of winter.
If you find surplus honey, either before winter for a first-year hive, or at the start of spring for a second-year hive, you can go ahead and harvest it.
To harvest honey, always look for combs that have capped cells. Honey within capped cells is what is called as ripe honey. Though there is honey, or rather a nectar plus enzymes, in uncapped cells too, it is not yet ready.
Ripe and unripe honey differ in taste, consistency, and texture. Also, the unripe honey is more prone to fermentation after some time as it has a higher content of water within it, which is absent from ripe honey.
Also, in top bar hives, almost every brood comb has capped honey on the top. This should not be harvested. This is meant for the brood or for the winter storage. For harvesting purposes, you must look for combs that have only honey-filled cells. These are usually away from the entrances, and toward one side of the brood nest.
Once you have chosen a top bar with all capped cells for the harvest now is the time to actually do it. You could go about it in two ways.
Either, you could simply cut through the comb and consume it as such without really harvesting the honey separately, or you could harvest the liquid honey by crushing the comb.
As you remove the top bar from the hive, it is natural to see bees clinging onto the comb still. Take a soft brush and gently brush the bees off the comb. Do not be rough or forceful with your brushing as this could potentially hurt the bees and also break your comb. Beekeepers also use a gentle feather brush, of either geese or turkey feather.
Now, simply crush the comb within a colander or some such sieve that you can line with an additional nylon filter. Place a bowl or a container under the sieve and thoroughly smash the comb with preferably a wooden spoon as this does the job much better than simply breaking the comb. Leave the crushed comb undisturbed within the sieve for at least a day.
Honey is a thick, viscous liquid and it is bound to take its own time trickling down into the container. A day should be long enough for one comb.
Though the sieve would prevent the beeswax and any dead bees or bee parts or wings from entering your honey, the honey could still contain pollen. For many people, this is not an issue at all, and you can enjoy it just as you would enjoy normal store-bought honey.
In feet, the presence of pollen in honey is used as a very effective treatment for people suffering from pollen allergies. Introducing pollen doses along with honey has shown that these individuals are better equipped at handling pollen exposure as spring arrives, which otherwise would have been a dreaded season for them.
You could also harvest honey using a honey press. This is special equipment used for extracting honey from the combs. In this method, you simply break the honey into small pieces and put in the container section, also called the hopper.
The hopper has a heavy lid on the top fitted with a cork and screw mechanism. Once it is tightened, all the comb is pressed expressing the honey out through the small holes of the hopper. It acts as a filter and can be lined with an extra filtering material for finer filtering.
The honey seeps out into an external bucket or container placed under the hopper. This is easier than the crush and strain process which is very messy and takes a lot of time.
Another advantage of this process is that you can harvest honey from many combs at once. Several pounds of honey can be done within minutes.
A disadvantage might be that these honey presses are not easily available and are quite expensive too. Yet, if you have several hives then this is the easiest way to harvest honey.
Instead, if you have only one or two combs, you could either use the crushing method or simply do it in an even smaller scale in a couple of mason jars.
What you need is two jars, one with a smaller mouth than the other, so that when inverted over the other, the smaller mouth jar fits right inside the other jar.
For this method, just break or cut the single comb into smaller pieces and put the pieces in the jar with the smallmouth.
You can use a spoon or a thick wooden dowel to smash it well inside the jar. Now take a nylon strainer or piece of muslin cloth and tie it over the jar’s mouth. Invert the whole thing on the other jar and leave it undisturbed.
The honey from the top jar will trickle down into the bottom jar. You can simply cap it and store it when it’s done.
How to Store Honey
Freshly harvested honey from your own combs is sweeter for all the hard work you put into it. The filtered honey you collect either by the crushing method or through a honey press, still has very tiny particles of beeswax and pollen in it.
This is absolutely fine. You can consume it without fear and enjoy it freely. In fact, the harvested honey with all its crude components is better for your health.
The store-bought honey is not just intensely filtered but is also pasteurized to remove any harmful substances and purify it further. Several honey brands add additives in the honey to make it taste better and help it last longer, which, frankly, has no logic.
Honey that is as pure as fresh from the comb, with absolutely nothing added to it is the purest form and is sure to last for a really long time, if not forever.
The honey from Tutankhamen’s tomb was about 2000 years old and still was extremely delicious. The honey with additives, in fact, has an expiration date stuck on it because the additives aren’t everlasting and they would spoil after some time, spoiling the honey with them!
You can simply use glass jars, like Mason jars with a screw-top lid, to store your honey. Honey tends to crystalize, which is perfectly fine.
To liquify it again, place the bottle in a warm water bath for a few minutes. For this purpose storing in glass jars is advisable as it would be easier to warm them.
Marketing and Selling Your Honey
You have now, successfully harvested your honey from your backyard beehives.
The first year might produce enough honey for you and your family to enjoy. But after some time, say the second year or so, you will have honey more than you and your family can consume.
Gifting jars of honey to near and dear ones, neighbors and friends is a good idea. But if you have fifty to a hundred jars how many can you gift? It is reasonable to decide to sell this honey.
For those who stumble upon such abundance unknowingly, it is good to decide on a plan or strategy to market and sell your product. Even if you are into beekeeping for the sole purpose of generating revenue and take beekeeping as a business interest, it is obvious that you would need a plan on how to go about introducing your product in the market.
Decide on whether you wish to go by a brand name, or just sell locally to town’s people with word of mouth as your sole advertiser. It is always good to have a name for your product, however simple it might be.
You can create labels of your brand name, and have them attached to your honey bottles. These can then be introduced in the local farmer’s market or small scale exhibits where people present their locally produced goods for people to peruse through.
This would get your name out there. If you are serious enough, you could even opt for a simple website with pages on your beekeeping farm, your process and anything that could interest people and then introduce your brand of honey and service for them to be able to order it if they so wish.
You must get a license or whatever form of permission prevails in your country or state to be able to sell honey. You could then, even supply to local general and grocer)’ stores or even small scale supermarkets.
If done correctly and diligently, beekeeping from your backyard can turn into a lucrative business. The possibilities are endless when you are vested in beekeeping and honey procuring as a business idea.
Harvesting Other Byproducts
Apart from honey, a beekeeper may wish to harvest other byproducts of beekeeping. The beekeeper can sell these byproducts along with selling the harvested honey or even use it for his own consumption and usage.
We shall see the methods to harvest different byproducts of beekeeping one by one.
Beeswax is a highly valued wax than the commercially produced one for several reasons. A beekeeper has the advantage of having beeswax available to him in addition to the honey.
Harvesting beeswax includes having some kind of comb available. It is highly probable that during the whole beekeeping process, a beekeeper would have collected bits and pieces of a comb, and not just the honeycomb.
For different reasons like some kind of damage to the comb, accidental breaking of a comb during inspections or some such scenario, the beekeeper would likely end up with combs.
Also, after extracting honey in the above-detailed process, one would end up with a crushed comb. All these combs can be made use of to harvest beeswax.
Harvesting beeswax is nothing but purifying the comb of different impurities and debris, such as eggs, larvae, dead bees, etc. This purifying process is known as rendering.
Rendering is nothing but clarifying the wax of its impurities. For this process melting it is necessary and requires a great amount of caution.
If you plan to render beeswax, you must make sure of certain factors and prepare equipment accordingly. As beeswax is highly flammable it is safest to perform the whole process out in a wide-open area.
A wide and open backyard or a similar open space is highly recommended. It is highly objectionable to do the process within the house, but people have been known to do it successfully. If you wish to do the same, you must be extra careful and follow all precautionary advice given.
Use a large stainless steel pot or vessel to carry out the process. It will be useless once you have finished with it, except for a similar rendering process, so it is recommended you use something that is not highly valued or needed later in the kitchen.
Use a strong metal sieve that can withstand boiling temperatures and a second large vessel that you would put the sieve over. Arrange for a makeshift stove out in your yard, like placing two or three sturdy stones with dry twigs and flint in between.
This would be a great way to make an outdoor stove and avoid using any gas or liquid fuel for the stove to minimize the risk of bums or accidents.
Once you have your stove ready, place the pot over it Fill it with water up to one-third full. As the water nears boiling, keep your bee comb ready by breaking into small pieces.
Once it starts to boil, slowly and gently put the comb pieces into it Do not put larger pieces or throw in several pieces at a time, as this can cause the boiling water to splash over your hands or faces.
Put the pieces in one at a time, and put them in gently. Once all the wax has melted, you will see the comb debris like some brown sludge. It is the dead bees and eggs or larvae.
Leave it to boil for some time, stirring occasionally with a thick wooden stick or a wooden spoon. Ready the metal sieve over the other pot by that time. If you are sure that all the wax has melted, lift the vessel with some old kitchen towels and pour the entire thing carefully through the sieve.
The comb debris would be retained within the sieve while the beeswax with the water would have gone through. Make sure to press the debris in the sieve with a spoon or some kind of weight to effectively squeeze out all the wax.
Still, a little beeswax is bound to remain behind in the comb debris, and beekeepers usually store it to use it as a fire starter, as beeswax is highly flammable.
With the water and wax mixture in the pot, pour it in a separate deep container with a wide enough mouth while it is still hot Leave it undisturbed for a day.
As wax characteristically floats on water, the beeswax too would begin to float over the water surface as it begins to cool. All of the beeswax in the container would form one solid disc at the end of the cooling process.
As the wax is light, it shall float on the top. You can simply pop it out of the container. Beeswax should have its natural creamish-white color. If the color shows the presence of impurities or some kind of dirt and debris, then you can repeat the process as many times as you want.
You must either use a finer sieve or place two to three sieves, one over the other so that the holes crisscross, making a fine mesh to effectively strain all impurities.
If the beeswax has just a thin layer of dirt on one side, you can simply scrape or shave off a thin layer to clean it
You now have a solid disc of beeswax. You may enjoy it as you wish!
Propolis is a glue-like substance that bees produce by mixing their saliva, a little beeswax, and some kind of plant substance such as sap or resins from trees.
Propolis is aptly named as bee glue. Bees use propolis to seal any unwanted spaces or cracks within the comb. There are several uses of propolis, especially in the medicinal field.
Beekeepers sometimes prefer to harvest propolis for either their own personal use or to sell it to medical authorities. It is easy enough to harvest propolis as this does not involve any lengthy or tedious processes, and simply makes use of the tendency of bees to fill holes with propolis to the beekeeper’s advantage.
To collect propolis from a hive, the beekeeper uses a thin board of wood with very tiny holes in it. The trick is to place this sheet of wood such that the bees are forced to fill those holes.
This would happen if the sheet is placed near an observation window so that tiny amounts of light filters into the hive and the bees, to get rid of the light and maintain their dark cavity, will resort to making propolis and sealing the holes of the sheet.
Once the sheet is full, the beekeeper simply removes the sheet and freezes it. Do not forget to shut the observation window now.
Propolis is gooey and stringy when warm, but becomes hard and brittle when frozen. Once the sheet has frozen all over, simply twist it a little by holding to opposite ends.
The propolis will pop right out and break like glass. Collect the pieces and store it while it is still frozen because any delay would increase its temperature making it stick)’ again and hence difficult to handle.
Propolis has its own appeal for those who wish to harvest it As it is relatively easy to collect propolis from bees when compared to harvesting other bee byproducts, it is a popular hobby for several beekeepers and a fair business interest too.
Harvesting Royal Jelly
One of the most important things a bee produces is the royal jelly. It is the food for the larvae and the potential queens.
It is a mixture 5Gaq honey and pollen that the bees make specially for the queens. Several beekeepers prefer to harvest royal jelly from the brood cells at the peak of the egg-laying season as this ensures that you are not, in essence, depriving the larvae of its food, for the bees are continuously producing copious amounts of it.
Many people object to harvesting royal jelly, and rightly so, as it causes additional labor for the bees. And it is deemed to be a bit cruel to the larvae that are feeding on it to be disturbed like this and deprived of their food.
The process of harvesting royal jelly is a slow and extremely tedious one. First, you must spot the combs that are housing the larvae. You then pick that particular comb out of the hive.
At this point, as it is the larvae that you are taking away, the bees would be vicious. Go prepared with all the protection gear or suit worn properly. Brush any lingering bees off of the comb and take it someplace far.
Make sure that the bees are not following you about as they are overly protective of their brood. This could take considerable time and patience on your part.
Once you are sure the bees are not around or following you, take the comb and place it on a flat surface, like a table or platform, taking care not to break any cells. Then with a sharp knife open the covering of the cells carefully so as to not hurt the larva inside.
With the help of a small pair of forceps, gently lift the larva out and into a bowl or container. Under the larva is the royal jelly. With a tiny spoon or spatula empty the cell of its contents into a separate bowl.
Alternatively, you could use a sturdy straw to suck it out and blow it into a bowl. Place the larvae back into the cells very gently. Replace the comb in the hive carefully as the cells are not covered now and you run the risk of toppling the larvae out if jostled unnecessarily.
It is important to note that the royal jelly deteriorates very quickly. The longest duration noted has been two hours without refrigeration. It is highly advisable to refrigerate the royal jelly as soon as possible.
In fact, it is quite plausible that the extraction process would itself take hours together and so you would want to place what little you harvest in the refrigerator as you move from cell to cell. Alternatively, you could also freeze the royal jelly to prolong the shelf life.
Royal jelly is a high in demand byproduct of the beekeeping process due to its nutritional value, and beekeepers can earn a considerable amount selling royal jelly in spite of its tiring harvesting procedure.