One of the most common questions asked by novice beekeepers is how much honey they can expect. The answer to this question depends on the weather, how prolific the nectar flow was for that year, how you manage the hive, and the health of your colony. You can help your bees to store extra honey by controlling the number of supers you place on the hive. A rough estimate of the amount of honey you can expect in your second year is forty to forty-nine pounds. A National hive that contains one super with ten frames, for example, should hold twenty-two pounds of capped honey. This is a lot of honey, so you will need to make sure you have enough containers on hand when you come to extract it from the hive. If your colony builds up rapidly in the first year, you might find you can extract a few frames then, but you should be prepared to wait until the second year.
There is no set time that your honey will be ready to extract. This will depend on the weather; the abundance of flowers, plants, and trees in your area; and the strength of the colony. As a general rule, you should be able to take off a couple of supers by midsummer, and you could possibly get a late harvest at the end of the summer too. Each hive will perform differently, so you will have to treat each one individually and act accordingly.
TASTE AND AROMA
The aroma, flavor, and color of the honey your bees produce will depend on the type of flower the nectar has been collected from. It’s hard to predict what your honey will taste like since you can never be certain where your bees have collected their nectar. This can be interesting in itself because you can try to judge by means of your nose and palate which flowers the bees have mainly been visiting.
If nectar has been collected from a variety of flowers, the honey is known as “polyfloral.” If the bees collect nectar from only one source, it is known as “monofloral.” Honey varies in color and is measured by the Pfund scale. This system determines which color category honey is graded into: light, amber, or dark. The Pfund scale does not indicate quality; however, it has been noted that darker honeys contain more minerals than lighter versions, being rich in chlorine, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, sodium, and sulfur. Whatever the type of honey your bees create, your finished product can be affected by both the climate and the environment in which your bees are kept.
In most countries, the majority of honey is from a mixture of sources, with the exception of heather and certain clover honeys. As a general rule, the darker the honey is, the stronger the flavor will be.
Extracting the Honey
With the right planning and equipment, the process of extracting the honey can be a lot of fun —but however careful you may be, both you and the area in which you are working are going to get quite sticky.
You will know the time to start harvesting your honey is right when the bees have capped their honey cells. This is an indication that the honey within those cells has matured sufficiently and is now of the correct consistency. If on inspection you find that three quarters of the cells have been capped, you can proceed to the extraction stage.
Before removing the supers from the hive, you will need to have all the necessary equipment ready:
- an extractor • an uncapping knife
- filters (or sieves)
- food-grade containers or buckets
- warm water
- cleaning cloths or sponges
- a spare super.
You will not be able to extract your honey out in the open because the bees will try to reclaim it. You will need to find a sterile place that is free from dust—a kitchen or utility room is ideal. Make sure you carefully sweep, wash, and disinfect the floor and work surfaces, leaving as much clear, hygienic space as possible. Have a bucket of warm water and a clean towel handy so that you can wash your sticky hands when necessary. Close all doors and windows to stop bees from being attracted to the smell of the honey. Ideally there should be more than one person to do the job, particularly because the full supers can be heavy.
CONTROLLING THE BEES
Needless to say, the bees will not be happy about you stealing their honey, so you need to find the best way of taking the supers without making them too angry. You can try several methods, but by far the best for beginners is a bee escape board. Place the board, which has an escape hole in it with a one-way valve, between the brood boxes and the supers the day before you wish to remove the harvest. The bees will go through the hole in the escape board to spend the night in the brood box, but the valve does not allow them access again into the supers, which means your frames will be bee-free in the morning.
More experienced bee-keepers tend to use bee brushes to gently brush the bees off the combs. This method is not recommended for novices since the brush can quickly become clogged with honey and can also cause the bees to become aggressive.
THE EXTRACTING PROCESS
The basic process of extracting the honey from the frames is to use a hot knife to cut off the capping on each side. Run the knife just under the surface of the wax capping, leaving the rest of the comb intact. Dip the knife in boiling water after each scraping to keep it clear of wax. Put the wax capping into a container since you can melt these later to make other items.
After capping the frames, place two or more into an extractor—most of them hold up to four frames. The extractor is simply a spinning drum that forces the liquid honey out of the cells. There are quite a few different designs, but basically they all spin, and the centrifugal force removes the honey. Radial extractors do both sides of the frame at once. If you use a tangential extractor, you will have to turn the frames manually to get the honey out of both sides.
Once the extractor is full, put on the roof and turn the handle (or turn on the switch if it is electrically powered), starting slowly. Let some of the honey spin out before increasing the speed because this allows the comb to stay in one piece. Continue spinning for another few minutes until all the honey has come out of the comb. Remember that if you are using a tangential extractor, you will need to rotate the frames and spin again.
When you are happy that you have removed as much of the liquid honey as possible, take out the frames and place them in the spare super. You can return these to the hive later for the bees to cleanup.
Next, the liquid honey in the base of the extractor needs to be filtered through a sieve into a clean bucket or any large container. Once this is done, cover the bucket with a clean cloth and leave the honey to settle for twenty-four hours. You will find that bubbles have settled on the surface; skim these off carefully. Your honey is now ready to pour into sterilized jars. When your jars are full, cap them immediately and store them in a cool, dark place. Put a label on each jar with details of which hive the honey was taken from and the date it was collected.
If you want to sell your honey, you will have to adhere to the regional rules regarding hygiene, food standards, and health and safety. In the quieter winter months, you can read up on this subject or contact your local bee-keepers association.
If you do not have access to an extractor, it is possible to harvest the honey by hand by physically scraping the comb. This will take a lot longer and is far messier, but it produces good-quality honey nonetheless. The only problem with this method is that the honeycomb is totally destroyed, so it cannot be returned to the bees for cleaning. If honeycombs are replaced in the hive, the bees will have less work to do because, instead of drawing out new comb, they can start to store nectar straight away in comb that is already formed.
If you decide to use the manual method, you will need a large bucket to collect the honey and another one for the wax comb. You will also need a large spoon or scraper, a coarse sieve, and a fine sieve for the final filter.
Start by placing the coarse sieve over the top of the honey bucket and hold the full frame over the top. Scrape the honey and wax straight off the frame into the sieve and then leave to filter through the mesh into the bucket. Once you are happy that as much of the honey has drained through as possible, put the wax comb into the other container and repeat with the other frames.
So that your honey is really clear, filter it again through a fine sieve or muslin into another clean honey bucket. Hopefully this will get rid of any minute particles of wax that passed through the coarse sieve.
Cover the bucket with a fine sieve and leave for a couple of days to allow any air bubbles to rise to the surface. Skim the surface and bottle the honey.
Place the wet frames back in a super and return them to the hive for the bees to lick clean. Once they have been cleaned, you can fill them with new foundation.
Testing for Purity
Honey is hygroscopic, which means that it naturally attracts moisture. If excess moisture were to get into the honey, it could potentially ruin the batch, either by encouraging fermentation or by ruining the taste.
A honey hydrometer can give you an accurate reading. Alternatively, there are simple methods for testing purity that you can carry out at home.
Home Honey Test
For these tests you need only some simple household items:
- a sample of honey
- a cotton wick
- a candle
- some matches
- a piece of blotting paper.
- Put a sample of honey on a saucer and place it in the refrigerator. If the sample crystallizes, it is impure.
- Slowly pour half a cup of honey into a second cup. Pure honey spins clockwise as it is poured.
- Dip a length of cotton wick into the honey sample. Allow the honey to dribble off the wick. Light the candle and hold it against the wet end of the wick. If the honey is pure, the wick will burn because there is a minimal water content. If the wick does not burn, it means that there is a high water content present and the honey is impure.
- Place a teaspoon of honey on a piece of blotting paper. If your honey is pure, it will not be absorbed by the blotting paper. Impure honey will be absorbed.