Harvesting the Honey
In this article, we will take a look at what for most beekeepers is the most enjoyable part of beekeeping, bringing in the honey. We will also take a brief look at some of the other products that can come from your hives. Of course, honey is by far the best-known bee produced item, so let’s start by taking a closer look at the different types of honey.
You will probably be surprised to learn that there are in excess of three hundred different types of honey. As a rough rule of thumb, darker honey tends to be stronger while the lighter honey is sweeter. Honey is made up of roughly eighty percent fructose, and glucose, and the remainder consists of nectar and other natural products.
When buying from an artisan, you will normally get raw honey, which has been filtered but not processed beyond that. In your local supermarket, you will mainly find refined honey, which has been through a heating process prior to bottling. This gives greater consistency, but at the same time, you lose many of the nutrients and vitamins of the raw product.
There is another reason that you may want to consider buying your honey from an artisanal producer. In the US, honey consumption had doubled. This is in part due to the fact that people are becoming less inclined to eat sugar due to a growing awareness of the health implications. Honey has become the go-to substitute of choice.
The consumption may have double, but production in the US is down thirty-five percent. That gap may partially have been filled by imports, but there is another more sinister factor. Honey has become the third most adulterated natural product. In fact, honey fraud is big business. It is very easy to knock out a chunk of real product and replace it with sugar. Inspectors are getting better at looking for this type of fraud, and hopefully, it is not going to affect you for long because you are soon going to have an abundant supply of your own home-produced raw honey that you know has not been tampered with.
You will often hear honey types being referred to by the type of flower from which they were made. Acacia honey, for example, is made from the flowers of the locust tree and is quite thin and pale in color. Honey from ivy tends to be thick and strong. The reason beekeepers are able to determine the type of honey they are selling is that we know that bees will continue to return to the same source flower for as long as it is available.
This makes sense because if the bee has discovered a good source of food, then why should it waste energy searching for another one. In some cases, the supply of flowers might be more mixed. This is often the case with spring-flowering wildflowers or urban honey, where the source is more varied.
The type of flower from which honey is produced is not the only factor that will influence the flavor or even the texture. Honey flavor can be influenced by whether it was raining or not, temperature, and even may differ from hive to hive. It is that slight element of the unknown that makes the honey harvest so interesting.
Besides temperature, there can also be differences in texture. Some honey is thin and runny, while others are thick. This often results from the flower being harvested by the bees. Honey that crystallizes more readily do so because they are higher in glucose than in fructose. They also lose flavor more readily. Ivy honey can become so thick that the bees themselves are unable to access it as a food, and you might night to supplement them even though they are bringing in vast amounts of stock.
Honey is mainly harvested between late July and mid-September. In areas where there are plenty of flowers, and the weather is kind, there may be a harvest in July and the second one in September. The bees will cap off the cells, and this indicates that the honey has a watery consistency that is low enough. The capping helps to keep the honey warm.
When you open the hive, it is likely that the top super is not full enough to warrant taking the honey. Place this in the lid, and the next supers down should be full enough to warrant removing the frames. There are three different options here. The most popular is to take out a frame and brush of the bees using a soft bee brush.
Once the frame is clear of bees, you place it in an empty super and put a lid back on, or the bees will start to reclaim their honey. You work your way through the super in this manner until it is empty and then move down to the next super if you have one.
After you have removed the honey down to the brood box or deep, you put what was the top super back on to it, so the bees have somewhere to carry on working if you are expecting good production to continue then you can get another empty super on top of that.
Another method that is used by beekeepers with many hives is to stand the super that is to be emptied on its edge and blow all of the bees out with a leaf blower. By blowing between the frames, it is quickly cleared of bees and then can be covered before you move onto the next super.
This method is quick and efficient and means you don’t need to force the frames out while the bees are still in the box but can do that in more comfort back in the honey house. In terms of efficiency, this method works very well, but it is not for you if you took up this hobby to enjoy a quiet time interacting with nature.
The final method of clearing the frames is to fit an escape board. This board is like a top board in that it fits precisely over the deep or super. It differs in that it has a hole in it through which the bees can get out but not back in. Once all of the supers have been removed, place an empty one, complete with frames onto of the deep, cover it with the escape board, and replace the filled supers and finally the lid.
In the evening, the workers make their way down into the brood box to keep the brood warm with their body heat. Over the course of about two days, the upper supers should be empty of bees, and you can remove the full supers and the escape board and take them to the honey house.
Whichever of these three methods you opt for, seal any gaps between the supers with painter’s masking tape so that no robber bees can get into the hive. The smell of the exposed honey will have told them there are easy pickings to be had. Under normal circumstances, these holes are filled with propolis during the course of the workers day to day activities. By cracking apart the supers, you have left them exposed to bees from other hives. They will quickly set about resealing, and the tape will become redundant and can be removed.
Now you have several frames that are filled with honey and capped with wax. You need to get these to your honey house, or a room dedicated to this process. Some people use their kitchen, but you need to have all entrances sealed with mosquito screens, or bees will get in.
They are attracted to the small of all that honey and are keen to get it back. The other disadvantage of not having some sort of dedicated space is that things do get sticky no matter how careful you are. If you think bees can get angry, just wait till your wife gets home and finds her once-pristine kitchen covered in sticky goo. No matter how many jars of fresh homemade honey you show her, you are going to get you out of trouble.
You are going to need a honey extractor. These come in varying styles, but most of them follow the same principle. They consist of two stainless steel tanks that sit on top of one another. The top one contains some baskets or racks for carrying the frames and some method of making them spin. This is usually as simple as a handle that you turn.
More advanced extractors have a motor to do the turning, but unless you own dozens of hives, this is really not a requisite. The honey is then thrown against the sides of this tank by centrifugal force. From there, it runs down into the lower tank, which is little more than a large receptacle with a tap on it from which you pour the honey when you are ready.
Before loading the frames into the extractor, you will need to decap them. This is another very simple operation. All you need is some sort of deep tray to catch them in and a sharp serrated knife such as a large bread knife. Stand a frame on its end in the tray and then slowly slide down the frame using a gentle sawing motion.
Use the edges of the frame as a guide to slide along so that you cut the wax off evenly. It should just slowly peel away and drop into the tray. In some places, the wax capping may be a little lower than the edge of the frame, but you can just scrape those caps off with a fork or the tip of a knife.
After removing the caps on both sides of the frame, you slot it into the extractor and repeat the process with the next one. How many frames you decap is dictated by how many the extractor will hold. Once all the racks in the extractor are full, just slowly but steadily spin the handle.
You can check every now and then to see there is no honey left in the frames and just give another spin if there is. Between the two stainless steel tanks, there is a fine filter that prevents any small pieces of wax or other solids from falling into the lower tank. You repeat this process until you have spun all of the harvested frames.
It will take about twenty-four hours for the honey to run down the sides of the top tank into the lower tank. At this stage, you pour into jars directly or into honey buckets. Honey buckets are just bulk storage buckets with a tap on so that you can decant to jars at a later stage. You have just harvested your first honey. It is a good idea to let the honey sit for a day so that the bubbles can rise and escape.
They will not harm the product, but they form a white film on top of the jar, which some people will not like. Don’t fill jars right to the top but leave a gap of about three-quarters of an inch before sealing. Try to be consistent so that all of the jars are filled to the same level. The jars themselves must be sterile, and even if you are using brand new jars, you are well-advised to sterilize them first. Other than that, the main risk to your product comes from having too high a water content. Anything above eighteen and a half percent and you risk the honey fermenting and going off.
Excess water comes from cells that are uncapped and still more nectar than honey. The bees are adept at only capping once the water content has gone down enough because they are instinctively aware of the fermentation risks. You will only have a problem if you harvest too much-uncapped honey. You can check water content using a hydrometer if you are uncertain, but with experience, you will be able to tell just from looking at the honey itself.
You are now left with a large bowl or two of honey-covered wax. Stand this in a sieve or colander and let it drain into another bowl. Again this takes around twenty-four hours. What you will be left with is a large bowl of honey and several pounds of wax. The honey can be poured into the extractor to filter through to the remainder of your harvest.
The wax can be used for candles or incorporated into other products such as cosmetics or furniture polish. There are a number of sideline products such as these that can be added to your product range. Before using it, melt it on the stove at very low heat. Pour the liquid honey into a cardboard milk container or old ice cream container and let it harden.
After that, it will come out as a block. At the bottom will be a dark mass, which consists of pollen and propolis. This you should cut off and what is left is virtually pure wax. Beeswax candles are favored by some people because of their natural smell and the fact that they do not produce any smoke.
Another option for wax is to swap it with the manufacturers of foundation sheets. Some beekeepers put sheets of this wax into empty frames so that the bees do not need to waste time and energy making comb. All they do is draw out the wax sheet and turn it into cells.
Producers will take your raw wax and then give you a reduced price against the foundation sheets. If you have extracted your honey without damaging the wax cells, you can replace these into the hive, and the bees will simply refill them so that the foundation sheets are not required.
Many beekeepers share an extractor. They are one of the most expensive pieces of equipment, and they are only used once a year, so it makes sense to use them co-operatively. Most beekeeping clubs have one or two that its members can borrow.
If for some reason, you are unable to get access to an extractor, there is another means of accessing the honey. You can cut the caps off as above and then just allow the honey to drain into a large tub or bucket. It is a much slower method and still needs to be filtered, but it does work.
The last option is simply to cut the comb up, place it in containers, and sell it in the comb. You will be surprised how many people prefer honey this way. It tastes the same, but it looks more authentic, and customers can be sure it has not been adulterated or processed.
Other Products from your Hive
Wax and honey are the two things that leap to mind when we think about bees, but they are far from the only products that a beekeeper can utilize or sell.
We have mentioned this product a few times during the course of this book. For the bees, it is a critical element in hive maintenance. They use it for sealing holes and cracks, for gluing things together, for weatherproofing and as a sticky trap to dissuade ants and other creatures from entering their domain. They make it from the resin of trees. Today it is often incorporated into cosmetic and health supplements.
Bees gather this and carry it the little sacks on their back legs. Once back in the hive, it is unloaded and used as a protein source for the growing brood. Again it is valued as a health supplement and is highly in demand.
This has become very popular in the top range of cosmetics over the last ten years. It is also used as a health supplement. The bees will produce it in an area called the hypopherangeal gland and store in empty queen cells. Although you will only be able to access it in minute quantities, it is highly sorted after, and the beekeeper with a good marketing sense can benefit greatly if they go down this route.
The bee’s venom can be harvested without harming the bees though this is s specialist area. The venom, which is a clear colorless liquid, is prized in alternative medicine.
You have now seen that there are many ways in which you can benefit from having beehives. On top of this, they can be used to pollinate crops, and some breeders specialize in producing nucs or queens.
At a totally different end of the spectrum to bee venom, which is a relatively new product to be marketing, you have mead. Mead is an alcoholic beverage made from fermenting honey with water. It can also incorporate other products such as herbs to add to the flavor.
It ranges in strength from as little as three percent right up to twenty percent. It has been drunk since ancient times and is still popular in certain circles today. This ancient drink is surrounded by mythology and offers one more bi-product to the savvy beekeeper.
Though all these alternatives exist, honey will always be the main product from which the beekeeper can benefit. Unless you plan on heading into large-scale pollination, honey is where you will see the greatest returns and where most beekeepers derive the most pleasure.