Friday, August 16, 2013

Sweet rewards-honey harvest!

photo from:

There are sweet rewards in store for all the labor invested in your beekeeping venture.  Mid-summer is honey harvest time.  When you hear the male annual dog day cicadas start to sing in July, it's time!  This is as the nectar flow has begun to cease. Things are starting to change in the hive.

As you think about how much honey to take, keep in mind that for this area (of Western Maryland) and our winters which can be anywhere from mild to severe, about 60-70 lbs of honey must be stored up in each of your hives for them to safely make it through the winter.  (So after you take what you will take, you will start feeding the bees to replenish their stores.)

Be proud of your accomplishments, but I'm just saying, "you do not want to be a glutton when you take honey off of your hives!"

 As an example, my hive #1 has produced a lot of honey this season.  The top two supers have been consistently full of honey.  Pests have not been a concern and the queen has been healthy; she has been laying eggs in a nice looking brood pattern-it looks like pie crust and is completely filled in across each frame.

On the other hand, my hive #2 has had hardly any honey on it at all, maybe 3 frames in one super. Brood patterns have been blotchy, even poor.  On occasion, I've seen small hive beetles in amongst the frames of the hive.  Whereas hive #1 probably has had over 100,000 bees in it, hive #2 probably has had no more than about 35,000.  All season, it has appeared as if hive #2 was about two weeks behind hive #1 in development.  Now, they have vastly diverged, and it seems even more weeks difference in development exists.  I knew I would not be taking any honey from hive #2.  And, I probably should have re-queened it long ago.

Each year, I find that once you do remove honey from your hive, the whole dynamic of the hive changes.  Pests are suddenly everywhere.  Small hive beetles and mites on the inside, and opportunists like European hornets, ants, paper wasps and yellow jackets on the outside. Drones have built up.  The queen seems stressed.  Robber bees from other nearby hives suddenly appear. There is no nectar flow anymore and between the heat and drought, the attitude of the bees from August on is much more aggressive. You are much more likely to be stung.  You need smoke, and often lots of it, and you need to wear your beesuit.  So, once you take the honey, be forewarned, things will be changing in your hives.

Normally, I would extract honey in early to mid-July.  But, this year, I had lots of commitments that prevented this. So, I finally got to do it in early August after returning from my vacation to the Outer Banks of NC, a most relaxing time!  I pulled out the old equipment, Walt fixed the broken extractor, and we began the task.

Equipment needed:
An extractor- a hand cranked centrifuge that "throws" the honey after being released from the wax comb cells in the frames.
An uncapping knife- (I like heated ones!)- to remove the caps of wax off of the cells to allow honey to be thrown from the frames in the extractor.
A comb scratcher is useful for running over stubborn wax caps on cells to release the honey stored in the cells.
A double sieve for filtering the raw honey from the extractor into a bottling tank.
A bottling tank with a honey gate that allows control of flow for bottling the liquid gold!
And, of course, bottles, lids, and labels.  (These can come later.  Honey may be stored if in an airtight container.  I prefer to go ahead and do the whole process as it can get pretty messy and sticky!)

I purchase almost exclusively from Brushy mountain beefarm beekeeping supplies.  They've never done me wrong and I don't mind giving them a nice sales plug here!  See photo from their setup above.  (Mine looks almost exactly like this.)
Go to:
But, any beekeeping supply distribution warehouse will have what you need.

A few hints for a better extraction...
When you remove the frames from the hive, be sure the queen is not on one of them!!! Typically the queen does not come up into honey supers or walk on them, but this is a good way to lose your queen!  The workers will be present on the frames; so, I use a bee brush to brush off the frames and place the frames into a waiting empty super with a cover to keep these workers out.

You are going to be unpopular with your girls when you do this!  They have worked hard for their honey and are not pleased you are taking it.  They will tend to be a bit aggressive and follow you back to the honey house/kitchen, persistently.

Be sure not to pick frames with eggs, larvae or pupae in them with the honey.  This will make for bad honey, if you extract anything other than the capped honey.  The filter will remove wayward legs, antennae, wings, larger pollen grains, etc. that's fine.  But, larvae and pupae are not desirable in honey.

Be sure to pick frames that are completely capped with white caps and have no open watery nectar cells. Again, the more water, the more likely fermentation and crystallization will occur.  So, choose only frames with completely capped over cells.

Wait for a less humid day if at all possible.  Honey is hygroscopic and absorbs water quickly.  The more water present in honey, the more likely it will crystallize. So, I typically run the AC all night before, and the day of the extraction to help lower the humidity.

I extract in my kitchen and prepare it with everything I'll need first.  Some beekeepers have "honey houses." Make sure all equipment is clean and dry and that this food processing and prep area is clean for what you will be doing. (No pets in the area.)

I like to wear my hair back or in a hair bonnet.  Be sure you are clean, but have a shirt on you don't mind ruining with sticky honey!

Fortunately, honey is a naturally strong antibiotic, and antiviral agent.  So, sterilizing of bottles is not required. This differs from most other canning and preserving food processes.  (Note: never feed honey to infants or children less than 3 years of age.  Botulism spores may be present in some honey; anyone over the age of 3 with an intact digestive system has enzymes able to destroy these spores.  Babies do not, and can get botulism, which can be fatal.)

So, back to my harvest...
I took no honey from hive #2; but, we got close to 30 lbs from hive #1.  Most of it is light amber to almost white in color, indicating it was made from locust flower nectar, some of the best.  Some of it is also a little darker in color,  indicating clover flowers.  It all tastes yummy!

Now, it's time to get busy bottling and fulfilling existing orders, give bottles to neighbors who support the bees and don't mind a neighbor doing this, and get ready for the local upcoming fair in September! (I always set aside three jars to enter into the fair!)

Now the best part of extracting to tell you is that the bees do all of the cleanup of the equipment! You finish the process and then just place the extractor, the sieve, the tank, all of it in front of the hives.  Next day there is not a drop left!  Just be careful as this can encourage robbing and fighting of bees from neighboring beeyards.  It turns out that in addition to the bees cleaning, you will also see all manner of bumble bees, wasps, butterflies and ants assisting in this process, too.  I saw some gorgeous metallic blue spider wasps helping clean up.
(Walt, dear that he is, cleaned my sticky kitchen floor for me the following day!)

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