People ask me how we get from some wooden boxes full of buzzing bees to jars of honey. They are amazed when I explain the very low-tech process of honey harvesting in a small apiary like ours.
Once the nectar in the flowers gets going in the early summer, we put some extra boxes on top of the hives with smaller frames just for honey. I’ll spare you all the ways you can set this up, because there are several. By mid-August, we will take these off. Obviously, they are full of bees. We shake them off and run away. No really, that’s pretty much it. You shake the frame firmly, most of the bees fall off with an angry ‘bzzzzzt’ and then you brush the rest off with a bee brush. Then you run for the tupperware bin, dump it in and slam the lid closed before the bees figure out where you went with their food supply. Repeat 20-30 times, in our case.
A couple of days before we extract the honey, we bring the bins in from the outdoor bee shed, and let them warm up inside. The honey will come out more easily if it’s warm. On extraction day, we trucked the bins over to a big kitchen we borrowed, and a friend from Hives for Humanity set up the motorized extractor. This is just a big metal barrel with a rack inside that spins really fast. Some of us start uncapping frames, which entails carefully lifting the wax caps off the comb so the honey can come out using a very sharp thing that looks like a many-tined fork. You try to do this without completely wrecking the comb underneath. Wax caps go in a bucket, frames go in the extractor. Like an old washing machine, it bumps around if the frames aren’t balanced. The faucet at the bottom gushes with beautiful honey, and we balance a sieve over the bucket to catch the bits of wax we missed. The finished bucket sits for a few days to let the air bubbles work their way out, and then we fill jars. That’s it. This year, our harvest was about 70lbs of honey from our two colonies.
The pretty much empty frames go back on the hives for a couple of days so the bees can take the last of the honey out. We then store them for use next year, so the bees don’t have to build up the comb from scratch.
This year I rendered the wax cappings by heating them up in an old tomato tin inside a pot of water, then filtered out the bee legs and other bits. I’m going to make some honey and beeswax lip balm I think.
This process is about 160 years old (if you used a hand-crank extractor, which we will probably switch to next year). The Langstroth beehive was patented in 1852, and meant that beekeepers no longer had to entirely destroy combs to get honey. Before the removable frames-in-a-file-box method, beekeepers would coax bees to settle in upside down baskets (skeps), clay vessels, logs, or cut down entire trees to get at wild hives inside. To harvest the honey, beekeepers destroyed the hives and killed the colony. That had been going on for a long time: archeologists have found drawings from the 25th century BCE of workers blowing smoke into hives and removing honey combs.
If you find the history of honey and beekeeping strangely fascinating, as I do, find a copy of Holley Bishop’s Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey. If the behaviour of bees blows your mind, Thomas D. Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy will be just your thing. Are you itching to start beekeeping? Best take a class first – look up your local beekeeping association and they will steer you in the right direction.
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