Undoubtedly it was honey, one of the oldest natural sweeteners, that attracted the first humans to the honey bee. Other than ripe fruits in season, honey was just about the only sweetener in the human diet until cane sugar became common.
In the early days many rural households kept bees. Bees and their hives were part of every monastery, castle and farm garden. Old English manor account books describe how meats like hams and game animals were originally cured in honey and fruits preserved in honey solutions. The rinsing of the combs was used to make mead, the ancient honey drink that was known to all people of antiquity.
Today throughout the world honey is used not only as a sweetener and in cooking/preserving but also for medicinal purposes. Western medical professionals are coming to better understand the value of honey as a medicine. Mead, the food of fermenting yeasts, is enjoying a renaissance of sorts.
Initially honey was harvested from the combs of nests of wild (feral) bees in trees and rock crevices. A few beekeepers still do harvest natural bee nests but instead of looking for and robbing bee nests in trees or cliffs they do cutouts of nests located in people’s homes, barns and other human structures.
As humans began to manage bees, the beehive was any container with a cavity large enough to house the bees. The skep is the iconic hive design readily recognized by the public as a beehive. But mostly bees were kept in log sections (gums) or boxes of some sort. Today we manage bees in Langstroth-type hives with removable combs. Harvest allows us to remove the surplus honey and return the comb structure intact.
But, while more organized, we are still robbing our bees of their honey stores as we have done for centuries. Most of us keep bees through the four seasons just so our bees reward us with some surplus honey to harvest. And some beekeepers manage bees to enhance the amount of surplus harvest.
Set to harvest?
Of all the seasons, August in our bee colonies is a labor of love. For most beekeepers, the temperature in August is HOT and dressing in bee protection clothing makes it even hotter. Bee colonies are large and are inclined to get a bit testy in August. So, a good August bee task is to finish the processing of honey. Commercials seek to finish honey harvest by Labor Day.
Are you set to process liquid honey? This means you have an extractor, an uncapping knife, some buckets and simple filters/straining cloths. This is a big investment — well at least for an extractor. As explained last month, honey should be removed only when we are ready to process it. The bees can take care of their stores. All we can do is ruin it unless we process it in a timely fashion.
Some of us will harvest and use, sell or give away our honey in the original container as stored by the bees, the beeswax comb. However, thanks to the removable-frame hive and relatively inexpensive honey processing equipment, most beekeepers extract liquid honey from the comb.
The steps in extraction of surplus honey are:
1 Removal of the honey comb from the bees (discussed last month)
2 Cutting the comb to fit appropriate containers (if harvesting in the comb) or removal of the wax cappings covering the fully ripened honey (uncapping)
3 Crushing comb to allow the liquid to drain from beeswax comb cells or spinning the liquid honey from the beeswax comb cells (extracting)
4 Filtering and allowing the honey to separate from pieces of cappings, air bubbles, debris and any drowned bees (settling)
5 Putting the harvest into suitable containers (bottling)
6 Cleaning up, including processing of the beeswax
The diagram below illustrates the steps in processing of liquid honey.
Extractors and accessories
So, have you purchased an extractor? What might some alternatives be? Instead of buying new you might buy a used extractor. Be prepared to pay close to the price of a new machine especially if the seller has not heavily used their extractor. Some used extractors can be real bargains, such as those from individuals who are selling to buy-up to a larger size extractor or those who wish to get out of bees.
You might be able to rent an extractor or borrow one from a beekeeping buddy. A number of bee clubs have extractors to loan. Whether new or a loaner, you want everything to be food grade without signs of rust (if extractor is metal). An extractor for sale or loan should be clean and, if borrowed, returned clean of any honey residue.
Borrowing an extractor requires coordination with schedules of when the machine will be available. Remember you should not remove the honey unless all set to extract. Honey should be removed only a day or two ahead of when you have the extractor available.
You will additionally need an uncapping knife, some 5-gallon buckets and filters/straining cloth. Sometimes the uncapping knife can be borrowed with the extractor. There are several models of extracting knives and a wide price range if you wish to buy one. A knife that is heated is best. A cappings scratcher is also a good accessory.
Ideally, extracting should be done in a clean room that is warm (in the 90s F), so the honey readily flows. If harvesting honey for yourself and friends (the honey will not be sold) you do not need to process your honey in an approved food processing facility. So, by default, the kitchen is often the small-scale extracting site. Recognize that you will get honey everywhere in extracting. It is best to send the rest of the family (at least those members not involved in the extracting) out for the weekend if you are going to extract in the kitchen.
If planning to sell the honey — other than to a honey packer (individual or company that buys bulk honey for processing and sale), you need to check your state regulations on food processing. Simple farm gate sales under a certain volume might be exempt in your state or community but you need know this in advance. You can try a self-service honey sales stand but potential customers will still have questions. You are assuming liability having customers come onto your property to purchase your honey, so discuss coverage with your insurance carrier. Most policies do not automatically cover home businesses.
If this sounds too complicated, then consider ….