Sticky Endeavors: The Honey Process
Updated: Jan 30
BEE RELAY: HONEY REMOVAL
It's mid-fall and our team of 7 are in the bee yard ready for stage one of extraction: Honey removal.
A quick hive check showed 4-6 boxes of honey in excess, leaving more than enough for the bees to get through winter. The week before super removal, we placed metal grids (queen excluders) directly under the supers flagged for honey removal. These work to prevent the thick and long-bodied queens from entering the honey super and accidentally getting hurt in the frame removal process. However, they don't keep the worker bees out, so the supers are removed frame by frame, rather than taking the entire box.
Thus the relay.
The 'relay' process was an odd throw-back to my childhood nightmares filled with sandbag feet running away from attackers, a treasure in hand. Except this time, the "attackers" were a swarm of bees, and the "treasure" the 'stolen' honey frames. The key? Run before the bees can realize their honey is missing. With 7 sets of hands, the process went surprisingly well compared to my good old nightmare races.
The System: “Up, Shake, Brush and RUN!”
The assembly line started with Dr Farone, the "shaker". After carefully removing a honey frame from the super, a firm shake slid the unsuspecting bees off onto the open hive below. Abbey then wielded her flexible long-tooth brush to dislodge any greedy gobblers remaining after the shake. A "runner" then dashed the frame out of the bee yard to Sydney and Will, who packed it into a covered box in the back of a pickup truck. This process was repeated until all capped honey frames in the supers were collected.
By the time all supers are emptied of their frames, the bees had caught on to our devious dashes, and were hovering protectively over the pick-up's stolen honey frames. To lose them, a new kind of race took place- one involving a truck, some speed, and an empty parking lot. Run the bees around in circles enough, and they will fall out of their swarm. Drive away quick enough, and they will return to their hives, too exhausted to pursue. Hence, the successful getaway. Once free from the swarming bees, our precious cargo was transported to Dr Farone's house for the sticky extraction!
What is a honey super?
A "honey super" is a box added to the top of a normal-sized hive that bees fill with extra honey for extraction.
How much honey should we remove from a hive?
There is no "right" or "wrong" answer to this. It comes down to your reason for beekeeping.
If your main goal is honey harvest, then theoretically all the honey can be removed from the hives. For the bees to survive winter, they can be provided with sugar water and pollen patties to supplement the harvested honey and pollen.
However, if your main goal is bee health, then leaving sufficient honey to last the wintertime and only harvesting the "extra" is ideal. Why give bees second-class food when there is an abundance of "super-food" (honey and pollen) already in the hives?
We chose to follow the second model as our goal is for the bees to not only survive through winter, but also thrive. Honey harvest is just an added bonus!
Uncapped vs Capped honey- what's the difference?
"Uncapped honey" is nectar with a water content above 20%. "Capped honey" is nectar with a 17-20% water content.
Foraging bees first drink flower nectar into their honey sac (second stomach) where it is partially digested. Back at the hive, the nectar is passed mouth to mouth between bees to further digest nectar into honey. It is then deposited in the honeycomb, where airflow (flapping wings and body heat) causes water evaporation. Once the nectar reaches a 17-20% water content, it is capped, giving us the characteristic "honey" we know and love. Honey does not spoil, so can be left capped for months before harvesting.
Capped honey may vary in color (light gold to dark yellow) depending on the type of nectar used and the age of the honey, but ultimately bears a 'sweet' flavor when extracted. If honey is harvested from uncapped cells, it ferments, producing a rancid tasting product. Hence, any frames with uncapped honey are left in the hive during the extraction process.
HONEY EXTRACTION: A SUMMARY
The at home extraction process can look very different depending on the equipment chosen. The simplest process can include just a bucket, knife and women's pantyhose, while the higher end may include a fancy "Automatic Line" honey extractor! We chose a moderate approach - no pantyhose or exorbitant extractor, but buckets, uncapping combs and mesh.
The Basic Process: Manual Honey Extraction Place a frame upright over a collection bucket lined with fine filter mesh. Using a hot knife, thin-tipped spatula or uncapping comb (see left), scrape the capped honeycomb downwards to remove the honeycomb. The mesh will catch the honeycomb and chunky bits (populous, bee parts, pollen, etc.), while allowing honey to filter through. Once done, insert honey frames in the extractor and SPIN to remove excess honey! Meanwhile, remove mesh from the bucket, tie, and hang over a bucket to drain overnight (squeeze to expedite drainage). After fully drained, filter collected honey through mesh once more for an extra smooth product. Consolidate honey into buckets with taps, and leave overnight so air bubbles can escape.
The Last Step: Bottling Now comes the easy part! We filled self-labelled glass jars with honey under the honey tap, and voila! Approximately 50 pounds of extracted honey is bottled and ready for consumption!
Fun fact: Honey is water soluble, so while it is an absolute MESS to extract and bottle, it washes nicely out of clothes, shoes, hair, and surfaces.
What is one to do with 50 pounds of bottled honey? Donate it, of course! We reached out to the Grove City Food Pantry, and were able to bless them with bottled honey for the local community. Honey is probably not your go-to donation item when you think "food pantry". However, it's amazing just how popular the honey was after our donation!
After extraction, the bees made their final preparations for wintertime with a little help from the GCC Bee Team. We placed foam insulation under the hive lids and moved the hives into a single line to help conserve heat and block wind. Some beekeepers recommend wrapping hives with plastic to retain heat, but Dr Farone advises against doing so in PA. Warmer winter days allow for condensation in the wrapped hives... a perfect breeding ground for unwelcome microorganism. Rather, our bees will be getting extra snuggle time this winter!
Our greenhouse is here! Stay tuned for Springtime Bloom updates.
Uncapped vs Capped Honey: https://honeystinger.com/blogs/blog/from-nectar-to-honey