September 29, 2013

Extraction (of honey) – guest post by AJLR


This year the weather gods have been a lot kinder to us and to the bees and pollinators (of all sorts, though obviously I’m talking about honeybees in this post) than in the past two summers. Our strongest colony managed to produce a respectable surplus and in early August we took off the ‘super’ box in which the bees had been encouraged to store the extra honey. These boxes, which are just over 18 inches to a side and about eight inches deep, contain up to 11 frames of comb that the bees have filled with honey and capped off with lovely pure white wax once the water content of the honey has been reduced to about 18%. Getting to this stage takes the bees a lot of work – making the wax for the comb, uncounted journeys collecting nectar in their honey stomachs, producing the enzyme invertase to mix with the nectar to turn it into honey, fanning to get the water content down in the honey, producing more wax to seal the top of each cell. After all that effort on their part one needs to deal carefully with the extraction of such a valuable and hard-won substance*.

So, one day in the second week of August we saw that there was sufficient honey in this super to be worth extracting. Given that each frame, when full, will hold about 3 lbs of honey, you can see that with nine out of the eleven frames full and capped we could expect about 25lbs of honey from this one box. To be able to remove the box from the hive without a bag full of bees, the day before we had to place a ‘clearer board’ underneath the super so that the bees could come down out of the super into the brood box beneath but could not get back up there again. One then has the open the hive, take off the full super and put it quickly into a big bag that can be closed tightly to prevent the bees getting back in before one can get it into the car. And they will try…



We had previously arranged with our local beekeeping branch to borrow an extractor – something like a giant spin dryer into which one loads the frames of honey so that it can be spun out.  Such equipment can be expensive if you’re a hobbyist/small-scale beekeeper, so it’s very useful belonging to the local branch and having such facilities.

With the full frames, one has to slice carefully down the face of the frame, using either an uncapping knife, or special fork, or whatever is to hand that approximates this (I used a breadknife). The setup is that one places a very clean piece of wood or other strut across a baking tin, in order to rest one end of the frame while one is cutting down it. Then you carefully slice down on both sides/faces of the frame, avoiding cutting too far down into the comb. The idea is just to take off the cappings and let those fall down into the tray beneath. The picture below shows where I was halfway cutting down one frame. The following one is of the cappings from a couple of frames sitting in the tray (my turkey roaster on this occasion) and waiting to be picked up and put in a sieve to allow as much honey as possible to be collected at the end. One definitely needs a steady hand doing this. It is easier if one has one of the heated (electric) uncapping knives but they are bit expensive (as are the custom-made uncapping trays) for someone with as few hives as I have. This worked fine, anyway.






Before starting uncapping one needs to get the extractor set up in a clean area to which one can shut all doors and windows – the smell of the honey will otherwise bring in bees and wasps intent on taking a share. We set up in the kitchen, putting the extractor on a small wooden table. You can see from the picture below that this one will take nine frames, spaced evenly around the drum. Once loaded up (trying to keep the load balanced or the drum will try to ‘walk’ off its stand as it spins) one puts the lid on firmly and slowly starts the spin. The one we’d borrowed is an electric one but there are manual ones as well. The best thing is to start slowly, not going to full speed until the honey is starting to come out. These extractors can be a bit unstable if one isn’t very careful with the loading (or even if one is). My husband and I found ourselves clasping this one lovingly between us as the speed increased, grimly hanging on to stop its self-willed intent to go for a walk with our precious honey!



Still, after about four or five minutes we slowed it down and switched off and peered cautiously down into the bottom of the barrel. There were several inches of liquid gold down there…

(After spining the honey off one removes the frames and puts them back in the super for safety (and cleanliness). Most beekeepers (including us) put such a ‘wet’ super back on the hive for 48 hours so that the bees can lick out any remaining honey and store it elsewhere. If there’s a late flow of nectar on, of course, one can find them trying to fill it up again. My mentor beekeeper lent me one of his patent double floors this year, so that I could try his way of getting the bees to clean out the super without trying to refill it. It worked very well.)

So, there we were with many pounds of liquid honey in the bottom of the extractor. These things come with a ‘honey gate’ at the bottom so that one can just open the gate and let the honey flow out into a honey bucket. This is the stage where one starts filtering if the intent is to bottle the honey from the bucket. There are various sieves one can put under the honey gate on the extractor, of different grades. We have a double sieve with the top layer being 600 microns and the lower layer being 400. The top layer takes out larger bits – little fragments of wax, the occasional bit of bee – while the smaller mesh underneath refines it further. We do also have a 200 micron sieve and the people who exhibit at honey shows go down to 100 microns, but 400 was fine for us. You get a good clear honey with just that type of filter. The first photo below shows the setup with the honey bucket, the second one is where we’ve set the double sieve into the top of the bucket and the honey is running through from the extractor.




After the honey has been run into the bucket one leaves it to stand in a warm place for at least 24 hours, so that any tiny air bubbles come to the surface and disperse. This ‘ripening’ is particularly necessary if one is going to sell the honey after bottling; one wouldn’t want to fill up all the jar and then find the level had gone down after they’d been standing for a while!

And the end result on this occasion was 25 lbs of very nice honey, some of which we’ve kept for ourselves while the rest has gone to family and friends. The bees have since been fed with lots of nice warm sugar syrup which they have happily taken down into the brood box to top up their winter stores. A colony like ours will typically use at least 40 lbs of stores during an English winter so one needs to make sure they have plenty if they’re to come through safely.


Yum. :)


* One never, ever, feeds honey that isn’t their own (or from a hive a few feet away at most) back to a colony. There can be fungal spores or other substances in there which don’t affect humans but can spread diseases among bee species. So, never put out shop-bought honey as a ‘treat’ for bees or other pollinators, you won’t be doing them any sort of a favour. Syrup made with white granulated sugar and water (at the proportion of 1 lb of sugar dissolved into 1 pint of water) is by far the best and safest. And use white sugar because brown or other unrefined sugars will upset their stomachs.


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