The path to honey is a long and arduous one. Arguably it starts in September after you’ve extracted your summer honey. Then the beekeeper can treat for varroa and prepare the colony for winter. As the cold nights draw in mouse-guards go on, insulation can be put in the roof and the long wait to see whether the bees will survive winter begins.
Come spring, if all goes to plan and your bees have emerged healthy and well, you may be able to put supers on in April or May. The bees fly high and far, gathering nectar wherever they can. You inspect and wait, making sure the queen is laying and preventing any swarms occurring.
Finally, after much heavy lifting, stings, breaking of nails, splinters, sweat and pain, hopefully the bees have managed to fill and cap a super(s). Now is honey time. But your efforts are not over yet. In fact, some of the worst times are still to come – do any beekeepers really genuinely enjoy honey extraction?
The job that faces you first (at least for frames built from foundation) is to uncap the heavy honey frames, using a knife or uncapping fork. This is best done in hot weather (to help the honey flow) in a room with all the windows closed (to stop the bees and wasps coming to get their honey back).
Here’s the resulting wax cappings. These can be given back to the bees to clean up and then turned into candles or wax blocks afterwards. Ideally nothing goes to waste. The heady, almost boozy scent of the honey rises around you. A few licks are all it takes to start feeling slightly sick from the sweetness. I understand why bees go into a robbing frenzy if honey is spilt around the hives – it’s an enveloping, intoxicating smell. Your hands are covered with gooey, sticky honey by this point – probably along with your clothes, the floor and everything around you.
Once you’ve uncapped the honey, now you can spin it out. Last year we got to this stage and put the frames in Emma’s extractor, only to find nothing came out. We had extremely stubborn, viscous honey. It must have been thixotropic, which means that it becomes temporarily fluid when shaken or stirred but a gel again when left standing. We got all sorts of sceptical looks from other beekeepers who hadn’t experienced this when we told them about it! People kept asking whether we’d uncapped the frames properly or said we weren’t putting enough welly in (despite it being an electric extractor which span faster than any human!).
In the end Emma had to stir each cell individually with a sterilised key to get it to flow out – see her post, ‘How to extract honey too thick to spin out of a perfectly good extractor‘.
This year my allotment honey was a dark, rich brown. Would it spin out?
Much to our relief, the answer was yes. We took turns cranking the handle around, with Emma’s boyfriend John joining in at one point too. A tiring job but at least we could see results as the honey gradually built up at the bottom of the extractor. We drained the extractor after every super of frames, as it can only be used whilst on the floor and then must be lifted up onto a surface so that the honey can flow into a container below. If you extract too much honey before draining it, the extractor will be extremely heavy/impossible to lift!
The honey you can see oozing out above is lighter honey from our apiary hives. Emma has some more photos of the extraction at http://missapismellifera.com/2015/07/25/a-beekeepers-notes-for-july/
The job is not over yet, as the honey must be filtered through a sieve to remove wax particles before finally being bottled. I hope this post conveys some of the work hobby beekeepers go through to produce honey and explains why local honey costs more than the mass produced supermarket kind, which has been churned together from multiple hives and sometimes even from colonies in several different countries. This process, in combination with intense micro-filtering and pasteurisation by heating, usually results in a loss of flavour.
By the way I’d be interested in hearing from other beekeepers as to how you store your honey. I saw keeping it in a fridge or freezer recommended in a magazine this month, as at under 4.5°C granulation stops. Have you ever done this? And what did your family think about the fridge or freezer being full of honey?!