Getting Honey


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Introduction
Honey needs no introduction, does it?  Honey is what most of us are doing this whole beekeeping for.  Some people want to be self-sufficient and need a sweetener.  Some people want a sweetener not made in central or South America.  Some people donít want to eat processed sugar.  Some people want to make money by selling it.  Some people make mead with it.  Some people just like the taste of honey.

Regardless of the reasons for wanting it or what is done with it, honey is a very major part of beekeeping.  Thatís about as obvious as the author of one of my textbooks saying that water pipes are for carrying water.  But honey itself presents a few problems we have to deal with.

First, to get honey, the bees have to store honey.  Now this may surprise you, but in general, bees arenít storing honey with the expectation that some mostly hairless bear is going to steal it all the time much less use their natural response to smoke to pacify them while he does it.  When bees are putting up honey, you are not in the plan.

And given a normal set of circumstances with a normal cavity in a tree or in the ground, a hive will not grow large enough to produce much honey.  Their purposes are similar to all animals, to survive and to reproduce.  To survive, they need a store of food to last them the winter.  Other animals find ways to continue eating through the winter or find ways not to eat at all.  Thatís the purpose of honey.  The reproduction part of the equation comes in at swarming time in the spring.

Humans have developed a set of methods which combined with breeding have produced a system where the bees store far honey than they normally would and swarm a fair amount less.  Common among our hives is a single swarm in a year and if we play our cards right, they may not swarm at all.  If you watch the Heathland Lower Saxony Skep Beekeeping Videos youíll find that wilder bees have prime swarms and then many of the emerging virgin queens will also swarm so that a single hive produces as many as half a dozen swarms.  Youíll also notice that by keeping the after-swarms and selling the primary swarms, the Heathland beekeepers were selecting for bees that did that.  Modern beekeepers donít.  We tend to want the hive to swarm as little as possible.

All that to say that we redirect the swarming urge into making more honey.  We can do this by providing larger hives, breeding, working to prevent swarming, and extracting comb, but more about that later.


Getting the Honey Away from the Bees

A few precautionary notes.  Honey doesnít come from the hive through a spigot.  You have to steal it.  You have to go into the hive and take the honey from the bees, many of which will attempt to stop you if you donít do it right.  Now, I havenít tried all the methods yet as Iíve found some of the simplest to be some of the easiest.  Here are some things to keep in mind during the process.

Youíre probably going to need smoke though as taking honey is a heavy manipulation and youíre likely to anger a lot of bees in the process if you donít smoke them.

Be gentle, do everything slowly and deliberately until you are practiced enough to do everything deliberately with efficiency.  If you drop a frame, the bees aren't going to like it.

Do not breathe on the bees.  They do not like carbon dioxide and it will make them very mad. 

Listen.  Over time you will develop skills that will help you recognize how the bees sound.  I can't very well describe it to you, you just need to hear it.  Here's a hint, quieter is better.

Smell.  Bees communicate largely through pheromones.  They smell.  Each thing the bees are trying to communicate has a smell.  Nasonov or location pheromone smells like lemon pledge or lemongrass oil.  The reason certain things smell like each other is because they have some of the same chemicals.  For instance, Nasonov has citrol, lemongrass oil has citrol.  Different proportions, but it's in there.  The smell you most need to be concerned about is the alarm pheromone.  This is the scent the bees send up when things are going wrong.  It puts a whole lot of bees on high alert.  When you smell banana Laffy-Taffy, close the hive as quickly and gently as possible and move on.  Things are going downhill. 


Using a Bee Brush

The cheapest and most straightforward way to get the bees off of the honey is to use a bee brush.  In fact in Germany, a goose wing is often used.  You want something to brush the bees off the frame or topbar attached comb as the case may be, that does no harm to them and angers them as little as possible.  I donít have access to any geese who would like to part with a wing, so I use a bee brush.  They are a couple of bucks at any bee supply place or website.  The basic method is to pull a frame from the hive, brush the bees away lightly and with quick flicks of the brush, and then place the frame in a box waiting to the side.  You can use the empty box remaining once youíve removed the frames to empty the next box and so on.


Leaving the Super out for the Bees to Leave on Their Own Time

Iíve heard of taking the super off and leaving it for a few hours for the bees to make their way back to the home hive, but I personally wouldnít trust it.  Maybe Iíll try it some time, but around here, you will rapidly have a boiling mess of bees and all the honey will be gone in a few hours.  Iím not sure how it works elsewhere.


Bee Blower

This is one I really want to try.  The idea is to pop the whole super off the hive, lay it on its end so the frames are vertical relative to the ground, and then go after it with a leaf blower.  It seems quick and efficient to me, but leaf blowers arenít exactly cheap.  You might be able to mitigate the cost by using one thatís an attachment to a string trimmer such as are commonly available now.  I already have a string trimmer for keeping the grass around the hives in good aesthetic condition and other uses, so thereís no need to buy a machine with a whole other engine when I already have one.  If you are close to electricity, thereís also the option of using a shop vac in reverse or one of the shop vacs available which come with a built in removable leaf blower.  At any rate, be efficient.  As with extractors, donít buy things you wonít need, things that wonít pay for themselves in money or usefulness.


Crush and Strain

If you are starting out with a couple hives (I recommend expanding to no less than five in your first year) you donít need an extractor, so donít buy one as part of your beginners kit.  In fact, donít expect any honey at all your first year.  If you do get some, itís a gift and donít look a gift horse in the mouth by expecting to need a several hundred dollar extractor to extract it all.  It wonít work that way.  As in all things, I am for proper understanding of subjects and a conservative planning approach.

Depending on how you sell it and to whom, honey is worth between $20 and $1000 per gallon.  Donít get excited, the $1000 is for honey straws and you gotta sell a whole lot of them.  The fact is, youíll probably be eating a good portion of that for the first little while, so factor that into your plans to purchase an extractor.  Suffice it to say, you donít need one yet.  And if you think you do, make sure you read the next section first anyway.

So your prime option is the crush and strain method. 

Crushing and straining is easy though a bit messy.  Youíll probably want to leave the wires out of your super frames to make this a little more expedient.  So itís quite helpful to use foundationless frames or frames with a foundation starter strip in your supers in which the bees will store the honey youíre going to steal from them.

Assuming everything goes right, youíre going to pull the unwired frames out of the hives, cut the wax out, smash it up with your hands and leave it for a while to drain.  You can do this with any contraption you can think up, with filter cloth, a colander, piece of thin fabric, etc.  You might even consider getting a bucket meant for the job that has a filter sleeve and a honey gate at the bottom.  If you do upgrade to an extractor later on, such an investment will continue to pay off.  I have two of those buckets and their purpose is to hold the sieves the honey passes through after exiting the extractor.  I can extract up to about eight gallons at a time without having to stop to bottle it.  Anyway, all you need is something to hold the crushed comb and something to catch the honey.  After the honey has drained, youíll probably want to squeeze the comb out using some sort of cloth.  Old tee-shirt material works well.


Extractors

I want to make a recommendation for you right now.  Donít ever buy a tangential extractor.  I have had two over the years, both given to me by small time beekeepers who quit.  A tangential extractor is one in which the comb is placed perpendicularly to  any straight line drawn away from the center axis of the extractor.  The mathematically adept will recognize such a line as a tangent, thus a tangential extractor.  The frame would sit on the Chord.

Tangent

A tangential extractor uses centrifugal force to throw the honey from the combs flat side out.  That means youíll have to turn the combs around to get the other side out and youíll have to do it several times.  By placing the combs flat side out, you are putting them in a position structurally the wax was never designed for.  Wax is built by the bees to handle vertical loads, not axial.  Tangential extractors usually use a basket to help hold the wax, but in my experience, it comes out substantially broken with the wires being the only thing still holding it in place.  The bees will need to make repairs.  Perfectly drawn comb wonít be such any longer.  Not that itís an issue, just be aware.

If you have gotten to the point where you are extracting more than several boxes of honey at a time, you might be wanting to upgrade.  Maybe crush and strain is becoming a bit of a strain.  Now you can look into extractors.  Make sure you need it first.  Donít expect to need it, youíll most likely end up with a very expensive space taker upper.  Need it, then get it.

So youĎve just spent days doing crush and strain and you have decided ďenough with Sol Parker, and his stupid Ďdonít get it until you need ití nonsense, Iím getting an extractor.Ē

Okay, now you need it.

The best technology is a radial extractor.  Look back up to the picture above and see what a radius is if you are not familiar.  Notice that the two halves of the diameter are also radii.  In a radial extractor, frames are placed in the rotating basket like spokes on a wheel.  In this way, the combs are placed in a similar structural condition for which they were designed and both sides of the frame are extracted at once.

There are many sizes available.  The one I have is a Mann Lake 9/18 which means it will extract nine deep frames or 18 medium or shallow frames.  Some of the smallest radial types will extract mediums radially and deeps tangentially.  Cost does go up significantly with size, so get only as much as you need.  The reason I got the Mann Lake one was because they have both motorized and non-motorized versions.  Better yet, with a kit, the one can be converted to the other.  And after several years of using the hand crank, I definitely need the motor.  If you have a companion who does beekeeping with you and one of you is good for free labor, it may not be such an issue.

Iím not going to explore extractors larger than a 9/18 or a 10/20 (same essential thing made by Maxant) because as a hobbyist, you wonít need much larger than that.  But perhaps you want to go beyond hobbyist into sideliner.  At that point, you probably donít need my advice anyway.


Uncapping Knife

Hopefully you read this whole article before trying things an any specific order because thereís no great way to order this thing.  An uncapping knife will come into play before the extractor.  It is generally a hot knife used to cut the wax cappings off the honey comb.  If a frame isnít nearly all capped, donít extract it, itís not done yet.  Your water content will be high and youíre likely to get fermented honey which will not make your customers happy.

Uncapping knives can be had for about a hundred dollars depending on the model and the source.  Theyíre kind of a heavy affair made from a heating element and sandwiched layers of metal, stainless steel and copper for conductivity as far as I can tell.  There are several versions, some with adjustable thermostats.  I have the adjustable kind.  Be sure to follow the instructions, mine says to let it warm up for a good long time so that the thermostat functions properly.  Keep it clean, burnt honey is not a good taste to market.  And don't do what I keep doing and leave it plugged in overnight with honey and wax cooking on the blade.


Cappings Scratcher

A cappings scratcher is usually a small plastic comb with a handle and stainless steel teeth that is used to scratch the cappings the knife misses.  Or, you can use it by itself without a knife, but it will leave a whole lot of wax in your honey and is more messy.


Uncapping Tank

Itís a set of two nesting tubs, one with a screen to hold the cappings and one below to hold the draining honey.  Itís a very useful contraption.  I used to uncap into a bucket, but it was a mess.  Now I uncap into the tub, and about the time Iím done extracting, most of the wax has drained off the cappings and is ready for sieving and bottling.  This may take several days and so when the process is done, I can bottle from the uncapping tank.


Bottling Tank
With most extractors, you can't bottle straight from the bottom of the extractor, or you're not supposed to.  However, with some of the smaller models you can.  Like I mentioned in the Crush and Strain section above, you need something with a honey gate to catch the honey and hold it for bottling.  Extra functions such as straining are a bonus.  I use buckets that have honey gates and strainers that fit in the top of them.  I have two, but I need three.  As I get better at extracting I need more time for the honey to pass through the strainers while I'm extracting so I have to switch them out.  They are very handy and are available at beekeeping supply houses.


What to Do with the Leftovers

The leftovers will involve all the comb and cappings if youíre using crush and strain.  It will be mostly wax with some honey.  Time to start selling wax or making candles.  Check out the All Things Wax page for a non-exhaustive list of how and what to do with wax.  The same thing goes for extracting, except youíll be left with only cappings for the most part, though you may have some broken comb from the extractor.  Fresh white comb is not nearly as strong as old dark comb and is much easier to break in an extractor. 

Once the cappings have drained, I just put them outside and let the bees have at them.  Once all the honey is gone, I run them through the solar wax melter.  This may not be a good plan for you as it may cause robbing.  As with everything, figure out what works best for you.

If you have extracted and are left with combs, there are a couple of things to do with them.  Many people store them, which is a concept I explore on the Unnecessary Stuff page.  I just put them back on the hives to be repaired, cleaned, and guarded for the next season.  I donít have much of a fall flow, but you might, so thereís an opportunity for another crop.  At any rate, I leave the comb on the hives year Ďround.


Cappings Spinner

A cappings spinner is a contraption similar in concept to an extractor which by the use of centrifugal force extracts the remaining honey from the cappings.   You will probably never get that far, I havenít.  There are commercial units which constantly feed cappings in and out.  Pretty neat, they cost about three times as much as your car.


Honey House

While not necessarily solely dedicated to extracting honey, the honey house is an important part of the beekeeperís program.  For many a small time beekeeper, the honey house is the garage with temporary seasonal use of the kitchen.  Your significant other may not appreciate this!  Iím fortunate in that I have a 20x20 foot building in the back yard that serves as my workshop, honey house, wood shop, and my wifeís storage unit.  Letís just say her stuff gets a bit dusty.  In the future, when we move, I have plans to build a small two story building to serve all the same purposes but also have a wood stove so winter equipment construction will be a bit less stressful.