by Beverly & Perry Riley
When I was a small child I would stay with my grandparents for a week at a time. They lived on a small farm and were self-sufficient. They didn’t have electricity, so they heated and cooked with wood. I remember they had raspberries, and I would help pick with my grandmother. I thought I was doing a lot of work but I was probably more trouble than help. After we picked the raspberries, she took them in the house and cleaned them, and then she cooked them on her woodstove to make jam. Then she put them in a glass jar. She melted beeswax and poured a thin layer on top, sealing it. Then she put a lid on it to keep varmints at bay. When we visited on Christmas my grandmother would take a knife and cut the wax off. She would put the jam on fresh-baked bread, and it was just as good as the day she canned it.
The honeybee and its cousin, the ant, are the only two insects that live all winter on their stored food. Just like my grandmother, the honeybee cans honey. Instead of putting their honey in a glass jar they make miniature six-sided, 4.9 mm containers out of wax. These are placed horizontally with the top tilted slightly upward. The miniature containers fit snugly against each other and share sides. Instead of jars, we call them cells. All the cells together form what we call comb. They fill these cells with nectar and process it. If it is a brood chamber, they also put pollen in some of the cells. The honey they store for winter doesn’t have pollen in the comb. We place a smaller hive body on top of the brood hive body for the bees to put their winter storage in. They process the honey they put in these cells, and then they cap it with wax just like my grandmother did. The amazing thing is that they do this without all the modern technology we have today.
The bees store their winter honey on top of the brood box in this smaller hive body called a honey super. They process the honey by drying it to 17- 18 percent water. After they dry it, they cap it so it doesn’t get any more moisture.
It probably goes without saying that the trick of harvesting honey is to extract it without harming the precious workers. The first step is to remove the stored honey from the hive. The problem is that it is full of bees that have to be removed. There are several ways to do this. If you have just a few hives, you can brush them off with a bee brush. If you have more hives, you can use a bee repellent. This repellent is sprayed on a fume pad placed on top of a honey super. You have to wait 4 or 5 minutes for it to take effect. You can purchase this from your honeybee supplier or you can purchase some imitation almond extract. You have to be careful about these repellents because some of them contain chemicals. I prefer the imitation almond extract because I think it is more natural and is also less expensive. Just put it undiluted in a spray bottle.
Another method is to use a bee escape. The bee escape itself has to be fastened to a special board with a hole in it. The bee escape board can be purchased from your local bee supplier. Bee escapes are one-way doors that allow the bees to leave the supers but not return. The escape is placed beneath the supers of honey to be removed. Supers are usually free of bees within 5 to 24 hours. If they are left on too long the bees will figure out how to get through the one-way door. This is by far the most effective way to remove bees from supers. As you take the honey supers off, there will be some bees left, but you can remove them with a leaf blower.
If you want specialty honey, you will have to remove the honey supers right after the nectar flow for your specialty honey is over. It probably will not all be capped, but we will explain this later. If you move the hive to another special nectar source the uncapped honey will contaminate the new nectar source. If you are not collecting specialty honey, it is better to wait and take the honey all off at once. When you take it off depends upon your climate. In Indiana, it should be taken off the latter part of August so the bees will still have time to replace the honey for their winter stores. When you remove the honey supers, put a plastic sheet underneath them so honey doesn’t drip out. Some beekeepers make a special board to set the honey supers on. An extra top cover works very well. Just remember if you take too much honey off and they can’t replace it, they will not survive the winter.
If you extract uncapped honey it will ferment and then you will have unhappy customers. You have a choice of taking the uncapped honey off or leaving it on. The very large beekeepers that have several hundred hives extract the capped and uncapped honey and put it in a large drying tank with rotating baffles and dry it until it reaches 17-18 percent water.
However, it is also possible for the small beekeeper to extract uncapped honey. You can do this by making a small, airtight drying room. Put your uncapped honey frames in honey supers and stack the supers so there’s airspace at the bottom of the boxes. A couple of two-by-fours under the bottom honey super is ideal. Then put a dehumidifier in the room, and use a refractometer to measure the water content in the uncapped cells until it reaches 17-18 percent water. To speed up the process you can also put a small fan on top of each stack.
To extract honey, remove the cap just like grandma removed the wax from the top of her jam. This can be done with a special uncapping knife. Set the frame of honey on end and slowly move the knife back and forth while moving in a downward direction. They also make heated, electric uncapping knives.
If some of the cells are not full height, you can use a cappings scratcher. You will need a plastic container or tub with a board laid across the top to catch the cappings. Place a screen on top of the tub to let the honey drain through. Set the frame with the long side vertical on top of the board so the wax and some honey can fall into the plastic container. An uncapping tub set is available from bee catalogs such as Walter T. Kelley Co., but they are expensive for the small-scale beekeeper.
After the caps are removed, place the frames in an extractor. The size of the extractor determines the number of frames it can hold. The frames are placed in the extractor on a round tray fastened to a shaft. The shaft and tray are located inside a stainless steel drum. Equipment used to store and extract honey is made from stainless steel. The tray is spun, throwing the honey out of the cells onto the inside wall of the drum. In smaller extractors you extract one side at a time and then you have to turn them around. Also, smaller extractors are usually operated by hand crank whereas larger extractors use an electric motor.
Let the tray spin for about 5 minutes — it helps to have the room heated to at least 80 degrees so the honey will flow easier. Make sure the honey has been in the room for at least 24 hours. The room should be tight enough to keep out the bees and other insects. The smell of honey will attract lots of bees and insects. Extractors run from a couple of frames to over 100 and cost from $100 to several thousand.
There is a drain on the bottom of the extractor with a shut-off valve. When you extract honey you have to have the valve open so the honey can drain out. There is a stainless double honey sieve that you can put on top of a 5-gallon pail. It is made to go under the extractor outlet. Removable coarse, then fine, screens filter out 95 percent of wax particles and honeybee parts. This is all that you need to filter your honey.
When you get done extracting honey, your extractor and all your equipment will have honey on it. The easiest way to clean up is to set it next to your hives and let the bees do it for you. They will do a better job than you can do, and they will place it back in their hives for winter use. It only takes a day or two.
Perry and Beverly Riley run Life of Riley Honey Farm in Terre Haute, Indiana, and are members of the Indiana Bee Association. The Rileys’ hives are maintained without chemicals and the bees produce honey from clover, buckwheat, alfalfa and wildflowers. For more information call 812-898-1385 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appears in the August 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.