Every year, on the hottest day in August, we harvest honey. In WV, the honey season basically runs from Tax day (April 15) to Independence Day (July 4). That’s a rule of thumb of course and some will disagree but this is easier for me to remember. Anyhow, we always wait from July 4th until some day in August. We don’t usually wait for the hottest day of the year on purpose, but it just seems to work out that way.
Hives are pretty typically built of 2 deep “brood boxes” which house the baby bees, pollen, and honey stores for the winter. Most beekeepers use 2 deeps because the queen (which lays up to 2000 eggs per day) will remain busy in the space contained in 2 “deeps”. Anyhow, around honey season, I add additional supers which are identical to the “deeps” except they are shallower. Guess what they’re called…yup…shallows. They are also called honey supers, shallow supers (actually, I use Illinois or medium supers which are between shallows and deeps in depth). So, typically, the queen lays eggs around the bottom boxes and the workers store honey in the upper supers. Some folks use a queen excluder to make sure the queen can’t get up into the supers to lay eggs. I have never found it necessary and the one year I used an excluder, I got significantly less honey. It’s a religous debate for some beekeepers…for me, I skip the excluder.
Ok, so we put supers on in April and wait. Last Saturday was the hottest day we could find in August so we caught breakfast at Panera Bread and then started pulling honey supers off of the hives around 9am. Now, as you might imagine, the bees are not thrilled about some white-suited beast taking the roof off of their house and removing their food. I always joke that if I didn’t harvest honey, they wouldn’t feel appreciated or needed though. Some folks jerk the entire super off of the hive (which can weigh 40+ pounds) and try to manage the sticky honey, the weight and the angry bees.
For me, I prefer to remove individual frames from the supers and shake the bees off back into the hive. I don’t use a smoker because I would feel terrible if my bees ended up with a smoker’s cough. I have found that I don’t need smoke and my bees are more calm for it. Anyhow, I remove frames, shake the bees off and carry them to house where my lovely and brave wife accepts the bee-less (usually) frames. This method would be completely unmanageable for a larger scale beekeeper but I am able to manage 10 hives this way.
Once all of the honey is off, we load the frames/supers from the house into the van (very quickly so the bees don’t reacquanited with the liquid gold). We removed honey from my house and my in-laws’ house and then headed to Emily’s grandparents’ house where we removed the remaining honey and began the extraction.
Honey extraction is pretty basic…we make sure 80% of the honey cells are capped. Honeycomb holds the liquid as it makes its transformation from nectar to honey. The bees add enzymes and other magical stuff and then remove the excess moisture from the honey (by fanning it with their wings). Once the honey gets below 18% or so moisture, they put a wax cap across the top of the honey comb to keep dirt ad additional moisture from getting back into the completed honey. So, we make sure that the majority of the honey is “ready” as deemed by the bees. I test the honey on my own for moisture content using a refractometer, just to be sure. Honey that is too moist can ferment and that would be a waste.
So, once we cut the cappings off of the comb, we put them into my extractor which spins the frames around. The spinning slings the honey out of the honeycomb cells on to the sidewalls of the extractor. We open a drain at the bottom of the extractor and run it through a coarse filter and into jars. We then add a lid, and we’re done. The honey goes through no other processing. As long as the lid is kept on so no moisture can get into the honey, it will not go bad.
So, that’s all for harvesting honey. We worked until around 6 pm. Emily’s parents and grandparents did a tremendous amount of work on the harvest and it would be almost impossible to do this work without them. I appreciate their help tremendously. We collected approximately 176 pounds this season so I am pretty pleased. I’ll write again on how we clean up the “wet” supers once we remove the bulk of the honey. That’s an entirely different adventure!
By the way, you can check out a few previous harvests here.