~ Grassy Roads Farm Life ~
I usually rotate through the various topics of this blog in a semi-regular order. But…I couldn’t wait another 3 weeks to share pictures of my July 4 honey harvest. This article consists of a photo and video montage giving you a behind the scenes look at my honey harvest process. I also wanted to say how grateful I am to the Kentucky State University’s Small-scale Farm grant which I received last year. Through this grant I was able to purchase equipment to expand my apiary plus get an extractor and other equipment used for harvesting honey.
My 2020 Honey Harvest
I currently have 10 hives; however, most of those hives are brand new colonies that I started this spring. It takes a bit for a new colony to get up and going, so you often aren’t able to harvest honey from them the first year. Out of my 10 current hives, I originally thought I would be able to harvest honey from three of them. However, I always leave some honey for the bees because it is their food too. Unfortunately, one of the three hives didn’t have enough honey for me to take any. In the end, I pulled 25 frames of honey out of two hives. I might have been able to take a little more but I wanted to make sure the bees had plenty for themselves too.
To get the bees off the combs of honey, I remove the lid of the hive and replace it with something called a fume board. The inside of the fume board has a piece of cloth that I sprayed with a product made specifically for this purpose. The product is made from all organic materials and is supposed to smell like almonds, but to my husband and I it smells more like the big black and yellow or black and red millipedes that we find around here. (Can you tell we’re both wildlife biologists and have done lots of environmental education during our careers?) It doesn’t take much to work – I only have to spray a squirt or two on the fabric. The bees don’t like the smell and most of them will leave the honeycombs to run down deeper into the hive, much like we might run out of the kitchen if we burned something and made it smell really bad in there. With most of the bees off the combs, I’m able to pull out the frames of honeycomb, make sure they are ready to harvest, and set aside the ones I want to harvest with relatively few bees on them. The bees that are left can easily be brushed off before bringing the frames inside.
After pulling all of the frames of honeycomb that I am going to remove from the hives and brushing off any remaining bees, I bring the combs into my kitchen to continue the harvesting process.
Honey comes from nectar that the bees gather, bring back to the hive, mix with natural enzymes, and put through a dehydration process. When the nectar has been converted to honey, the bees put a thin layer of wax over the honey. This thin layer of wax is called a wax capping and is the bee version of a tupperware lid. The wax capping keeps the honey fresh until the bees are ready to eat it.
To get to the honey underneath the wax capping, the bees simply chew off the capping in the same way that we would take the lid off a plastic container of leftovers. To harvest the honey for us to eat, I have to cut off the wax caps. Most of the time, I use a knife and try to slice off just the wax caps without cutting into the comb any more than necessary.
I have to do this for both sides of each comb. 2 sides x 25 frames of comb = 50 sides that I had to remove the cappings from. I always underestimate how much time that takes. It doesn’t help that even though I was working inside, we didn’t have the air conditioning on because honey comes out of the combs best when it is warmer rather than cooler.
The bees don’t always draw the comb perfectly level either. Often times there will be high and low spots in the comb, where for whatever reason, the bees made the comb thicker in some places than others. Sometimes it is almost impossible to use the knife to get the caps off the low spots without tearing up the surrounding comb. In these cases, I switch to a different tool called a “capping scratcher.” However, despite the name, it is best used to gently pry the wax caps off the comb instead of scratching them off. Prying the caps off is a little slower but doesn’t damage the comb as much as scratching them off, and the less I damage the comb, the easier it is for the bees to reuse it.
As I remove the wax caps, most of the honey stays in the combs, but some of it drips out. That’s why I remove the wax cappings over a capping tray. The capping tray is a big plastic basin with a tray that has holes in the bottom of it and sits on the rim of the basin. As I cut off the wax caps, they fall into the tray. Any honey that is on the wax caps or that drips out of the comb, is able to pass through the holes in the tray and is caught in bottom basin. (Think of it as a big colander.) The honey in the bottom of the basin can then be poured out, strained, and bottled just like the honey that I extract from the comb.
I try to waste as little as possible when I do my honey harvest. Not only will I be able to let the bees reuse the combs, but I will also be able to reuse the wax caps. After the wax caps have dripped dry as much as possible, I will put them back in the hives for the bees to reclaim any remaining bits of honey. After the bees have cleaned up all the remaining honey, I will remove the wax caps and melt them into blocks that I can use later.
Once I cut the wax cappings off both sides of the honeycomb, I place the frame into my extractor. Small extractors that only do a couple of frames at a time are sometimes plastic, but most larger extractors are made out of metal. They can be either manual, which means you have to crank them to get the honey out of the comb or they can be electric, which means that a motor does the spinning for you. I’m very grateful that I was able to get an electric extractor.
This picture shows my extractor fully loaded with frames of honeycomb. Now the fun part starts!
Honey extractors use centrifugal force to sling the honey out of the combs. The honey is slung out of the combs, hits the side of the extractor, and runs down to the bottom of the extractor. I love the fact that my new extractor has a plexiglass lid so I can watch the honey come out of the combs!
A honey gate is near the bottom of the extractor and simply allows the honey to flow out of the extractor. I run the honey through a coarse strainer as it comes out of the extractor. The coarse strainer catches any bits of wax that might come off the combs as they are spinning while letting all but the biggest pollen grains pass through with the honey. When I am extracting the honey, I put it into food-grade 5-gallon buckets for storage until I’m ready to bottle the honey.
I’m still waiting for all the drips and drops to come out of the wax caps, but I’m going end up with approximately 90 pounds of honey this year, maybe a little more. That’s about what I harvested last year. I was hoping for another 20 to 30 pounds, but I didn’t get to pull as many frames as I thought I was going to pull out of the hives.
Still, I can’t complain given the two late freezes and the generally cool, wet weather this spring. As with just about everything in farming – nothing is guaranteed and you only have limited control over what you are able to harvest; Mother Nature has a big say in what your harvest looks like in the end. I’m just happy that I was able to harvest almost as much as last year and that my colonies are as healthy as they are.
Shannon Trimboli is a beekeeper, farmer, wildlife biologist, and author. She owns Grassy Roads Farm and Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting. Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting specializes in plants and habitat consulting services for honey bees, native pollinators, and wildlife conservation. In 2018, her first book, Plants Honey Bees Use in the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, was published. Shannon also writes a weekly blog called Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife. The blog features profiles of pollinators and wildlife, tips for attracting pollinators and wildlife, highlights of different plants for pollinators and wildlife, and life on the farm and nursery. You can sign up to have her blog emailed to you.