~ Grassy Roads Farm Life ~
I celebrated July 4 by harvesting honey from a few of my hives. I was very grateful that Anthony was able and willing to help. I could have done it by myself, but it made the process much easier to have another set of hands. Given the amount of interest that my recent hive inspection post received, I thought many of you might also enjoy learning about the honey harvesting and extracting process.
July 4, 2019 – Honey Extraction
One of the first challenges when harvesting honey is how to get the bees off the honey combs. I used what’s called a fume board. With a fume board, you spray a product on a piece of material that is attached to the top inside of the board. You then replace the hive’s lid with the fume board and wait for a few minutes. You don’t have to wait long or use much of the product. Essentially as soon as the bees smell it they go “Ewwww! YUCK! Run away! Run away!”
Although you can get stuff that smells really bad, even to us, the product I used is made of all natural oils and is often described as smelling like almonds. I know where they are going with the almond description, but to me it doesn’t smell like the almonds I typically eat. However, it does smell EXACTLY like what I’ve always called almond millipedes – you know, the big black millipedes with the yellow stripes. (Yes, I’m a nature nerd, but you probably already know that if you know anything about me.)
Regardless of whether it smells more like almonds or almond millipedes, the smell wasn’t too bad and within 3-4 minutes most of the bees had retreated deeper into the hive and out of the top boxes where the honey was located. I quickly removed the frames from the top box or two, checking each one to see if the honey had been capped. If the entire frame, or almost the entire frame was full of capped honey, then I put it in another box to take with me. Otherwise, the frame went back in the hive for the bees. When I was done, I closed the hive up (using the real lid this time) and went to the next hive that I was going to harvest honey from.
After I had finished harvesting all the frames that I planned to harvest, I gently brushed off any bees left on the frames before bringing the frames of honey into the house. Here is one of the frames of almost solid capped honey that I harvested.
Honey is produced by honey bees from nectar that the older bees gather from flowers. Before the nectar becomes honey, it goes through a complex process of dehydration and conversion of the complex sugars in the nectar into simple sugars. Once most of the water has been evaporated out of the nectar and the complex sugars have been broken down, it will become honey. At this point, the bees place a cap of fresh wax over the honey to keep contaminants out and to preserve it for later. Honey is the bees’ primary source of food so as beekeepers we always have to leave enough for the bees when we harvest honey for ourselves.
There are multiple different ways to get the honey out of the combs. Whenever possible, I try to keep as much of the comb intact as possible so that the bees can reuse the comb. On nice flat combs like this one, that means I can just barely go underneath the wax cappings and lift them off the comb. This is like taking the lid off a container of leftovers that you put in the fridge to eat later. Removing the wax cappings exposes the honey underneath.
Once the frames have been uncapped and the honey is exposed, the frames go in the extractor. The extractor spins the frames around the center post which flings the honey out of the combs by centrifugal force. (Be sure to close the lid before starting the extractor.) Extractors can either be manual, where you have to crank them by hand (much like an old-fashioned ice cream maker) or electric, where a motor does the spinning (like an electric ice cream maker). Many local bee clubs have extractors that their members can borrow. This is a really great benefit for beekeepers who don’t have a ton of honey to harvest each year, because extractors aren’t cheap and they take up a lot of storage space for something that is probably only going to be used once or twice a year.
The moment of anticipation…. Getting ready to open the honey gate and let the first yumminess of the year pour forth.
Watching the first honey come out of the extractor never gets old. We strain the honey through a mesh strainer that is big enough to let the honey and all but the very largest pollen grains go through, but small enough to keep any bits of wax out of the final product.
After extracting all of the honey, I used a refractometer to measure the moisture content of the honey. Testing the moisture content of your honey is important because if the moisture content is too high then the honey will ferment. The goal is for the moisture content to be 18% or below. Mine was between 16.5% and 17% – yay! (I had very little uncapped honey on the frames I harvested so I waited until the end to test my moisture content. If there had been more uncapped honey, then the odds of having a higher moisture content in the honey would have been greater. In that case I would have tested earlier in the process, possibly even before putting the frames in the extractor.)
Another test that you can do with your honey is to grade it by color. At my level, this is really a “just for fun” test. But I was curious, so why not?
The color of the honey is a result of the types of nectar that were used to produce the honey. That’s why some honey is very light and some is very dark. I used a specially designed color wheel to grade the color of my honey. I put some of my honey into the provided container and compared my honey sample to the colors on the wheel. My honey this year was right on the border between extra light amber and light amber.
After cleaning everything up it’s time to do the final (and perhaps most critical) test – the taste test. Every year the honey tastes slightly different because the taste of honey is based on the types of flowers that the bees gathered nectar from and the amount of nectar they gathered from each type of flower. Honey is like fine wine in that respect – no two years or locations ever produce exactly the same flavor. My honey’s flavor this year is absolutely amazing! I am VERY pleased with this year’s honey crop.
I have a few other things that have to take priority this week, but I hope to print labels and start putting them on the jars soon. If I can get that done, then I should have honey ready to sell in a couple of weeks.
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.