By Tom Theobald, A Journey With The Bees
So here we are at fall, the culmination of a journey that started way back in January when we were checking colonies for winter stores and making plans to feed those that looked like they might run short. We’ve arrived at harvest time, referred to in the beekeeping world as extracting, and at least in my part of the country pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable, EX-tracting. So at this time of year if you asked a beekeeper what they were doing the answer would likely be “extracting.”
Extracting, or the honey harvest, is going to befall almost every beekeeper if their efforts are successful and the site of those activities can vary from a garage or the family kitchen to large facilities specifically designed and built for handling the harvest. Many of the new hobbyists may quickly find that harvesting honey in the kitchen can be a test of spousal relations.
What I would like to do in this article is explain how honey is harvested, by way of my own operation, and offer some helpful advice for some of the newer beekeepers who may be embarking on their first harvests. Again, I won’t go into fine detail on some of the beekeeping involved, for the beekeepers and non-beekeepers who want to learn more there are many very good books on all aspects of beekeeping that will do a much better job than I ever could in this limited space.
Richard Taylor was the premier philosopher/beekeeper of my time. Unfortunately he passed away a number of years ago, but his voice lives on in his writings. I read one of his earliest books, published the year before I began keeping bees 40 years ago. In it I found the observations of a kindred soul and the little volume helped to put beekeeping in context for me. That book was The Joys of Beekeeping, out of print for many years, but recently republished and available through Amazon. I recommended it earlier this year to readers, and if you didn’t see that or didn’t get it, I recommend it again. Anyone who proposes to call themselves a beekeeper should read it and have it in their library.
Taylor devotes a chapter in his small book on his honey house and gives some insight into the role it plays in his life as a beekeeper. “The beekeeper’s precious retreat…” he begins, and he gives us his three rules: 1. No bees; 2. No honey drippings on the floor; and the third rule, No people.
Not everyone can have a honey house devoted exclusively to beekeeping, certainly not the smaller beekeepers, but at harvest time we either have to have a honey house or create one. For the smaller beekeepers with only a little honey, creation usually means temporarily taking over the kitchen or the garage. To smaller or beginning beekeepers locally I have an ideal situation, a honey house, to many of them I’m the big frog. My commercial friends, who may have thousands of colonies, on the other hand may smile at my outfit. “Quaint,” they might say. Quaint might be an apt description, as my Honey House is a honey house of old, the one described by Taylor, the honey house of myth and folklore, and I’ve always felt very fortunate to have it. It has been the scene of prodigious effort, great drama and some sorrow. It has seen many quiet winter days as I watched the snow sifting down outside the windows and hand dipped hundreds of beeswax candles or put together beekeeping equipment. Quaint? Yes, but efficiently organized to produce several tons of high quality table honey over my six-week harvest. Quaint? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I may be a little quaint myself.
So let the tour begin.
Every beekeeper, large or small, faces the same basic requirements when harvest time rolls around—pull the honey, uncap the comb, spin out the honey, filter and bottle it. Unless comb honey will be the end product, that is honey which remains in the comb and is eaten that way, the honey must be removed from the comb. The most ancient way is to simply crush the comb in some form of fabric and squeeze, the honey being filtered through the fabric, leaving the wax behind. A step up the technological ladder is to uncap the comb with a hot knife.
By way of the photos I want to explain how a basic extracting process works and what equipment is involved. This is the same process required whether you have 1 colony, 50 colonies or 5,000. The steps are the same, the equipment is just larger, faster and more efficient. Starting with photo number one we will scan around to the left and then come back to the point of beginning.
Photo number one looks toward the northeast corner of the Honey House. On the right is a stack of honey supers. The honeycombs from these will be uncapped with an oscillating horizontal uncapping knife on the white stand in the center. The knife is electrically heated. The cappings fall into the circular cappings spinner below, which is like a washing machine with an inner basket and only a spin cycle. Most of the honey taken off with the cappings can be recaptured by the spinner and the cappings wax will be the raw product for beeswax candles. The uncapped combs are accumulated in the drip tank on the left until I have an extractor load.
Photo number two is 45 degrees to the left. The extractor is the large piece of equipment in the center, a Maxant vertical radial. It holds 21 frames and extracts both sides of the comb at the same time. Most extractors sit on the floor and go around like a merry go round, the vertical radial goes around like a ferris wheel and this method helps to save floor space in my small Honey House. Honey comes out the white pipe at the bottom, into the baffle tank on the left. Coming out of the extractor the honey passes through a pre-filter which takes out the larger wax particles and more wax is left behind as the honey passes under a baffle (since wax is lighter than honey the honey goes under the baffle and leaves wax particles behind). To the left of the baffle tank is the honey pump, a specialized gear pump for high viscosity liquids, which moves the honey up and over to the bottling tank.
Rotating around another 45 degrees, the extractor is on the right, bottling tank on the left. The honey passes through a series of increasingly finer filters before it enters the tank. In a good day I can fill that tank, a little over 700 pounds. That’s a full day’s work for me, but my large commercial friends could run my entire six week harvest through their systems before coffee break on the first day. The honey will stay in the bottling tank over night to let the fine air bubbles rise out and will be bottled the following day.
In photo number four we are back to the point of beginning and you can see all of the equipment and visualize the work flow.
Now a few hints for you beginners who are planning to do this in your kitchen or garage. Prepare ahead of time, not when you are in the middle of things. Many beekeepers’ associations and bee clubs have a small extractor or two and some of he basic equipment that they lend around in the fall. Get on the list.
Second, follow Richard Taylor’s advice; no bees and no drips, it’s dealers choice on the people part. Your house or garage has to be bee-tight, not almost bee-tight, beetight, or you will be amazed at how many hundreds or thousands of bees will follow the scent trail in, and my experience is that a drop or two of honey on the bottom of your shoe is enough to coat about 2,000 square feet given a little time. Avoid drips and clean them up when they happen.
Cold honey filters very slowly and the filters plug quickly with wax particles, have several on hand. Have multiple buckets available, more than you think you will need. These are used to hold dripping utensils as well as filters that are draining. You should have two or three buckets of fresh water and a number of sponges for chasing errant drips. Keep water and sponges for floor cleanup carefully separated from those used for counters and equipment.
Uncapping can be done with a large kitchen knife kept in a pan of hot water on the stove, but electrically heated uncapping knives are not too expensive and again, beekeeper’s associations often have them to lend out.
Your first honey harvest may be a delight or a disaster, in part it’s up to you, but either way you are going to have some lifelong memories so have at it and maybe some of you will report back to Countryside in the next issue and we can all enjoy it.