Homesteading, Organic Gardening, How to Farm, Preparedness, Self-Reliance
The Happy Homesteader
June is a good time around here to harvest the first of the year's honey. When I first started beekeeping it took me a long time of observation to understand our seasons from the bee's perspective. Pretty much as March rolls around we'll begin to see the bees buzzing on the first flower blossoms that appear. By April they are in full flight and are bringing in honey at an alarming rate, so we give them some time to replenish the stored honey they used all winter and then we put on supers. Supers are smaller boxes that are meant for honey storage rather than for brood (eggs and baby bees). As long as the brood boxes are not overly filled and crowded, then the bees will only put honey in the super boxes and will keep the brood down in the boxes below. This is convenient for the beekeeper who can easily pull off a super and have nothing but honey inside. We tend to give the hives all of April and May to fill up as many supers as they can. Once June comes, the supers are usually filled and all that's left is for the bees to cap them. The bees know just how to preserve honey so that it will last indefinitely. They pack the honey into the wax cells or honey comb and then they fan their wings inside the hive to evaporate the water that is in it. Once they have evaporated enough water, then they place a thin layer of wax over the top of the cell and the honey that is inside is perfectly preserved! When they have capped all of the frames in the super, then it is time for the beekeeper to harvest honey. Now, it's very important that you always leave your bees with plenty of honey for themselves, but by adding more supers to the hive and expanding the room they have to live and work, they will continue to make more honey than they need. It is only this excess honey that we take so that our hives are never in jeopardy. We'll put the empty supers back on the hives once we're done taking the honey and the bees will continue to fill up supers through out the summer, but at a much slower pace since the heat tends to slow them down. In the fall when things cool off a bit there is one more big push for them to make honey and this can often result in a second honey harvest or, if nothing more, it is a good time for the hive to really store up on their winter food.
There are many different ways to harvest your honey, but the process that we use is the most basic, doesn't require special equipment, and is generally best for the backyard beekeeper who doesn't do much. On the morning we harvest honey we take an empty super box over to the hives and put it in a cookie sheet pan to keep it off the dirt. We also get a piece of cardboard or plywood to use like a lid. We then go to the first hive, take off their lid, and remove one frame of capped honey from the super at a time. Each time we use a bee brush, which is just a soft bristle brush that if used gently won't injure the bees, to brush off any bees that are on the honey frame. When the frame is clear we bring it to the empty super box. One frame at a time we empty the super that is on the hive and fill up the super we brought over that morning. It's important to cover the super of the honey you are taking otherwise the bees will just fly right back in there. When the super on the hive is empty, then we can use that empty box to fill up with frames from the next hive. We generally have two or three supers at a time to harvest, so if this is the case, we use a two wheel dolly to roll the stack of supers inside the garage. Inevitably there will be a bee or two that follows so we leave the garage door cracked just a bit for them to escape.
Once we have the honey inside, it's important that you harvest it immediately or else wax moths will find it and hatch out and destroy it. Some people use an extractor to spin the honey out of the frame, but we don't have one so we use the crush and strain method. With this method you will lose your wax comb and this requires more work on the part of the bees next year to make comb, but extractors are expensive for just a small honey harvest. Our process involves taking one frame of honey inside the kitchen at a time. Here we use a heated knife, which is one luxury we bought to make the job easier! You plug the knife in and it heats up which makes the wax melt. We hold the frame vertically over a 5 gallon bucket (resting it on a slat of wood if necessary) and use the heated knife to slice off the wax cappings. This is not really necessary with the crush and strain method. You could just cut out all of the honey comb, but I like to keep the capping wax separate from the main comb wax. The main comb wax starts with store bought foundation, but the layer of wax cappings is directly from my bees and is pure and white. Maybe I'm over paranoid, but I save capping wax for things like lip balm and salve that I use on my skin. The main comb wax, which I don't know exactly where it comes from, is used in candles.
When I have the cappings cut off a frame and in the bucket, then I move the frame over to a big roasting pan. Here I use a sharp kitchen knife to cut all of the comb out of the wooden frame. I do one frame at a time to try to keep the honey drips to a minimum. Honey is sticky stuff and always ends up everywhere no matter how hard I try to contain it! Once all the frames are done and all the comb is in the roasting pans, then I use a potato masher and just mash up all of the comb. When you crush the wax comb, the honey is released out and if you keep mashing soon you will end up with a slurry of honey and wax. The next part is to strain the wax out. You can buy filters and bags to use as strainers or use multiple layers of cheese cloth. I bought a fine mesh nylon bag so I can use it over and over again. I fill the bag with the wax/honey slurry and then hang it up so that it can drip into a bowl with a pour spout. It takes a while, but soon most of the honey will drip out and what's in the bowl is pretty clear. The crush and strain method won't produce as clear of honey as an extractor because it is pretty difficult to strain all of the wax and pollen out, but these little bits have health benefits as well so I don't mind them. Once the bag is strained, the wax that is left inside is rendered for candles. The honey that is in the bowl is poured into mason jars and stored away.
I render my capping wax and comb wax separately and label them so that I know what's what later on, but the process is the same for both of them. I bought a cheap non-stick saucepan to dedicate just to wax because I never can get a pot clean after melting wax in it! I put the wax bits in the pot and just about cover them with water. Then I heat it until the wax melts. As the mixture cools, the left over honey and any debris will melt out and sink down into the water as the wax rises to the top. Once cooled, the wax hardens on top of the water and you can just lift it out. There is often a layer of sludge on the bottom of the hardened wax, but it usually washes off under cool water. Sometimes I don't feel like the wax has come out pure enough and in this case I will remelt just the wax without any water and then strain it through several layers of cheese cloth into a paper cup. This is always very messy! Once the wax hardens, then you can just rip the paper cup off and you are left with a block of wax.
After a day of honey harvesting and wax rendering there is always a LOT of clean up and I'm glad that we only have to do it twice a year. The good part is that we have honey to last all year and lots of wax for making all kinds of neat things. We love our bees and are always so grateful for the delicious honey they give us!
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