Hives Update & Honey Extraction
Long hot days have meant that bees across Britain have been reveling in sunshine and constant nectar flows. It’s a huge change from last year when the soggy summer kept my honeybees huddled in their hives and living off starvation food – aka sugar-water and fondant supplied by yours truly. To thrive, bees need warm summers since it provides succulent flowers for them to feed on and a comfortable temperature to process nectar into honey. Without a good season or a conscientious beekeeper, honeybees have a hard time putting down enough stores to survive the winter. This year most hives must have been in full production and aside from honey I leave for my own two, I could be looking at extracting up to sixty pounds to take home.
Even with the great weather there was a time around two months ago that I wasn’t so sure I’d have such a good harvest. One day as I was walking towards my hives I heard a loud humming of bees and saw a cloud of them in the air. I’d happened on one of my hives in the process of swarming! There wasn’t much I could do at the time other than keep an eye out for the swarm and to warn the neighbours and nearby businesses. I also looked for the bees after they’d flown off but some of the areas were just too thick with gorse for me to access. I never did get a call from anyone else saying that they’d found bees either.
After my afternoon trek around the brush I called up my beekeeping pal, Mr. E to tell him what had happened. He advised me to purchase more equipment in case I need to house another colony and in the meantime lent me a handmade nucleus that he said would help in the case that my bees started swarming again. Set near the hives and filled with frames of old wax, bees will be more attracted to moving in there rather than flying off and trying to build a brand new home in someone’s chimney.
For weeks after setting it up the nuc remained uninhabited and I was both relieved that my hives weren’t swarming but a bit disappointed that bees hadn’t moved in. I’d given up on having the nuc there by mid July and went up one day to inspect the bees and to bring it down to take back to Mr. E. I was literally shocked into stillness to find on that day that bees had taken up residence. I’m not sure if they were wild bees or if it was a tiny swarm that came out of one of my hives but in any case it means that I now have a third colony and potentially more honey and beeswax next year.
With all the bees settled down into their respective hives it was back to honey making again. It’s been a good year and even with the swarm there was plenty of capped honey in the hives for me to be able to take some off too. Seeing as I didn’t take any last year, I didn’t have most of the equipment required and so began doing a bit of research. I also rang up Mr. E to get his opinion on what I should do and he invited me to come down with a super of honey to his extracting shed to show me how he does it.
The first step in taking honey off the hive is getting the bees off the honey. You do that by using what’s called a ‘Clearing Board’. This is essentially a wooden board with a contraption fastened to it that allows bees to move down and into the main hive area but stops them from getting back up. You place this board underneath the box (called a Super) filled with frames that you want to take off and then wait twenty four hours for the bees to clear off. I came back after that time and found only a few bees still on the frames which was fine since they were easy to brush off.
My mistake at the time had to do with being a bit greedy. Instead of heading off quickly with the super of honey I decided to go into the other hive and fetch out a couple full frames of honey to extract at the same time. Two of the frames from the original super were fairly empty since I’d taken full ones out the visit before to put in the nucleus with the small colony of bees. My idea was a big mistake.
The smell of honey compounded with my smoker going out ended me up in a whole load of trouble and culminated with me being covered with bees and having to literally run out of the apiary! I generally visit my bees in a jacket, gloves, boots, and jeans and haven’t had too many issues with my attire. This time the little buzzers stung me nine times through my trousers and I had a pretty uncomfortable time standing at my stall at the Royal for the next two days. At least they all got me on the front so I didn’t have issues sitting! I learned my lesson though and won’t be as unprepared for battle next time.
After taking the Super off I headed down to Mr. E’s place where we closed ourselves up in his honey extracting shed. The scent of honey can draw other bees so you need to do it where you’re safe from them getting in. We didn’t have too much trouble while I was there but I was shown two vents in the shed where bees will sometimes congregate, especially if he’s taking off large quantities. It makes me recall last summer’s beeswax processing and how thousands of bees descended on a honey covered plastic bag I left outside the front door. It’s a scary sight if you’re not used to dealing with lots of bees.
Uncapping the comb is the first step of honey extraction. Bees store their honey in little cells made of beeswax and then once the honey is fully processed and ready for storage the cell is capped with more wax. Many beekeepers use a serrated knife to uncap these cells and I’d expected Mr. E to do the same. Instead he uses a type of metal comb and gently pricks the clean white beeswax off the comb. This helps to keep the comb intact and ensures the bees will have less work to do to when the frames are reintroduced into the hive. Before I started beekeeping I imagined that all the comb is taken out when honey is taken from a hive but in actuality, the frames of extracted honey are slotted back into the Super and put back in the hive at night. The bees will clean up all the honey residue and reconstruct the frames into honey storage cells all over again.
As each of the frames was uncapped we put it into Mr. E’s electric extractor. After all the frames were loaded, the machine was turned on and began spinning the honey out of the cells and against the walls of the stainless steel drum. It then ran down the sides and collected at the bottom of the drum. I’ve been looking at catalogues and thinking about purchasing a manual extractor but after seeing how much work it can be I may indeed end up with an electric one myself, especially as I see myself having more than just a couple of hives in the future. They are pricey though so it’s something I have to think about.
We kept an eye on the extractor and when we couldn’t see any more honey being spun out Mr. E turned it off and opened the valve at the bottom of the drum. Thick golden honey, along with residue of beeswax and pollen, came flooding out and through two metal filters before flowing down into a metal bucket. I learned that it’s best to have metal equipment for extracting honey since it’s easier to clean and more durable than plastic but also because plastic tends to pick up scent and residue.
Even though it’s been filtered, the honey needs to be covered and let sit for a couple of days so that any remaining beeswax and pollen has a chance to float to the top and be skimmed off. After this, you can pot it up into individual sterilised jars and either eat or sell it direct. Honey that you process this way is what is referred to as raw honey since it hasn’t been heated or treated in any way. Left in jars it really doesn’t have an expiration date and can literally last decades.
I potted the honey up this morning by ladling it out of the bucket and into sterilised glass jars, though there is a proper honey tank with a tap at the bottom that I plan on purchasing for future batches. In all I estimate that I took about twenty to twenty-five pounds of honey from this extraction and hope to take about the same amount from my second hive. Potting honey is a sticky business though not without its perks – someone has to lick all the spoons clean afterwards!
Through Mr. E’s instruction I’ve learned a lot about how to extract honey and what I need to get it done easily and efficiently. I think that if I sell any surplus I’ll be saving up the proceeds to buy similar equipment including all stainless steel buckets, filters and trays. I can see myself keeping bees for a very long time and so it makes sense to buy tools that will last a lifetime.