The Process of Extracting Honey


One of the first things I wanted to know when we began our beekeeping classes was how a beekeeper got to the honey.  I had absolutely no knowledge of bees and, as interesting as it all was, I couldn’t wait to learn how to get that honey out of those honeycombs!  It was quite an education, which we put into action this week for our own honey extraction.

It takes preparation, so on Wednesday we began the process by utilizing a fume board and a non-toxic spray to drive the bees down into the hive.  Although Ed got the smoker going, we found we didn’t need it as we went along with the work.  He opened the top of the hive, then sprayed the fume board with Natural Honey Harvester, both of which you can purchase at any bee supply company locally or online. The sprayed fume board was then placed on top of the hive (in place of the cover) for about 5-10 minutes.  The buzzing from the hive increased ten-fold once we topped the hive with the fume board.  The substance smells like almonds to me and apparently the bees hate it.  Our Apiary (bee yard) is nestled in our little apple orchard. I have dreams of making it beautiful, but for now it’s functional.

During the time that was taking place we popped the top on our smallest hive just to check things out and make sure all was well.  This hive rejected the queen we bought earlier in the spring (don’t they know how expensive queens are?) so they made their own queen in their own time.  We spotted her and I had a chance to photograph her so you could see the difference between her and the worker bees.  The first thing you may notice is that, because she was made by the current bees, she’s not marked and therefore a bit more difficult to find when you have 24 frames to inspect in 3 boxes.  You can also see she is easily distinquished by her longer body, larger size and lack of stripes.  The cells here are capped brood cells, not honey, so she is searching for empty cells in which to lay her eggs and the worker bees are making sure empty cells are clean.  If they aren’t cleaned to the queen’s satisfaction, she will reject the cell and move on and the worker bees will commence cleaning duties, which is probably what the two with their heads in the cells are doing.

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After waiting for the time suggested, we popped the large hive back open and began to remove frames of honey, sweeping the remaining bees gently with a bee brush into the bee yard.  Once we were satisfied that no bees remained on the frames, we placed it in an empty box and covered it before proceeding to the next frame to keep all the bees out.  We repeated this process through several boxes.

This is hot work!  The bee suit I bought my husband for his birthday last year is ventilated (and pricey!) but mine isn’t, so I was pretty happy to sit back and photograph the process for you.  I got a little close at one point and got stung between my toes, but that’s only because I was silly enough to wear flip flops and no protection.  When I’m taking pictures, I am in a zone and there’s no reality there, only my brain in overdrive, trying to get the best shots.  Generally the bees are gentle and slow movement doesn’t bother them, however once you begin disturbing them enough, they do tend to get a bit irritated.  I’ve been in the hives more than once when they began flying out at my face and pinging my veil, and trying to sting me through my suit and gloves.  You get used to it, but it can be unnerving at first.  In three years I’ve only been stung about 5 times.

During this process as we worked down through the boxes, the bees began to “beard” on the front of the hive.  This can also occur during very hot weather and is illustrated in the hive to the left.Honey Extraction 19-editedHoney Extraction 20-editedAs I mentioned in a previous post, we chose medium, 8 frame boxes because when they’re full of honey they’re very heavy.  Ed took advantage of our tractor to haul the boxes and other equipment back to the house.Honey Extraction 21-edited Honey Extraction 22-edited

We covered the boxes in large, clean garbage bags, double bagged them to protect the honey, and stored them in our kitchen until Thursday morning.

Our bee club, BONS, schedules extractions usually on weekends, however we have a few members who have obligations then, so we extracted on a Thursday.  Extraction day can be long, depending on how many people are doing it, but it’s also a great opportunity to get to know your fellow beekeepers.  I had a nice long chat with Priscilla today, and her lovely daughter, Hannah.  I hadn’t met them before so we sat under umbrellas in the rain, then moved to the shade when when the sun came out and we talked a lot about natural beekeeping, organic gardening, and literature.  I really enjoy this social aspect of beekeeping.Honey Extraction 47-edited

We were the first to extract, so we loaded up our boxes in this tent.  Because the honey attracts bees and flies, it’s advisable to do everything under protection.  Below is the extractor, which uses centrifugal force to extract the honey from each frame.  This one can hold up to nine frames at a time.

The first thing to do is remove the wax capping from the honey.  This is accomplished with a hot uncapping knife that stays plugged in.

We got a little help from Gary, who loaded up our uncapped frames into the extractor.  Sometimes the knife doesn’t get all the capping, so we also used a capping scratcher and a rolling uncapping scratcher, which are shown below.

This is what’s left of the capping.  We will later leave this out near the bees and they’ll clean it up for us by removing all the honey so we can render this wax for use in skin creams and lip balm.  I’m looking forward to making these over the fall and winter months.  Honey Extraction 44-editedHere’s a view of the frames in the extractor and the honey flowing into a food safe plastic bucket.  We run ours through a fine strainer as it’s being extracted, but we don’t process the honey any further.

This season, we pulled about 90 pounds on honey off our hives; our largest harvest ever.  All that’s left to do is sterilize jars, seal the honey in them, and enjoy the sweetness all winter long!

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