It happens every August – honey extraction! After babying the bees, feeding, monitoring, re-queening, splitting, and just plain worrying about them, now is the moment of truth. How much honey did they deposit in the combs for me to rob from them? I won’t leave you in suspense – I extracted 50 pounds from one of my three hives. Two were Nucs and one was a package. Go to A Bee Nuc or Package to see the difference and advantages. The other hives didn’t have enough to extract as the bees need collected honey to survive the winter.
My two nucs and one package were humming along with our wet weather bringing on a consistent supply of nectar. It is always an anti-climax when we finally remove and extract – kind of like Christmas – lots of build up and anticipation, and then it is over very quickly and we are mopping up the mess.
To remove the wax cappings, a heated knife is used to melt away the wax and a fork that looks like a hair pick is used to further open up the cells so that the honey can be flung out.
Think of a large metal trash can with wire shelves inside that spin around and you have an honey extractor. A motor attached will turn on the merry-go-round inside, flinging the honey deposited in the cells onto the side of the trash can, dripping down to the bottom where it will exit through a gate valve into a mesh sieve for bee parts and then into a collection bucket.
The wax cappings are very tasty and we dive right in and start snacking. Grabbing a dollop of warm fresh honey comb that is dripping with honey is luscious!
Once the honey is all extracted, I take the frames and set them up in front of the hives so the bees can wring every last drop of honey from them. The bees, once they discover the free honey, go crazy and buzz around the yard. I am sure to not have guests over when this happens as it can be quite unnerving if you are afraid of bees!
We set up the extractor and all the tools in front of the hives also so the bees can finish cleaning. The wax cappings are set out along with everything else for the bees to clean, and then I take the wax in to process in preparation for making beeswax soap and candles. Go to Beeswax-Honeybee Gift to see how I process and use beeswax.
Giving the honey a few days to settle, I start bottling the honey when the weather is still warm, over 75 degrees. If honey gets too cold, it won’t flow properly into my jars.
Beekeeping has moved from the pastime of fusty middle-aged men to young urban couples and singles. It is trendy now to become a beekeeper! Who could have predicted that? When I worked at the bee booth at the Fairgrounds recently, I was amazed at the young (under 25!) people, both male and female who were into beekeeping! I was also surprised by the number of people who have asked me questions about beekeeping, who were seriously considering jumping in, but just weren’t sure if it was for them. And yes, it does change your life. I categorize my life as BB (before beekeeping) and AB (after). It is kind of like having children. You are changed from the experience whether you like it or not.
So, I thought I would do a post on what to expect as a newbie beekeeper, because by now I have experienced it all – the mistakes, the outlay of money, the new friends, the frustration, swarms, the deluge of yummy honey, and yes – the stings!
Don’t Try To Do this By Yourself!
If you are really thinking about beekeeping, first learn all you can about the basics. Contact your local beekeeping association; they are all over the U.S. My local one, the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association conducts a comprehensive course which is called the ‘Short Course in Beekeeping’. Starting in February each year, the evening classes are well attended by prospective beekeepers. At the conclusion of the series, there is a hands on practice with bees and outside demonstrations and you can order your starter hive from them. The instructor is the State Apiary Inspector who will teach you basic bee biology and management of your colonies for the first year. The course is excellent with lots of reference materials available and personal encouragement from experienced beekeepers.
Even if you are not interested in starting up a colony, the course is fascinating. There are local beekeeping associations everywhere. Just do a google search and you are sure to find one close by. Attending one of these courses will help you to become a successful beekeeper. I have found that the most successful beekeepers are ones who have taken the course and continue to go to the monthly meetings to learn more, and share ideas with others. The association is kind of like your cheer leading section- when you become discouraged and frustrated, you have someone to bounce ideas off of and give you support. The internet is a resource that I use a lot but there is nothing like talking to real hands-on beekeepers. Don’t get me wrong, experienced beekeepers have vastly differing opinions and practices that vary greatly but the advice is invaluable. There are no right or wrong solutions, so you need to listen, check your references, and then do what you think is best.
When I contemplated starting a hive, I had no idea of how much it would cost and if I had known, I might not have taken the plunge. The expense of starting up a hive is considerable. Purchasing hive bodies, feeders, the bee suit and hat, smoker, medications, and various beekeeping tools will run a minimum of $500 to $1000.
The initial investment is steep but once you have your basic equipment, the cost levels off. You can add other items that you need later on, such as an extractor, which you won’t need right away. Or you can rent an extractor like I do from the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association for a nominal fee.
You can also buy used equipment from a local beekeeper to cut down on your start-up costs but it is important to make sure that the equipment is free of disease. The cost of your initial package of a couple of thousand bees with a queen will run around $100.
By attending the ‘Short Course’, experienced beekeepers can help you to obtain the proper equipment that you need to get started. I mostly order my new equipment on-line for convenience. There are a few local providers of supplies that I use also.
Another question that is asked of me frequently is how much time is involved in maintaining your colonies….. a lot! The lion’s share of your time is spent in the spring to make sure that the hive is happy and healthy, installing new bees, feeding them, and monitoring them. I spend at least a couple of hours a week in the early spring, feeding, inspecting, and manipulating the hives. Manipulating the hives just means you are pulling your hive bodies or boxes apart, making sure that the queen is healthy and producing eggs, and that there is sufficient room for her to lay eggs in the frames.
Later when there is a ‘honeyflow’, which is when the particular flowers that bees prefer are blooming in abundance, you need to add extra supers, or hive bodies on your brood boxes to handle the extra honey. Bees normally will not produce excess honey the first year that they are hived as they are just starting out, but will produce extra for harvesting in subsequent years. Check out my post of Honeybee HoneyFlow.
In the late summer and fall, I spend time taking off the supers, extracting the honey and feeding and medicating them to get through the winter. I set aside one entire day to remove and extract my honey sometime in August or September. Check out my extracting post at Spinning Honey.
Will they swarm? Yes, of course and you have to deal with it! I have had many swarms from my hives, some that I could catch and some that just were too difficult to hive safely. I have also caught wild swarms to increase my hives. Swarming is a natural mechanism for honeybees to find a new home when their present home gets too crowded. Sounds like a benefit for the beekeeper as he increases his hives but the downside is no extra honey is produced for harvesting. Go to Swarming of the Bees to see how I deal with that.
Will they sting?
With my hives, I have noticed a much greater presence of honeybees my flower and vegetable gardens and generally around my property. They use a nearby pond next to my patio for their water source, so the honeybees are very close to where people frequent. The hives are set about 100 feet from my house. I have been stung many times as I manipulate the hives or extract the honey because the bees are protecting their territory and that is a natural response. But if I am working in the garden or just sitting on my patio near the pond they never bother me. Guests have never been stung either. Honeybees are non-aggressive unlike yellow jackets and wasps, and on their daily trips to collect pollen, nectar, or water, they will ignore you and go about their business.
I have 2 hives now on 2 acres of property, but have had as many as 4. I normally will harvest about 50 to 60 pounds of honey from each hive every season and sell it to friends and give it as gifts. It is a hobby that you can practice on much smaller pieces of property, even in urban locations.
By producing your own honey, you are getting a natural, unadulterated product that has no additives. Your own honey contains nectar from local wildflower sources only, and that is supposed to help people with allergies to pollen. I use my honey and beeswax not only as a sweetener, but for healing and cosmetic purposes, like soap and body butter. See my recipe for Honey Scented Soap and Body Butter.
Managing your own hives also makes good garden sense as it improves the pollination of your garden and will improve the yield of your vegetable garden. Observing and managing your own hives is endlessly fascinating!
Good raw unpasteurized honey tastes very different from the plastic clover honey bear that you purchase at the supermarket. I compare it to processed cheese vs. a home made varietal cheese. Honey bears are simply an accumulation of many types of honey that have been mixed together, heated and made into a homogeneous mixture which lacks any hint of ‘terroir’.
Raw honey has a sense of place of where the honey bees gathered and deposited the nectar. As complex as chocolate, wine, and olive oil, honey deserves a greater appreciation with many layered notes or flavors. The video below shows how a frame of honey is uncapped, prior to extracting.
Honey tasting is like wine tasting – you wait for the bouquet and flavors to cascade over you. Honey is not just ‘sweet’, there are floral notes that are hard to describe. Butterscotch, caramel, florals, dried fruit, mineral….you name it, honey has it all. The flora, climate, and nature of the terrain determine the flavors of local honey. Below, are the seven geographical regions in the U.S. that determine the taste of honey.
My state of Maryland falls into the Southeast region. And according to William P. Nye of Utah State University, he describe my region as:
” In the mountainous area, sourwood is the prevailing
source of quality honey, along with tulip poplar
and clovers. Sourwood honey is almost
water white, does not granulate readily, and is so
esteemed that it usually passes directly from producer
to consumer at far above the price of other
honeys. Various other honeys, from light to dark
and from mild to strong, are produced in the
There are some sourwoods around here, but the predominant source for me is clover, tulip poplar, and black locust. Go to my post on Black Locust.
Black Locust, not to be confused with Honey Locust, produces a fruity, fragrant honey that ranges from water white to lemon yellow. The lexicon of honey flavors are as varied as the floral sources that it comes from. It can smell fresh as grass or tarry and dark as molasses. Honey varietals are becoming increasingly popular with honey tasting events of local and not so local honey on the menu. These varietal honeys come from primarily one source of nectar such as clover or orange blossoms. More than 300 varietal honeys are produced in the United States. Worldwide, it is in the thousands.
When black locust blooms here in Maryland, I know the nectar season for honeybees is ramping up in full gear.
Many beekeepers use the blanket term “wildflower” for a honey gathered from different kinds of flowers, but what “wildflower” means, varies by region. I label my honey ‘Wildflower’, because it is a variety of flowers that my bees visit for nectar. In my Maryland climate, that means, goldenrod, clover, berries, and sumac; the western Rocky Mountains have cactus, yucca, agave, alfalfa, and mesquite. So a Maryland and a Western wildflower honey will be very different.
Honey overall is enjoying a renaissance. Among the world’s oldest foods, “nature’s sweetener” has been rediscovered by consumers interested in natural foods or locally produced ingredients.
Changing seasons also affect a honey’s taste, texture, and color. A plant only has so much sugar that goes to its blossoms. In spring, when those blossoms are just budding, the resulting honey tastes less sweet. Later on in the season, when plants are competing like mad for pollinating bees to pay them a visit, they disperse more sugar and nutrients into fewer flowers, producing darker, more full-bodied honeys, like the late-season buckwheat and goldenrod.
Buckwheat honey is almost black and I can only describe the flavor and aroma as ‘earthy’. It is an acquired taste but it promotes healing in the body, supports immune function, and boosts antioxidants. It’s also great for soothing sore throats and coughs.
Crystallization occurs in three to eight months after harvesting honey and is not a sign of spoilage nor does it change the taste or healthful properties of honey. It simply changes the texture and color. I notice that honey suppliers are selling crystallized honey as ‘raw honey’. After going to Stockin’s website, they explain that all honey crystallizes eventually and that it is just as good as syrup honey. I don’t agree. When my honey crystallizes, I heat it a very low heat to make it syrup again.
My favorite tasting choice is ‘Chunk Honey’, fresh honey with a chunk of honeycomb floating. Just cut off a chunk of the honeycomb and chew it like chewing gum to get all the goodness out.
Here are some common honey notes:
Floral: Flowers like violet, rose, peony, honeysuckle and jasmine.
Fruity: Tropical fruits like pineapples and mango; berries; citrus (is that a lemon, lime or grapefruit?); and dried fruits like raisins, prunes and apricots. Beyond that, are those fruits ripe and sweet or unripe, like green figs or bananas?
Warm: Burnt sugars like caramel, marshmallow, and butterscotch; creamy notes of yogurt or butter; deep flavors of vanilla and chocolate.
Fresh: Crisp flavors like citrus and herbs like thyme and mint.
Vegetal: Fresh plants, raw vegetables, wet grass, hay and straw.
When I extract my honey, like the above video, it is not heated, just removed from the frame by centrifugal force and strained though a paint strainer to remove bee parts and debris. Pure heaven! For a post on extraction, go to Spinning Honey.
The best way to jump-start a conversation at a party is to tell people you are a beekeeper. Inevitably, people will barrage me with questions about my hobby and how they always thought of becoming a beekeeper themselves. Most people don’t have a clue of what is involved and for people who are intrigued but don’t know where to start, the following pointers should help you decide.
If you are really thinking about beekeeping, first learn all you can about the basics from experienced beekeepers. Oregon Ridge Nature Center conducts a local course by the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association which is called the ‘Short Course in Beekeeping’. Starting in the early spring for 6 weeks and concluding with a delivery of a package of bees which you take home and install, this will jump start your hobby. Hands on demonstrations in a communal beehive will give you a good idea of how to set up your own apiary. The instructor is the State Apiary Inspector who will teach you basic bee biology, management of colonies, and extraction of honey, or as he describes it ” a full year of beekeeping”.
An excellent starter course with lots of reference materials available and encouragement and mentoring from experienced beekeepers, I was primed and ready to go when completed. Even if you are not interested in starting up a colony, the course is fascinating. If you don’t live in MD, just search for a local beekeeping group to take courses from. Increasingly, they are being held all over the country. Attending one of these courses will help you to become a successful beekeeper.
The expense of starting up a hive is considerable-hive bodies, feeders, the bee suit and hat, smoker, and various beekeeping tools will run a minimum of $600 to $1200. For all the bells and whistles, it will cost considerably more. A good extractor alone could set you back $1000. I don’t own an extractor as I rent it for a reasonable sum of $10 from our local beekeeping association. I would advise starting with two hives so you have a backup if one bombs. I sell my honey but only collect a fraction of the cost of what it takes to set up and maintain my hives. Also, don’t forget that you will be buying many 20 lb bags of sugar a season to feed your bees! So, don’t consider this a money-maker – more like a money pit!
The initial investment is steep but once you have your basic equipment, the cost levels off. You can add other items that you need later on, such as solar wax melter, honey strainer, pollen/propolis traps, and a long list of beekeeping paraphernalia, which you won’t need right away.
You can also buy used equipment from a local beekeeper to cut down on your start-up costs but make sure that the equipment is disease free. The cost of your initial package of bees with a queen will run around $145. A Nuc, which I prefer, is a miniature beehive with a laying/working queen will run you more like $170. By attending the ‘Short Course’, experienced beekeepers can help you to obtain the proper equipment that you need to get started.
How much work is involved?
Another question that is asked of me frequently is ‘How much time is involved?’, in maintaining your colonies. The lion’s share of your time is spent in the spring to make sure that the hive is happy and healthy. I spend at least 4-5 hours a week in the early spring, feeding, inspecting, and manipulating the hives. Manipulating the hives just means you are pulling your hive bodies or boxes apart, making sure that the queen is healthy and producing, and that there is sufficient room for her to lay eggs in the frames.
Later when there is a ‘honey flow’, which means the favorite flowers that bees prefer are blooming in abundance, you need to add extra supers, or hive bodies to your hives to handle the extra honey. Go to my post on Honey Flow to see exactly what this means. Bees normally will not produce excess honey the first year that they are hived as they are just starting out building a new home, but will produce extra in subsequent years. In the fall, I spend time taking off the supers (honey storage boxes), extracting the honey and feeding and weather proofing them to get through the winter. I set aside one entire day to remove and extract my honey sometime in August or September. Throughout the winter, I clean and renovate my old hive bodies which become gummed up with propolis that the bees deposit on the boxes to seal them tight.
Will they sting?
I have noticed a greater presence of honey bees in my flower and vegetable gardens and generally around my property. The bees use a nearby pond next to my patio for their water source, so the honeybees are very close to where people frequent. The hives are set about 100 feet from my house.
I have been stung many times as I manipulate the hives or extract the honey because the bees are protecting their territory and that is a natural response. But if I am working in the garden or just sitting on my patio near the pond they never bother me. Guests have never been stung either. Honeybees are non-aggressive unlike yellow jackets and wasps, and on their daily trips to collect pollen, nectar, or water, they will ignore you and go about their business. I have noticed improved production of my veggie garden and love that aspect of beekeeping.
How about my neighbors?
Neighbors are definitely a consideration when you start your own hives. The best way to approach this is to let them know of your intent and to educate them about bees, i. e. – they rarely sting and will not cause problems with their family. I also screen my hives with some spruce trees so that they are not out front and center of my property and there is a buffer between my bees and the neighbors. It also helps if you present your neighbors with a gift of honey!
Most people are fascinated with beekeeping and are quite curious about what you are doing.
Do you get honey?
I have 3 hives now on 2 acres of property. I normally will harvest about 150 pounds of honey from my hives each season and sell it to friends and give it as gifts. It is a fascinating hobby that you can practice on smaller pieces of property, even in a city.
By producing your own honey, you are getting a natural, unadulterated product that has no additives. Read my post about buying honey. Your own honey contains nectar from local wildflower sources that is supposed to help people with allergies to pollen. I use my honey and beeswax not only as a sweetener, but for healing and cosmetic purposes.
Managing your own hives also makes good garden sense as it increases the pollination of your garden and will improve the yield of your vegetable garden. Find out which plants to plant to attract bees at Planting these For Bees. Beekeeping is a big investment in time and money. Hopefully, reading this will help push you to the tipping point in deciding if this hobby is for you.
Remember, that the honey bee is not native. Honey bees were brought over with the early colonists across the ocean to join the native American bees. But the European honeybee is the only one that produces honey.
If you have dogs, especially black dogs, bees seem to target them. My previous border collie Gypsy, was so terrified of bees that as soon as I got my bee hood out of the shed, she fled! My current Border, Tori is totally unconcerned when I look at the bees but I have seen the bees go right for her and burrow into her fur and drive her crazy. So, now I just put Tori in the house when I open the bees up so that she is not tormented.
If you live in areas where bears are common, beware! Winnie the Pooh’s favorite food was “Hunney” and bears are drawn to honey like kids to candy. I have relatives in Vermont who are always battling black bears.
All the bad stuff
Yes, there are lots of drawbacks. Your bees will get diseases and mites. Mites are like little ticks that suck their blood and weaken the bees. As for disease, I couldn’t believe the number of maladies that bees can contract and pests that they attract! There is foulbrood, chalkbrood, colony collapse, wax moths, small hive beetles, deformed wing disorder, and numerous others. The list goes on and on and every year, it seems that a new malady is added! There are various chemical remedies and some organic ones also. But it seems you are always trying to stay ahead of the latest disease. You deal with these problems as it happens.
If that isn’t enough, queens are notoriously fickle and hard to find in your hive. The overall health of your hive depends on the state of your queen. She must be young and fertile to lay those thousands of eggs a day!
To be a good beekeeper, you should not have a fear of being stung and you should also be strong. The hive bodies when full of honey can easily weigh more than 50-80 pounds. You have to be able to lift them up and move those heavy boxes around by yourself.
But beekeeping is such a rewarding and fascinating hobby, I continue to do it. I have been a beekeeper for over 20 years and feel that I have only scratched the surface in learning about this hobby. Maybe in another 10 years, I will feel that I know more about what makes bees tick, but I doubt it. It is always an adventure!
A food with no expiration date? How is it possible that honey can remain edible even thousands of years later, as evidenced by modern archaeologists finding edible honey in Egyptian tombs? The answer is as complex as honey’s flavor. There is a whole slew of factors in honey working in perfect harmony that makes this amazing substance remain edible in its raw state. There are a few other foods that fall in this longevity category: salt, sugar, and dried rice- but none have the medicinal properties of honey.
The picture below is from The Smithsonian Natural History Museum and reads:
Over 4,000 years ago, Egyptians began keeping bees and harvesting honey. Tomb paintings depict workers cultivating hives, and ancient texts talk of honey as a sweetener and antiseptic. Wax was used for mummification, salves, and even medication.
The king of Upper and Lower Egypt called himself nesir-bitly – “He who belongs to the sedge and the bee.” Ancient Egyptians considered the work of the bee divine, and they associated bees, wax, and honey with the sun god.
But why, exactly, doesn’t honey go bad? Honey in its natural form has a very low moisture content and low pH-between 3 and 4.5. Very few bacteria or microorganisms can survive in such an environment – they just die. The fact that organisms can’t last long in honey means they don’t get the chance to spoil it.
Also, the chemical makeup of a bees stomach plays a large role in honey’s longevity. Bees have an enzyme in their stomachs called glucose oxidase. When the bees regurgitate the nectar from their mouths into the combs to make honey (vomiting!), this enzyme mixes with the nectar, breaking it down into two by-products: gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is the key ingredient which stops bad things from growing in the honey.
Is Honey Better Than Sugar For You?
Nutrition experts say honey, unlike table sugar, has small amounts of vitamins and minerals and that honey can aid in digestion. Researchers are looking into antioxidant levels of honey to see if they also can improve one’s health. Table sugar is pure sucrose and highly processed, while natural honey has no processing steps beyond filtering out debris and bee parts. Evidence points to less processing steps leads to healthier foods.
But honey over time will form crystals and many honey eaters sees this condition and think it has spoiled and will throw it away. Stop! It is still good-you can use it in this form or reconstitute it into “runny honey”. Here are some common questions about crystallized honey.
Does It Mean The Honey Is Bad Or No Longer Fresh?
Not at all. Crystallization can occur very quickly after harvest – perhaps just a few days or weeks, and so there is no correlation between freshness and the crystallizing process. Be sure to store the honey in a warm sunny window or just somewhere not in the refrigerator. Cooler temps will hasten the crystallization process.
Almost all unheated, unfiltered honey crystallizes; some just crystallize sooner than others. You can cook with crystallized honey. Scoop it out for tea, use in stir-fries, and as a glaze on poultry and fish. Many times, I think the flavor is more concentrated and easier to use, because it is a more solid substance. If in doubt about the purity of the honey, remember pure honey will crystallize, the adulterated stuff from China that has corn syrup added will never crystallize. Also, when you drop a glob of pure honey into water, it stays in a clump. If cut with corn syrup, the honey will dissipate into the water.
Nectar, the first material collected by bees to make honey, is naturally very high in water–anywhere from 60-80 percent. Bees remove much of this moisture by flapping their wings to literally dry out or remove the moisture from the nectar.
Because honey is so thick, rejects any kind of growth and contains hydrogen peroxide, it creates the perfect barrier against infection for wounds. Thus, its legendary reputation as a wound healer in ancient times and surprisingly it is coming back in vogue in modern times. Derma Sciences, a medical device company, has marketed and sold MEDIHONEY bandages covered in honey used in hospitals around the world.
Why Does It Crystallize?
There are a few honeys that are very slow to crystallize. Acacia, sage, tupelo, and black locust honeys are some of them. But the majority of honeys will start working their way to crystallization as soon as they leave the nice warm confines of a 95F hive. It can even crystallize inside a hive if the winter bee cluster is not centered on top of the honey when temperatures stay below 50F for a while. These factors affect the crystallization process:
1) Unfiltered honey: little bits of things can start the crystals growing
2) Storing temperature of the honey: Don’t store in a refrigerator! Store in the warmest and driest spot in your house. I even place crystallized honey on my front porch in the hot sun to dissolve the crystals.
3) The container is used for storage: Plastic is more porous than glass, thus the air exchange is greater. I only use glass now to store my honey.
4) Sealing the container: Honey is a sugar and is hygroscopic, a term that means it contains very little water in its natural state but can readily suck in moisture if left unsealed. So seal the jar tightly.
The glucose and fructose are the sugars that give honey its “sweetness”. Glucose is the one that influences crystallization. The more glucose in the honey, the sooner your honey will crystallize.
Crystallization occurs faster at certain temperatures. When honey drops into the fifties (towards 50F), it will start to crystallize quickly. When turning your crystallized honey into runny, you don’t want to heat it over 100 degrees. Otherwise, you will kill all the beneficial substances that naturally occur in honey – like pollen, propolis, enzymes, and antioxidants which become useless at higher temperatures. Honey stored between 70 and 95F will stay runny longer. Store that honey in a sunny window! For long term storage, it is best to freeze your honey!
How to Make Crystallized Honey Runny
Place your honey jar in a hot water bath on low. I use a food thermometer to make sure I stay below 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Heating the honey slowly and steadily can take several hours so you don’t want to heat honey in a plastic container. The problem is that once the honey cools, it will be more prone to crystallization the second time around so use it up. After a few sessions of heating and cooling, the honey will start to lose its consistency and its aroma. Because of this it’s best if you only heat the amount of honey you want runny. Leave the rest in the container to heat up another day.
It is official. According to Firmenich, a private Swiss conglomerate that has produced perfumes and flavors for over 100 years, honey is the flavor of the year for 2015. Recognized for its unique flavor and versatility, Firmenich believes that this should elevate honey flavor to “classic” status like vanilla and chocolate. I read this news the day that I extracted my honey and thought it appropriate when I was absolutely covered in it.
The Big Event
Honey extraction is a process that requires patience, time, and tolerance for bee stings. After babying the girls- feeding, monitoring, re-queening, splitting, and just plain worrying about them- now is the moment of truth. How much nectar did they deposit in the combs for me to rob from them? And “robbing” is the right term because the girls work hard at it. According to the National Honey board the average worker bee will produce 1 1/2 teaspoons of honey in her lifetime. And one hive has to fly 55,000 miles to produce one pound of honey! For more amazing honeybee facts, check out The National Honey Board.
This year was a banner year for me, over 120 pounds of honey from 2 1/2 hives. The “half hive” swarmed early in the spring, so wasn’t as strong as my other two, but there was still enough to harvest some honey. The two strongest were Nucs and that is the way to go for me from now on. Nucs are simply frames of honeycomb that a mated queen bee is already laying eggs, and brood is hatching. In contrast, a bee package that I order in the mail comes with a queen that hasn’t yet been introduced to the thousands of worker bees that accompany her in a “package”. Go to A Bee Nuc or Package to see the difference and advantages. Nucs hit the ground running, and packages need to build up.
It is always an anti-climax when we finally remove and extract – kind of like Christmas – lots of build up and anticipation, and then it is over quickly and we are mopping up the mess.
After removing the bees, see Robbing the Bees-A Honey of a Day to see how to do this tricky part, we are ready to spin out the honey. I never do this in the house as you will be bringing in unwanted guests (hanger-on bees), so set up an area in our garage. Wiping down everything with soapy water and laying down large plastic drop cloths and we are ready to go.
Using a heated knife to remove the wax coverings and a fork that looks like a hair pick, the cells are opened up so that the honey can be flung out.
Think of a large metal trash can with wire shelves inside that spin around and you have a honey extractor. An attached motor will turn the merry-go-round inside, flinging the honey deposited in the cells onto the side of the trash can, dripping down to the bottom where it will exit through a gate valve.
Honey pours out into a large clean food grade bucket that has a mesh paint sieve to filter out all bee parts and debris.
The wax cappings are very tasty and we dive right in and start snacking. Grabbing a dollop of warm fresh honey comb that is dripping with honey is luscious!
Once the honey is all extracted, I take the frames and set them up in front of the hives so the bees can wring every last drop of honey from them. The bees, once they discover the free honey, go crazy and buzz around the yard. I am sure not to have guests over when this happens as it can be quite unnerving if you are afraid of bees.
We set up the extractor and all the tools in front of the hives also so the bees can finish cleaning. I use the wax to make beeswax soap and candles. Go to Beeswax-Honeybee Gift to see how I process and use beeswax.
Filling up the buckets was exciting and we were surprised after weighing one to see that it contained 68 pounds of honey! We quickly filled another with the thick amber honey. Honey flavor and color depends on the terrior and pollens that bees collect, and has different “notes”, kind of like wine. This years honey is definitely darker in color than last years and has a wonderful flavor.
Giving the honey a few days to settle, I start bottling the honey when the weather is still warm, over 75 degrees. If honey gets too cold, it won’t flow properly into my jars.
Yes! It is that time of year (Honey Flow) when the bees build up quickly. Before you know it you are looking at a huge moving bee mass perched on a tree branch like the one below when you come home from work. And you must do something quickly before they move on to roomier and more distant pastures!
Honey flow is a term used by beekeepers indicating that one or more major nectar sources are in bloom and the weather is favorable for bees to fly and collect the nectar in abundance. For me in Maryland, honey flow happens when the black locust is in bloom, starting in mid May into June. I can see the heavy creamy white hanging blossoms dangling from the trees lining the wooded roads around my house and I know that my bees will be in tip top form ferrying nectar to the hive and capping it with wax to make honey stores for the winter.
This is the beginning of the peak honey-producing season, when bees, taking advantage of the pollen available from spring blooms, make as much honey as they can to store for the cold days of winter ahead.
With the coming of spring a couple of weeks late this spring, I haven’t worried so much- but honey flow arrives quickly when I really busy with the garden and my landscape business that sometimes I am taken by surprise by swarming activity. If you ask any beekeeper how to prevent swarming, you will get 10 different answers and opinions. Other non-beekeeper friends who don’t understand will ask me, ” Why don’t you want your bees to swarm? You can increase your hives !” The answer is really simple. Say goodbye to any honey production for that year! And there is no guarantee that you will catch the bee swarm. The bees have a mind of their own.
As a beekeeper, I am sometimes called by a panicked home owner when a huge ball of noisy bees appears in their backyard. They are afraid of them stinging and just want the bees to go away or be killed. In fact, swarming bees are loaded up with honey and are very unlikely to sting. They are not dangerous and are just looking for a new home.
Swarming is a natural duplication process for honey bees to form a new colony. When a colony is bursting at the seams in their home with little room to grow, the bees will raise a new queen on their own. The old queen will take off with up to 10,000 to 15,000 bees from the home colony and fly a short distance and cluster on a tree branch, shrub or other object to form a large ball or cone shaped mass which can weigh 10 pounds or more. The queen is usually centered in the cluster and scout bees leave looking for a suitable new home such as a hollow tree or the walls of your house! The swarms can stay in their temporary location for several days as the scout bees do their job and find a new home.
A swarm starting to form
The Big Event
I have observed a swarm in progress from my hives several times and it is very impressive and exciting. One of the signs that precedes a swarm is the sound! The tone of the hive increases greatly in volume and the bees start to exit in a huge undulating wave from the hive body and head for some nearby structure- usually a tree, to land. The bees seem to have a unified purpose and know exactly what to do.
The new queen that the hive produced in preparation for swarming, will remain with the original colony in the hive and the remainder of the worker bees and start building up a viable hive once again. But they are a much smaller population so won’t produce that honey surplus. Beekeepers try to avoid a swarm because it splits their population and reduces the likelihood of producing honey to harvest that season. The advantage to swarming is that now you have two hives instead of one but again you have to put off harvesting any honey because both colonies will need honey stores to get through the winter.
Capturing the Swarm
If the swarm is from a beekeepers own colony the beekeeper will try to capture it and put it in a new hive. But if it is a wild colony that swarms it can land in a unsuspecting homeowners yard and they start calling 911 in a panic. If a beekeeper gets the call, and the swarm is not that far off the ground, the beekeeper can knock the swarm with a firm yank into an empty hive box and take it away. As bees can be expensive, about $125 for a laying queen and brood, beekeepers are usually delighted to take them off your hands. Sometimes beekeepers will charge the homeowner a fee, especially if the swarm is located in a difficult to access place. Go to http://thegardendiaries.blog/2011/11/09/hiving-a-swarm/ to see a slide show of me hiving a swarm.
I have heard of swarms under picnic tables, on grills, on the bumpers of cars, and in the walls of houses. If they are in your walls, the bees are almost impossible to extricate and should be euthanized. April through June is prime swarming season when the hive is at it’s strongest. If you discover a swarm in your yard, the best thing to do is call a local beekeeper by looking on the internet for the CMBA, the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association which keeps a database of beekeepers interested in capturing swarms. If you are not in MD, just look up Beekeepers in your area and someone will take them off your hands.
Here are my pointers on avoiding this catastrophe:
I like to give the bees plenty of ventilation by not only having the entrance unimpeded with reducers but also by shimming my upper boxes open slightly to give the bees more openings for air flow.
Plenty of Room
I have already added supers (extra honey boxes) on top of my brood boxes to make sure that the queen has plenty of room to lay eggs. I have stopped using a queen excluder to the horror of many beekeeper friends. I feel that this keeps the queen from going where she needs to go and if she feels restricted, swarm production will start. When I harvest my honey, if there is brood in the supers, I just move it down to the brood boxes.
Requeen when your queen is a couple of seasons old. Some beekeepers say every year, but there is so much supersedure going on (bees making their own queen) that sometimes this isn’t necessary.
Split up your hive early in the season if it is going strong. This simply means take a few frames of brood with some nurse bees and place them in a new hive. You can add a new queen or let them make their own. This can be a gamble because it takes time to make a new queen but by separating the hive you reduce the urge to swarm.
Removing Swarm Cells-Forget it!
Beekeepers recommend to go through your boxes frequently and remove the queen swarm cells that are ready to hatch out new queens. I think at that point, it is too late. Bees are programmed to swarm and you are swimming against the tide by trying to stop the process. Also, I don’t think it is a good practice to open up your hives too frequently. Leave them alone!
On a hot and muggy afternoon recently, I worked at the MD State Fair in Timonium at the honey booth selling honey products. As a MD beekeeper, you are encouraged to work the fair for a shift to help our group, the Central MD Beekeepers Association, sell members honey.
While there, I got to meet Danielle Dale, a prior 2011 Wisconsin Honey Queen, who competed and won the national title of Honey Princess 2012, to represent the American Beekeeping Federation. Danielle is 20 years old and from Sparta, Wisconsin and is a 3rd generation beekeeper who began beekeeping at age 12.
There is also an American Honey Queen that does similar promotions around the country. For Danielle, being selected as the American Honey Princess is quite an honor, and she gets to travel all over the country as the spokesperson for the American Beekeeping Federation, giving demonstrations and talks about beekeeping. Go to https://www.facebook.com/#!/AmericanHoneyQueenProgram to see Princess Danielle and Queen Alyssa in action. They do lots of fun things like roll beeswax candles with kids, make foods with honey, and give interviews and talks about honey.
The American Beekeeping Federation represents beekeepers and honey producers throughout the United States and relies on Danielle and Alyssa as their ambassadors throughout the country, so Danielle really has to know beekeeping inside and out. And she does! After talking to her and hearing her explain the demonstration hive to the fair goers, she impressed me with her breadth of knowledge. And that is the main criteria that the Honey Princess is selected on. She was poised, and even though the heat was stifling in the exhibition hall, Danielle always looked cool and calm. I was dripping sweat from being there for just a few hours, but Danielle who is from Wisconsin and not used to our sauna-like weather, was there all day and never complained. She was dressed in a dress, tiara, and nylons, so I felt for her!
There were exhibits, bee products such as soap, honeycomb, honey, gift baskets, honey sticks, and candles on display and for sale.
We were deluged with hordes of people who wanted to taste the different varieties of honey and creamed honey for sale. We had 3 varieties from MD – thistle, locust, and wildflower, and 3 from different parts of the country – blueberry, orange blossom, and buckwheat. Buckwheat honey from Wisconsin is dark like molasses, and has a very earthy taste. It is not my favorite but there are people who appreciate it. I love thistle honey from MD which has a floral note that is sweet, but not too sweet like orange blossom honey. When people taste the blueberry honey, they are disappointed that it doesn’t taste like blueberries! I explain that it is the nectar from the blueberry flower in Maine that the bees collect and not the fruit itself.
People are very curious about honey and honeybees and this give me an opportunity to talk to interested people about my favorite hobby. At the demonstration hive which is just an enclosed glass beehive, my husband explained beekeeping to an enthralled audience. The queen is marked so you can easily see her move around and kids are fascinated.
Not many people looked at the chunk honey which is just a large chunk of beeswax dropped into a jar with honey. From my days of extracting honey, I have become addicted to the taste of chewy tasty honeycomb. I tell people who aren’t sure what to do with it, just to take a large spoonful of the honeycomb dripping with the honey and gobble it up. The beeswax is chewy and delicious like bubble gum and you can spit the wax out when you are done extracting every bit of honey from it, or you can swallow it. The honeycomb is actually good for you!
My next favorite is creamed honey. This is simply a very creamy crystallized honey product. It is processed commercially with seed crystals in precisely controlled temperatures to crystallize to a smooth consistency. As anyone who has honey crystallize in the jar, the resulting product can be very grainy and unappetizing. But with the invention of creamed honey in the 1920’s, a mild spreadable butter-like honey that doesn’t drip became possible.
Whenever I made a honey sale, I was sure to tell people to store their honey in a warm place, such as a sunny windowsill. Honey needs to be warm so it will not crystallize into big granulated chunks. Never put honey in the refrigerator! It will crystallize very quickly in cold conditions. If the honey starts to crystallize, just set the entire bottle in a saucepan of water on the stove and heat very slowly. Shake the bottle once in a while to distribute the heat and continue until all the crystals are gone and it is a runny consistency.
Other Honey and Wax Products
There were lots of other interesting honey products and inventions that gave me ideas for my own hives. Seeing all the exhibits inspired me to show or sell some of the things that I have been making out of beeswax at next year’s fair. This combination hive that won the first prize really intrigued me because it combines two very different kinds of hives that you never see together. But it was ingenious how it all fit together. I need to find out more about it because I really can’t explain how it is used.
I have plenty of beeswax that I have accumulated over the years and finally decided to do something with it the past couple of weeks. I am definitely going to take some of my candles and soaps to the fair next year and maybe bring home a blue ribbon!
It happens every August – honey extraction! After babying the bees, feeding, monitoring, re-queening, splitting, and just plain worrying about them, now is the moment of truth. How much honey did they deposit in the combs for me to rob from them? I won’t leave you in suspense – I extracted 55 pounds from my one remaining hive.
I started out with 2 hives this season, one tanked and the other one hummed along – not boiling over with bees but – steady, eddy. So, it is always an anti-climax when we finally remove and extract – kind of like Christmas – lots of build up and anticipation, and then it is over very quickly and we are mopping up the mess.
Removal of the Supers, Sans Bees of Course!
First job is removal of the top boxes or supers with the excess honey that I want. I open them up and smoke the bees to get them to head down into the hive and put on a lid covered with Fisher-Bee-Quick.No, I didn’t make that up. It is a liquid in a spray bottle that smells like almond oil that you spray on the lid with a cardboard insert to saturate with this fragrant oil. Evidently, bees hate the smell and will try to put as much space as they can from the odor.
I remove the outer and inner cover of the hive and place the lid with the Fisher-Bee-Quick insert on top, and start using my propane torch on top to heat the entire lid to a high temp that will dissipate the almond odor throughout the entire hive. Note that the lid is covered on the outside with tin which will not burn. The whole point of this exercise is to get the bees off the supers so I can steal their honey. I have tried a blower (they get mad), brushing them off with a bee brush (too slow), and a special escape board which once the bees go out, they can’t come back in (way too slow). The spray works like a charm. It just takes about 10 minutes for the bees to react and leave.
After heating the lid thoroughly, I remove the lid and peak in. Bees have scampered! There are a few stragglers, but that is good enough for me and I load the entire super box into a wheelbarrow nearby. It easily weighs at least 50 pounds which is a good sign – lots of honey! I cover the super up with a piece of canvas as I don’t want any stray bees to come and investigate. After taking the super to the honey staging area and off loading it on a tarp, I go back for the second box. After both boxes are sitting on the tarp, we are ready to remove each frame and place in the extractor to spin.
After removing each frame from the hive, my helper (husband), takes a heated electric knife and slices off the wax cappings to reveal the honey deposited into each cell.
The wax cappings are very tasty and we dive right in and start snacking. We grab a dollop of honey comb that is dripping with honey and start chewing. We suck out all the honey and spit out the wax. Luscious!
After uncapping, each frame is placed into the extractor on a rack and we turn on the motor and it starts to spin. The extractor is kind of like a washer machine. If everything is balanced and even, the extractor runs fine. If one frame has lots of honey, and one doesn’t, then the whole extractor wobbles and I have to lean on it to steady it up so it spins evenly. After spinning for about 10 minutes, I stop the extractor and we turn all the frames over. Each side has to be extracted fully to get as much honey as we can possibly get out of each frame. The extractor, as it spins, flings the warm honey to the sides of the extractor and it slides down to the bottom and accumulates.
While we are extracting and grabbing gobs of dripping honeycomb, the bees are flying like crazy around us. There is no way to get rid of all of them before extracting, and they drive my husband wacky, and he keeps swatting at them. I just tell him to take it easy, that the bees aren’t aggressive and are just looking for a way to get back to their hive. But he is on edge.
Once the honey is all extracted, I take the frames and set them up in front of the hives so the bees can wring every last drop of honey from them. The bees once they discover the free honey go crazy and zing around the yard. Good thing that my dog is oblivious and I have no friends over! We set up the extractor and all the tools in front of the hives also so the bees can finish cleaning. The wax cappings are set out along with everything else for the bees to clean, and then I take the wax in to process in preparation for making beeswax soap and candles.
Everything is left outside for the bees to clean, and they take any honey that we missed back to their hive. The bees have to have enough honey stores to last them through the winter, so I made sure that there were frames of honey left in the hive that we didn’t tap. Plus, the bees have some time before it gets chilly to store some more honey, and I will start to feed them in late October for insurance that they do make it through the winter.
The next step, after the honey has settled in the large food grade bucket for a day or two, is to bottle. I sterilize my containers in the dishwasher, an assortment that I have collected over the years, and start filling them up. I have small 12 ounce plastic bee skep ones and 16 ounce plastic ones that I fill for selling and gifts. For home use, I just use large glass jars and fill them up with 5 pounds of honey. We can go through about 30 to 35 pounds of honey during the year. We are a honey loving group! Bottling can take me a week as I don’t do it all in one sitting.
We finished the extracting thoroughly sticky and tired but no one got stung! I looked at the honey color, and since the bees forage from a variety of flowers, I call it wildflower honey and some years it is darker than others. I would say this year it is darker than usual.
I clean the wax by boiling it in my crock pot with water in preparation for making soap and candles. But that is another post……… Stay tuned.
I don’t know how I missed the publication of this book in April of 2011 but picked it up at a local plant nursery to look at and was enthralled. As a practicing beekeepr, I get a lot of information off the web and have several beekeeping books on my shelf for reference, such as Beekeeping for Dummies. But this book, The Beekeeper’s Bible, caught my attention and I plunked down the money and bought it. The blurb on the back says that “it is the essential and comprehensive handbook for every active or aspiring beekeeper”.
It is called the ‘bible of beekeeping’ with reason. It is a veritable tome of information measuring 2 1/2 inches thick, and chock-a-block full of interesting bee lore, history, and practical uses. The pages are thick and glossy and richly illustrated.
I would recommend it for beginning beekeepers- maybe ones who have just started, or are teetering on the edge of keeping bees. The book might get you started on the adventure of beekeeping with solid advice, pictures, and recipes. The pictures are stellar, the recipes excellent, and the information comprehensive. Even non-beekeepers will find a wealth of information such as learning about the poisonous honey produced by the nectar of the rhododendron flower, or a recipe for an all natural hang over cure!
There are literally hundreds of historical color etchings and photos interspersed throughout the book which are incredibly detailed, like one with varroa mites feeding on developing bee pupae, and they are quite beautiful. The section illustrating seasonal blooming plants for bees to create a bee-friendly garden is comprehensive would be interesting to non-beekeepers also. I have already tried one of the unusual honey recipes, Endive, Pancetta, and Honey Broiled Fig Salad, which was delicious. I am anxious to try the Apple, Honey, and Chile Chutney when apple season rolls around.
I found interesting the pictures of various shades of honey and charts that describe the various honey’s country of origin, name, color, flavor, etc. Also each type of honeybee is illustrated and has its own page, dedicated to its traits, geographical origins and behavior patterns. You will also learn that honeybees are the only bees that sting in defense and wasps use their stings as weapons of attack. So, remember that, next time you get a sting!
If you want to own just one comprehensive reference book for beekeeping, this is the one for you!