Monday, 26 August 2013

Harvesting honey the simple way - Part 3: Getting the last of the honey from the strained comb

Once the honey is in the jars (see Part 2) we were left with plastic containers full of the sticky, strained, mashed comb.  It is possible to extract the last of the honey from this, leaving just the wax behind.

Here's how you do it.  Place the strained comb in a large ovenproof dish and put it in the oven at 70 degrees celsius until it all melts.  Turn the oven off and let the mixture cool. The wax and honey will separate. The wax will form a layer at the top with the honey below.  Remove from the oven and make a crack in the wax in one corner. 

Hold the dish at an angle and let the honey flow out into clean jars. You'll be surprised at how much honey you get!

This honey still tastes great but as it has been heat treated it has lost some of its natural goodness........ and as a result we prefer to reserve it's use for cooking.

So you now have additional jars of honey and a separate layer of wax. The wax can be further purified for uses such as candle making.  More on that another time.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Harvesting honey the simple way - Part 2: Harvesting honey from natural comb

The box of honey (still sitting on the bee escape equipment, covered in towels) was left in the dark shed for 2 days - as per the description in Part 1.  I then bring it inside for processing. 

To process the honey we use the following equipment:
  • A 20 litre food grade plastic bucket with lid (available at Bunnings for around $20)
  • A metal sieve/strainer. Mine is a double sieve which I bought from a beekeeping supplies shop. There are cheaper options out there - some people use muslin very successfully.
  • A honey bucket with a honey gate. Again, I bought one, but there are instructions on the web for making one at a lower cost using a food grade plastic bucket.
  • A knife
  • A potato masher
  • A styrofoam broccoli box for putting the sticky frames in once they have had the comb cut out  (free from your local greengrocer)
  • A bucket of water
  • tweezers
  • A deep spoon or ladle 
We have a very small kitchen and an outside laundry, so the best place to do the initial processing steps is in the bathroom (door closed) where drips can be easily cleaned up.  The processing room must be bee-proof as bees from outside will be attracted to the honey and will try to get to it. 

The first step is to remove the towels, take the lid off and see if there are any bees still inside the box. Do this by taking one frame out at a time and inspect it. Use the tweezers to gently pluck the bees off the comb and drop them in the bucket of water. This shouldn't be hard to do as they will be very slow moving. Do this for each frame in the box. When all the bees are in the bucket, take it outside and empty it on the garden. After a little while those bees will dry out and be able to fly away. 

Back in the bee-proof room, use your knife to cut the comb off the frame and drop it into the 20 litre plastic bucket. Do this with all frames, putting the empty frames into the styrofoam box.  Then get out the potato masher and mash the comb in the bucket. It will end up looking like this:

Place the strainer on top of the honey bucket (make sure the gate is closed!). Use the ladle to scoop the mashed comb into the sieve. Then let it drip through the strainer. The warmer the weather the faster the honey will drip through the strainer so it's best to process your honey on a warm day.

The comb will look like this when the honey has dripped out: 

Once strained, the mashed comb will still be sticky as there is still some honey in it but no longer enough that it will drip through the strainer. Scoop this crushed comb out and store it in a plastic container with a lid.  Add more crushed honey comb from the 20 litre plastic bucket to the strainer and repeat the process until the plastic bucket is empty. 

Here's the processing in action at our house.  You might notice that the window is open - we have flyscreens on our windows which makes them bee-proof, otherwise the window would have had to remain closed for the duration of the honey processing.  When the strainer is on, unfortunately the lid of the stainless steel honey bucket  I have no longer clips on - I just sit the lid on top of the strainer and cover the whole lot with a plastic bag and a big rubber band to keep things nice and clean. The plastic containers hold the mashed comb that has already been strained.


It looks like this:

More honey can be extracted by heating this strained comb ...but I'll describe that in a later post.

When all of the mashed comb from the plastic bucket has been put through the strainer the honey is ready to bottle.  I do this over the kichen sink and use clean, recycled glass jars to store the honey in.  Simply open the honey gate on the honey bucket and let the honey flow into each jar. Close the gate, get the next jar ready and repeat the process until all the honey is in the jars.



Friday, 2 August 2013

Harvesting honey the simple way - Part 1: Separating the bees from the honey

We run a low-tech beekeeping operation and don't see the need for owning lots of fancy equipment.  There are lots of ways of harvesting honey which involve varying amounts of equipment. Our method is a pretty simple one.

Our frames are unwired and start out looking like this:

Instead of using a full sheet of wax on a wired frame, we use a wax starter strip to help orient the bees in their comb building activities.  We do this for several reasons.

Firstly, this allows the bees to build comb of whatever cell size they want, rather than dictating it via a wax sheet.  We're of the opinion that bees know what they want, and far be it from us to tell them otherwise. Cell size has also been shown to be important for bees in helping them control Varroa without the use of chemicals. This is something that we in Australia have yet to deal with, but the terrible day will no doubt come when the Varroa mite reaches our shores too.

Secondly, using only a small strip of beeswax means we cut down on potential chemical contamination in the hive. Commercially available beeswax has been shown to contain many chemicals, especially in the US where it is contaminated with acaracides.  It's not the same in Australia but the wax in the sheets you buy does come from lots of different sources.  Bees, during their daily activities, visit sources where pesticides and other chemicals are present and it's possible these chemicals can end up in the wax.  So we prefer to have natural comb in our hive which provides much cleaner wax.

Thirdly, it means that when we harvest the honey we don't need an extractor to do it - we can simply cut out the comb from the frame with a knife.....but more on that process later.

Finally, it makes the whole process of constructing frames quicker, easier and cheaper.  All of which are good things in a low-tech beekeeping operation.

The first step in harvesting honey is to get  the bees to leave the box of honey.  This year we trialled a bee escape board design made by the convenor of our Natural Beekeeping group. It's one of several designs he has made and we were the first to trial it.   It consisted of a base, covered with plastic (to catch any dripping honey) and a lid that has escape holes for the bees. All of the materials used to make it can be easily purchased at places like Bunnings.

The box of honey is placed on the bee escape base and the lid is put on the top. It's important to place this close to the hive so the bees  escaping from the box can find their way home. Then you just leave them to it and over the next few hours the bees leave the box and fly back to the hive.  They do this because over time they realise they are no longer part of the hive - the absence of the queen is noted and the box cools down. This prompts them to leave and re-join the hive.

Here's a not-very-good close-up of a couple of bees leaving the box. There's one by the top hole and one at the edge of the flywire to the right of the second hole (look for the little dots on the flywire!).  They have crawled out of the box towards the light through the holes in the lid and are moving along the flywire, about to fly away. Unfortunately the photo was taken well after the major exodus of bees from the box - I should have taken more photos to better illustrate this part of the process .........but at the time I was busy doing other things.

After 3 or so hours the vast majority of bees have left the box of their own accord.  The whole process is much cleaner and easier than taking individual frames from the hive, trying to brush the bees off each frame before putting the frame in a separate container with a lid (such as a styrofoam broccoli box), and then repeating the process for each frame you plan to harvest. This usually involves a lot of bees flying around who are not so happy with you. It does mean 2 visits to the hive though - not a problem if it's in your backyard!

Once 3 or so hours have passed the honey box complete with lid and base can be taken away from it's spot beside the hive and is ready in most cases for harvesting. The few remaining bees can generally be gently brushed off the frames. However, because the primary beekeeper in the PragSust partnership is sensitive to bee stings, we do an extra step. We place the box in the shed/garage with blankets or towels covering the lid so any remaining bees inside the box can't escape. We leave it like this for a day or two before taking the whole lot, as is, inside for processing.  This leaves any bees remaining in the box in a slow and drowsy state and makes it much easier to catch them and release them outside.

We were able to report back that this bee escape lid design worked pretty well, although not quite as well as a different design of his, based on the reports we'd heard of no bees left in the box after 3 hours!  Next time we plan to trial a different technique so we'll report on that method once we've given it a go.