Wednesday 31 July 2013

The Honey Harvest (Part 2) …

When we left it, you had a box of comb, mostly honey and probably with live and dead bees in it as well, and a kitchen prepared for a little extraction. The following is a description of what I do but your mileage may vary. Please have a go and find your own methods - then let us know what you do.

I take my box to a quiet corner of the garden with a flat surface, ideally a table but I use the bonnet of my old Series 2 Land Rover (yet another project). I put the box gently down and then, using a handy piece of wood, quickly prop open the lid and run. Any flying bees, and there may well not be many, will have gorged themselves on honey and should slowly emerge from the box and attempt to find their hive. They should not be in a mood to sting but you never know - although I've never had a problem I prefer to run and then come back.

After a tea break I can then come back to the box knowing that those bees left are either too gummed up with honey, drowned or squashed to be of any danger to me. It now becomes a rescue and cleanup process. I use cutlery to go through the folds and pieces of comb in the box as carefully as I can. I fish out any bee I find and flick them onto the table/bonnet; I think that most become sweets and delicacies for the robins and others that nest nearby. Having gone through the comb and removed the bees you then come to a difficult decision. If you have taken comb that is purely honey or pollen then please skip this next bit. However, some comb may have brood in it is well. Now, I don't differentiate in any way and, callously, regard brood as a beneficial protein source. Whilst I don't deliberately seek comb that has brood in it I won't mind if a small amount of brood are in the comb I take. This often happens with a first year colony as the bees struggle to work out how to organise themselves. Why does this matter? Well the next stage could be difficult for some if you have brood present - although it is too late to put it back. If the thought of your honey including cells from squashed brood that make it through the filtering then you should seek those bits of comb, cut them out and remove them from the box. You will need to find a way to destroy them that suits you. Some freeze them and then crush them; worth thinking about carefully.

The honey extraction process I use is called 'crush and strain' and the first stage of the process is the 'crush'. With all bees, and brood if necessary, removed I set to with a metal potato masher and turn the comb into a runny, slightly lumpy, paste. After 5 minutes or so I then carefully pour the paste into the open end of the stocking which sits in a suitable bowl. It helps if you can persuade someone to help with this bit but it is possible to organise things so that you can pour into an open stocking. I do recommend having both hands free to hold the container with the mash in it - call it experience. I then hook the stocking over a number of pins nailed to a piece of wood held over a work surface - it works for me but you need to have thought about this before the mashing; the mash can weigh five or six pounds or more if you are processing a couple of combs at once.

Then its cleanup and a cuppa. Most of the honey will filter out over the first hour or so. During this time I sterilise my first set of jam jars, usually enough for five pounds of honey or so. Then I juggle containers so that I can remove the honey that has filtered and pour it into the jars - I try to avoid pouring into warm jars as I'm conscious that any heat will destroy the enzymes that make the honey you are extracting so unique. Then its a waiting game. I leave the suspended mash in the warmer air of my kitchen to slowly continue dripping gently for a couple of days. Once I'm happy I've got most of the honey out/another batch is waiting to go/wifey is fed up of getting her hair stuck to the suspended column, I peel out the remains from the stocking into a container and dispose of the stocking. The container is then gently warmed so the wax/remains/honey separate and I can peel or pour the wax from the slurry. The cold slurry is then added to the wormery or compost and the wax collected to be made into candles for presents over christmas.

Now you have the enviable problem of how to use the honey you have processed. I have seen small jars for sale for as much as £5 but I tend to give jars away to friends and people who have helped with the honey creating process; hive neighbours, swarm sources, and so on. Some people I know want to experiment with using natural local honey to help with hay fever - however there is a far more effective dietary way of doing this - another post if folks are interested in that. Please be aware that there are regulations regarding the sale of food items and you should do your research carefully so you don't get stung. I don't produce enough honey for my own and friends' needs yet so I've not had this problem to explore.

Hope this helps. Please use the comments to let me know if you want me to further expand on any of this.


Sunday 28 July 2013

The Honey Harvest (Part 1) ...

The end of July is my last harvest deadline. Its a personal thing. I'm happy to take the occasional comb from a hive during the flush of summer; it gives the bees space in a rapidly expanding colony and stops the queen from getting herself restrained in her egg laying by lack of available empty space (becoming honey bound). But the end of July is, for me, my personal limit as I want my bees to have their own honey available to them throughout the winter and spring months. The much maligned himalayan balsam is the botanical marker for me. As the first flowers of balsam light up the rougher areas of my garden I know that my harvest limit is upon me.

The summers for the last two years have been too poor for me to collect any honey so I had to brush off a significant build up of cobwebs from some of my honey straining system that has been hibernating outside the back door. Once the filter suspension system (a piece of wood with a row of tacks hammered into one end of it - it wedges between a roof beam and the top of a wall cupboard in the kitchen) is in place and a suitable clean filter stolen (one of my wife's best plain stockings) all is ready.

I choose a warm, windless day with no threat of rain. Then I take an old plastic bread bin (any large clean container with a well fitted lid will do - this bread box is handy as it will only take a maximum of two combs so I can't be too greedy). I choose the most active, and usually largest, colony and assemble all the necessary bee wrangling equipment next to the hive. For this task it is important to have a clean bee brush to hand - I use a large goose feather and I make sure I have at least two of them available. Please note - the bees will get stroppy when you do this raid. Dress appropriately!! I then start at the end of the colony furthest from the brood area and sort through the comb until I find the edge of the brood, keeping in mind those combs I come across with the most capped honey cells on them. Then, working back from the brood area, I take out those combs I've found with the most capped honey. Each chosen comb is carefuly removed, brushed clear of bees as best I can, and then folded into the bread box. Then I scrape off the wax from the top bar and put it back into the hive from the place it came from. If I'm removing two bars next to each other I make sure I slide a full comb in between them so there is less risk of cross combing. A second bar, if available and the bees have at least two or more others for themselves, gets removed, brushed and folded onto of the first in the bread box. You have to work fairly fast as bees will try to collect onto the comb you are removing to rescue their honey and you don't want to trap too many bees in the folds of comb - see later. Get a lid onto the box you are using as soon as you can. I always try to make sure I limit myself to two bars per raid as I would rather they had the honey they need to get through the bad times ahead. If necessary put in one or two extra bars as you think fit whilst you are there and the bees are already getting stressed.

Then close up the hive and move all equipment and your box of spoils well clear before removing gloves and veil. Note that even with the lid on your chosen treasure chest you may have bees crawling around under the edge of the box lid so be careful when picking it up - check first.

And thats it, raid over. You have the spoils captured securely in a bee tight box. But it is still unusable on your toast or in your smoothie so now what do you do? More to follow ….

Monday 8 July 2013

The Ones That Got Away....

In their excitement (at the prospect of the Wimbledon Final obviously) my bees decided to swarm yesterday, the children ran in to tell me that they were 'going mad' & it truly was an impressive site, the whole of the back end of the garden filled with buzzing bees covering a huge area. They eventually settled in the old apple tree & since I've never dealt with a swarm before & the prospect of having to knock them into the box off quite a solid branch while up a ladder, I then called for help.

Thanks so much to Tim & Mike for responding so quickly. As I shot up to the Co-Op for a larger box than we had, Tim arrived & just as he & Iain walked to the end of the garden, the bees just upped & left in the direction of Thulston!

I think the temperatures were so hot yesterday, an hour in the tree was all they could manage. Gutted to lose them by a matter of minutes, but will know to be quicker next time!

Plenty of activity still in & around my hive, so will keep my eyes out in case of a double whammy, as Mike & Monique have experienced!