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.



  1. Hi Tim
    An excellent and entertaining article. I hope that the weather has been so good in Blighty that many more of you, that want to,can take some honey this year.

    With regards to the strainer, Lakeland Plastics do a net bag and stand for straining soft fruit that is ideal for 'crush and straining' honey. I think, although I'm not sure, that I gave mine to Alison prior to leaving. Maybe folks could have a look at it, or even borrow it, before commiting to buying.

    Keep up the good work and kind regards

    1. Thanks for this Tim. Most useful. Followed it pretty much just as you said and it all went well. Got about 20 jars of very clear beautiful tasting honey. Took about 25% of what was there and think and hope that they'll build it back up again pretty quick. My 4' long hive is absolutely packed full of bees after swarming twice this year already.... I'm hoping the room I've made will help they to stay put?

    2. Hi Steve, I got a similar amount from my 'survivors' but my mother-in-law seems to be consuming most of it. I find it surprising just how quickly a big colony can replace the comb and stores we might take in august but if you do the same in September they seem much slower to replace the comb. I try to arrange things so some of the new bars get put in at the edge if the brood to avoid the queen becoming honey bound. I would think the bees are unlikely to swarm if you make a bit of room for them; in fact I think it might help them to stay as the feelings of confinement that might encourage a split would reduce with the space you've given them. With luck they'll survive the winter and do the same again with bells on for you next year.