Honey

Oh, glorious honey!

Totally late on this post! Sorry about that.

With two different types of comb, we used two different extraction methods to get the honey. For the two frames pulled from the Langstroth hive, we used a two frame drum extractor. This holds the frames and you spin them to force the honey out. The natural comb from the top-bar hive will not work in this type of extractor, so it has to be crushed to release the honey.

For the Langstroth frames, the first step is decapping. This removes or breaks the wax cap the bees place over each honey cell. If the cap is in place when extracting, the honey cannot come out!

Decapping honey frame
Sarah decapping the honey frames.

I think most people use a decapping knife for this, but the inexpensive starter kit I purchased came with a tool that looks a lot like a many tined fork that you rake over the cells to cut through the cappings. It worked pretty well, so we will likely continue using it.

We caught the cappings and any honey that drizzled out in a cookie sheet. I've seen a number of better ways to do this online, but had not had the time to try to build something. I think that is something I will do next year, as this was a bit messy.

Once the cappings were removed, the frames went into the extractor. Our extractor fits two frames. It has a handle that you crank which, in turn, spins the frames around. You start out slow on one side, flip the frames over, and go slow again. You can then flip the frames over and go fast. Going slow at first helps prevent damage if you wish to reuse the comb in the hive.

Honey extractor in use
Sarah spinning the frames on the honey extractor.

As you spin the extractor around, the force flings the honey onto the sides of the extractor where it slowly finds its way to the bottom. It's pretty good exercise!

It takes a while, but eventually everything finds its way down. There will be bits of wax and maybe some pollen in the raw honey, but these will be filtered out. That cheap-o kit I purchased came with a pretty decent strainer to get the bigger things out. It is actually two strainers that connect to one another, a larger mesh first to get out really big things, and then a finer mesh below to get smaller items.

Filtering the honey
The honey goes through a mesh filter.

For the most part, that's it to extracting from the Langstroth frames. The comb from the top-bar hive is completely built by the bees. It can be an odd shape or size and it doesn't have the rigid frame around it, so you can not use the extractor to get at the honey. Instead you crush or chop it up to release honey.

Cutting up honey comb
Roger mashing the hell out of honey comb.

We used nothing more than a potato masher in this process. No special tools needed here.

Straining mashed comb
Straining the mashed comb.

We then moved the results into the strainer. As the honey filtered through we stirred up the wax from time to time to let any honey trapped on top get through. This process definitely took longer than the spinning extractor, but since you are cutting up the entire comb, you do get to reclaim more wax. The general rule that I've read both in books and online is that you get more honey from a Langstroth hive, since the bees spend less time building comb on premade foundations, but you get more wax from a top-bar hive. So far, this first year has certainly borne that out.

One gallon of honey
Just a bit over a gallon of honey extracted.

In the end, from the three frames, we extracted a bit over a gallon of honey. Not sure if that is normal or not, and frankly, don't really care. I think it is awesome that we were able to get any in the first place.

Once all of the honey was in the bucket, we did a final filter by passing the honey through a cheesecloth. Because this process can introduce a lot of air bubbles into the honey, we let it sit overnight before doing anything else. This also gives anything that made it through the filters time to either float to the top, where it can be skimmed off, or sink to the bottom where you can avoid it while bottling.

When we checked back the next day, there was very little to skim off. Between the mesh filters and cheesecloth we seemed to have removed anything that might be a problem (there's always some pollen in honey - it's good for you!)

We got thirteen jars of beautiful golden honey. It has an amazing flavor. Can't make any claims on where the nectar came from, it is truly a mix of whatever has been blooming. All I can say is, it beats store bought soundly!

Jars of honey
Finished jars of honey in the window sill.

 

Ok, so a lot has occurred in the past few days, so this is going to be broken over two posts!

This past weekend was the day of reckoning for the two hives we have been working with this summer. Time to crack them open and rob those bees of their precious, golden treasures. Since these were first-year hives, we knew we were not going to be getting a lot. Our plan was to take two frames (or combs in the case of the top-bar hive) from each hive. We would then leave a brick (errr... loaf?) of bee candy in each to help the bees replenish their suddenly dwindled honey supply.

After getting geared up we cracked open the Langstroth hive. Even though this hive was three supers deep, the bees had never really moved into the top super above the queen excluder. They had, however, pretty well filled out the two bottom boxes. It wasn't difficult to find two frames that contained just honey.

Honey Frames
Honey frames pulled from the Langstroth hive.

If you want to piss off bees, steal their honey. One managed to get a sting through my pant leg and just above my knee. It only hurt for a second, but itched like mad for a few days - like a mosquito bite from hell.

After that, we took two empty frames from the top box and placed them where the two honey frames had been. Then in went the bee candy.

Sarah with bee candy.
Bee candy placed in top box.

Closed up the box and then proceeded over to the top-bar hive where I failed to take any pictures. Sarah, however, managed to get this awesome shot of me glaring at a bit of tiny comb.

Roger with top-bar comb.
A tiny bit of comb on one of the top bars.

Apparently, I get cranky at tiny combs.

When we had inspected this colony before, it seemed like there were a number of heavy, honey-laden combs. However, this trip we only found one worth harvesting. Sarah cut the comb from the bar into our container, and I placed the bar back into the hive. Like the Langstroth before, a brick of bee candy was placed inside the hive.

So other than my sting, we got out of there pretty unscathed. It did, however, show the different temperaments of the two hives. The bees in the Langstroth hive were very aggressive. They did not like the honey frames being removed and replaced by empty frames. Or maybe they just did not like the intrusion. The weather had been pretty crappy leading up to this, so foraging had been at a minimum.

In contrast, the top-bar hive seemed pretty chill about the whole ordeal, even when the bees that were on the comb we took were jarred from it. They may have had a rough start in spring with robbers, but they definitely grew into their hive and became quite productive.

Once the combs were safely packed away in our plastic storage container we took them home for extraction. I took lots of pictures of that process and will create a separate post for that.

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Ok, while I can honestly say I've never quite "got" this particular Beastie Boys lyric (I'm gonna guess it's *gasp*sexual*gasp* in nature), it's also a fairly accurate description of what the bees have been up to lately: making new comb and honey.

Sarah and I recently opened up the top-bar hive to see how things are going. The answer appears to be "very well." The bees have been busy building new comb and setting up stores of honey and pollen. They now occupy at least two-thirds of the space in their box, with fresh comb both in front and back.

Comb in hive
Comb farthest back in the hive.

This was the furthest back comb. Not much activity on this side. It was a bit more eventful on the other.

Sarah with the bees.
Bees fill comb with honey and pollen.

This side is nearly all honey. There is a bit of pollen near Sarah's finger. This is the dark patch, filled with the blue pollen of local fireweed. Most of the new comb is being filled with honey and pollen. It seems the bees are in winter-prep mode.

In cutting some cross comb we did hit a few spots that let the honey flow. We could not resist tasting and I can say, in all honesty, that it is so much better than store bought. Store bought honey goes through so much processing that it just does not taste the same. I look forward to harvesting time.

We have had quite a bit of rain lately, and I have not seen the bald-faced hornets since the last post. Even though they were killing bees, they were fun to watch. I suspect that something happened to their hive, though I was never able to find it. Yellow-jackets still fly near the hives, but I've never seen them harass the bees. They seem to look for already dead bees. Maybe our yellow-jackets are just freakin' lazy.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, we will go check out how the Langstroth hive is doing.

Letters from the HiveNormally, I wouldn't do two book reviews back to back. Unfortunately, either from being busy or rainy or smokey (there's a butt-load of forest fires going on around Fairbanks), we didn't make it out to the hives for a good inspection last week. However, I did finish reading another bee related book, so there you go!

Today's book is not a how-to. It doesn't cover hive management. You won't get hive building tips or queen rearing advice. Letters from the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind delivers exactly what the title says; a history of how we, as a species, have learned to live with bees.

Maybe I'm a giant cynic, but whenever I purchase a book purporting to be a history of humankind, I generally expect a thoroughly euro-centric viewpoint.  I was pleasantly surprised to find in this book many tales from around the world. From the Mayan's stingless bees, to the floating barges of hives along the Nile and the giant bees of Asia, the history of honey hunting is a global story.

We've been utilizing the products of bees since the days of prehistory. Some of the earliest petroglyphs and cave paintings depict the gathering of honey comb from trees and steep cliffs. In many places the ceremony (and danger!) of those ancient hunts can still be seen, even in a world of mechanization and mass production.

The book provides a look at how we have used honey and wax, the primary products of the apiary. From food to medicine, the hive provides for many of our needs. Included are a sampling of recipes from around the world and throughout history. From mead to medicine and often both, we have come up with a myriad of uses for the simple products of bees.

Author Stephan Buchmann is both a beekeeper and entomologist. He is an expert on pollination and the critters that do it, particularly bees. He examines the life and evolutionary history of bees and how we fit into the changing landscape (quite literally) of the bee world. Admittedly, this book, being published in 2006, came just before the onset of major cases of Colony Collapse Disorder, but already it pointed to many of the potential causes, including neonicotinoid pesticides, monoculture farming practices and habitat depletion.

For all of human existence, we have lived with bees, utilizing the products of their industrious work. We are now in the position of destroying a pollinator that is responsible for a large chunk of the food we eat.