Because the bees are no longer able to forage as extensively as they have been in the summer months, the hive is no longer growing. They are not able to find more food outside the hive, and so will start reducing the number of bees they feed, as they turn to their honey stores for food. When this happens, beekeepers will take the excess honey that the bees built up during the summer months.
The process of harvesting honey starts with assessing the colony’s overall health. If the colony is healthy, we will try to artificially swarm the hive in the spring. This means making a new colony with the same genetics as the healthy one. This is similar to picking which cattle or dogs to breed, and is done to help make sure following generations of colonies are healthy and productive. Our colony has been a strong colony over the entire summer, demonstrating both productivity and good temperament, so we’ve decided to make “splitting” (creating a daughter hive) our goal.
In order to split this hive, we will first have to get it through the winter. This means that the colony will need about 70 pounds of honey to feed themselves throughout the winter. Since we don’t want to take too much, we only took honey from three honey supers on top of the hive, and not any of the crucial winter stores in the lower brood boxes. As the fall progresses, the queen will stop laying eggs, and gradually the brood nest will be filled with honey that the bees will gather from late blooming plants like ragweed, marigold and native grasses.
The process to extract the remaining honey begins with trying to get all of the bees off of the frames of honey comb, which is no easy task. Best done as a two-person job, it requires a bee brush and an empty box. Moving through each frame individually, one person will sweep all the bees off the comb, and then working with another person, they will put the comb into the covered, empty box as quickly as possible to avoid any bees getting in.
Luckily, the day that we tackled this project the temperature was in the 60s, and the bees were cold and slow moving. This made our job a little easier. However, since the temperature was so cold, so was the honey. When the honey is cold is flows very slowly, making the actual extracting take an excruciatingly long time. To help mediate this problem, we stored the frames of honey comb in the honey house overnight, with the temperature set to 90 degrees.
The next day, after the honey had warmed up, we began to extract the honey. Bees turn watery nectar from flowers into honey by drying it with their wings. Once the nectar reaches 18.3% water content, the bees seal the comb with a wax cap. In order to get the honey out, we need to uncap that wax. At the uncapping station, which is a set of stacked plastic tubs (one with a grated bottom to catch the wax caps, and the bottom one with spigot to collect any honey that drips through the grate), someone glides a heated knife over the frame to free the honey. This sounds easier than it is, but through practice, trial and error, and some crafty team work, the uncapping crew worked great!
Once the honey is uncapped it gets put into the extractor itself. The extractor is essentially a centrifuge that spins the honey out of the comb to collect on the bottom of the tank. It’s a lot of cranking by hand, but again, many hands made light work, and the honey was quickly pouring into buckets.
Honey that collected in the bottom of the extractor and the uncapping tank is sent through a filter to catch any wax or bee parts and are emptied into food grade plastic buckets. From that point, the only things that need to be done are bottling the honey! Honey is the only foodstuff that doesn’t spoil, and its antimicrobial properties mean that it can be eaten right from the comb, without any treatment or pasteurization.
We extracted roughly 25 frames of honey comb from our hive, and got about 5 gallons of honey. This translates into about 50-60 pounds! Though this less than what yields looked like in past decades when honey bees were in better healthy, it’s a great yield for a first year hive with a first year beekeeper.
This summer has been a great experience and presents such wonderful learning opportunities. We can’t wait to see what next year brings. We’ll enjoy our honey while we wait!