Thursday, September 5, 2013

Sweet Success: Our Very First Honey Harvest

I'm just going to put it out there: nothing tastes quite as deliciously sweet as honey from your very own hives. Seriously. The honey we harvested a few days ago is better than any other honey I've ever tried. It might be even sweeter because we had to wait extra long for it. We started beekeeping last spring, but we got no honey harvest (due to the drought conditions in my state -- just about every beekeeper here suffered last year).

This isn't going to be the most informative of posts -- I am certainly no expert on honey extraction. As the title indicates, this was my first go with the whole process. Mostly, it's my way of saying "Yay! Our beekeeping efforts finally paid off!" and to give a quick overview of the process to the bee-curious.

(You'll have to excuse the quality of the pictures in this post -- I only had the ones from my phone and Instagram feed; my toddler took the memory card out of my regular camera and lost it. Also, I took the pictures quickly; as you can imagine, extracting honey is a pretty sticky process.)

Once we knew early this year that our bees had survived the winter (hooray!), we had our fingers crossed that they would have a much more productive year than the last one. With each inspection, we saw more and more frames gradually get filled. By mid-summer, we started adding the honey supers to our hives with excitement and hope. Sure enough, by Labor Day weekend, we knew for sure we were getting a honey harvest.

Getting the bees out of the honey supers was definitely interesting for my husband and me. We had a general idea how to do it, but we were also kind of winging it.  We used a homemade fume board (basically fabric stretched over a wooden frame) sprayed with mix of oils that bees don't particularly like the smell of. On our first hive, the bees moved right out of the honey supers down into the brood boxes below. The second hive was a little more stubborn. Eventually, we had to get my dad's leaf blower and blow the poor little bees out of the honey super. 

Another problem we encountered was that the bees had built some bridges between the frames. When we pulled the frames apart, huge sections of honey were exposed. This sent the bees into a sort of feeding frenzy. Things were really sticky by then, with little bees gathering everywhere in clusters around us, on the hives, the frames, our tools, everywhere trying to lick up the honey. Lucky for us, they were too busy gorging on honey to sting us.

We ended up putting some of the loose and exposed honeycomb into jars. We were going to mash them up and get the honey out, but it's been too much fun just opening the jar and breaking off a chunk of honeycomb to eat. It's kind of like honey gum: once you get all the honey out, you just spit out the mashed beeswax into the trash. Oh my goodness, it's good. It also kind of makes you feel like Winnie the Pooh.

The good news was that we eventually got all the frames out and ready to extract.

For about a week before our harvest, I was struggling trying to get an extractor rented (since manual honey extractors can cost around $400 to buy), but then soon found out one of our neighbors had rented one for Labor Day. He said were welcome to use it, so we split the rental cost. Even better, he let us extract in his garage, where everything was already set up.

We had a few frames that were completely full -- every inch of it covered in capped honey. Most of our frames, though, looked more like the one pictured above. I can't help but be completely fascinated by the way these frames look with all those perfectly formed hexagons.  Anyway, that section that's white is where you'll find the honey!

The first step of extraction is to uncap the honey. You do this with a tool that looks sort of like like a hair pick. You drag the metal tines of the tool across the top of the capped honey, exposing the sweet stuff underneath. The cool part is that you can save all the cappings (see how it fell into the container on that rack?) for other stuff; I have yet to figure out what to do with them, but I'll let you know when I do. 

Once the honey has been uncapped, the frames are put into the extractor.  One the three frames are put in, the lid is shut and the crank on the top of it is turned quickly. The honey is flung out of the comb using centrifugal force. The nice thing about this method of extraction is that the honeycomb is left in tact so that the bees can reuse it next season (read: less time building foundation, more time filling it with honey!).

The honey settles at the bottom of the extractor and comes out through a valve at the bottom. We used two strainers over a plastic food-grade bucket. This bucket also had a valve at the bottom (with another filter), which we used to fill the Mason jars we brought. My husband, my mom, and I oohed and ahhed as the dark, golden honey flowed into the jars.

Our final haul: three gallons (approximately 35 pounds) of the most delicious honey I've ever tasted! Even better, I did a little math. I can get local honey at the health food store for about $4 a pound; at that rate, I've got around $140 worth of honey. Another year of this much honey and our start-up costs (the hives, the bees, the equipment), will be more than covered.

I still have the jars out on my kitchen table and I get a little giddy when I see them. Not only giddy, but full of gratitude for the tens of thousands of honeybees we've tended to since April 2012. It's really a miracle how those bees work to make such a perfect product. Who would have thought I'd grow to love a little insect as much as I love those bees!


Crystal said...

I'm dying to do bees. DYING! Here is my biggest concern. Space. How much space to they take up, and how far away are they from your house. I don't think we could get them more than 200 feet away from the house and I'm afraid the kids will get stung all the time. Do you think you could have bees on a little less than 1/2 acre? Mind you there are just farms in back of us no houses, so they won't bother the nieghbors if we put them in the very back.

Heather said...

You could TOTALLY make it work. We have our hives at my parents' house (because last year, when we got our hives, they weren't allowed in our city. They actually changed the rules this year). The hives are probably 30-40 feet (at the most)away from their house, tucked into a corner of the yard (they have field behind their yard, too). I have a neighbor (the one who we did our extraction with) who has his two hives even closer to his house. My parents' have grandkids that run all over the yard and only one of them has been stung -- it was my oldest, who got stung because he tried to pick a bee up (since he'd seen us handle them so much, he kind of forgot that they stung). My husband has never been stung; the only time I have is when I went to check the hives in flip-flops (dumb idea, I know. I got over-confident). If you leave them alone, they will not bother you. If I were you, I would totally look into doing it!

Unknown said...

My dad had an electric cap melter to help in his extractions. It worked very well. You can leave out the old caps and the bees will clean them off for you very well. I've been thinking of starting some hives here as well. You are correct... You can't beat home grown and home processed honey. Enjoy.

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