Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ouch! But so worth it.

And now for something completely different: the honey harvest. Back in June, I took off two supers of honey from my one remaining colony. A couple of hard winters and some sketchy nectar flows meant that for several years I had been leaving all honey with the bees to ensure their ability to survive and rebuild their numbers. So, it was wonderful this year to see so much extra honey after the Tulip Poplar flow (the primary nectar flow in this region) that I felt safe harvesting.

I felt a lot of other things after harvesting. Mostly sore. No, not from bee stings. The bees aren't happy when I take the honey but I wear the requisite space suit so I don't blow up like a balloon (yes, I'm a little oversensitive to stings) and they don't have to die. Really, the most painful part of this process is getting the supers off of the hive. The honey supers are at the top, really heavy when full of honey, and stuck together with propolis. So, picture trying to pry apart wooden boxes weighing c. 40 pounds, sealed all around with the stickiest, gooiest resin-like substance that re-sticks as soon as the pieces make contact again, and then lifting the boxes from chest height all while angry bees try to find any weakness in your protective gear. Below is a typical shallow super with a wooden bee escape on top.

Mind you, lifting 40 pounds off the ground or from waist height is no problem for me but I never really learned to bench press. I can see now why that might have been useful. Very different endeavor. Add in the twist that I have to do to get the supers in to the cart for transporting back to the house and the scene just begs for a pulled back muscle. Yeah. Ouch. Not smart. Must design a better set-up for next year. But a little pain is a small price to pay for such glorious goodness. The girls had built the comb way out past the edges of the frames and it just looked and smelled so wonderful. After getting the last few bees out of there, I moved the supers inside and in no time the odor of honey and beeswax filled the house.

One thing I did right this year was invest in an extractor. I'm now the proud owner of a 9-frame, hand-cranked, radial extractor. This bad boy flings the honey out of the comb with the greatest of ease.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before the spinning, there's uncapping to be done. First, pry the frames apart. Yes, more propolis. Much more propolis. Healthy for the hive. Hell on the beekeeper.

I take each frame and use a hot uncapping knife to gently cut the caps off of both sides of the comb. This handy double tub setup catches the cappings in the top level while letting any stray honey drip through to the lower level for later capture.

There's a real art to cutting off the cappings. Too slow and you cook the honey. Too fast and you miss too many cells. Get the angle wrong and you gouge the comb. But not unlike finding the clutch point on a stick shift car, after a few ugly attempts, it becomes second nature. I know I'm not the only beekeeper who plays the can-I-get-the-whole-run-of-cappings-in-one-continuous-sheet game (very much like trying to peel an apple). Nine frames done and we're ready to spin. Well, close the lid, then we're ready.

In just a few moments, the first drops hit the strainer.

Soon honey is gushing through the gate.

After extracting two supers, we bottled 60 pounds of honey from that first harvest. This past weekend, we extracted another super for 27 pounds more. We had hoped the second harvest might be heavy on the Sourwood (our second biggest nectar flow and the most popular honey with the tourists) but judging from the color and taste, I'd say it's much like the first--primarily Tulip Poplar (my favorite) with an assortment of wildflowers. At any rate, we are set for honey for a good long time. Sweet!


  1. Beautiful, Alison! Both you and the bees, so nicely done.

  2. The color of that honey is glorious. I bet it tastes amazing! Do you have plans for the comb?