Today I visited Mum and Dad to tackle a job we had been putting off since the end of Autumn last year, when we removed the final supers from the hives. We had harvested some honey earlier in the season that was extracted in the normal way. However, the last supers, which were only partially filled, contained a large proportion of heather honey. Our location near the western boundary of the New Forest is sufficiently close that the bees, which can travel several miles to forage, can access the heather that grows there in profusion.
Heather honey might be a rich and prized sort, but it is also renowned for being very difficult to remove from the comb. It is highly viscous and rather jelly like in the comb and cannot be spun out. Of course, these frames are not purely heather honey, but a mixture of various sorts, probably including ivy, which comes into flower at the end of the season, and is also a strongly flavoured honey. The result, though, was not possible to extract in the normal way. At the time, the comb was cut from the frames and stored in food grade lidded plastic buckets waiting for processing.
There are two main approaches to extracting heather honey. Technically, it is a thixotropic substance; that is, one that is highly viscous in its ordinary state, but can become temporarily markedly less viscous if agitated in some way. Thus, one approach to removing the honey involves a contraption comprising a matrix of needles that are inserted into the cells and used to agitate the honey so that it can then be spun out. In the absence of such equipment, the alternative is to attempt to press the honey through a filter. Presses are offered by bee equipment suppliers, but these can be expensive. We used instead a very robust 12 litre cast iron press from Vigo Presses, intended primarily for pressing apples and other fruits. From our experience today, it was clear that a good capacity and robust press is beneficial.
Before pressing, the honey is warmed to help it flow. Dad had made a warming cabinet with thick expanded polystyrene walls, heated by a couple of light bulbs. The cabinet was sized to take one large bucket of honey at a time. The press was lined with a filter and the warmed honey poured and scraped in. The loose material of the filter was folded over the top and the pressing began. In the first instance, we used a fine filter. We found, though, that the wax quickly blocked the pores of the filter and needed to be scraped clear from time to time. On a second batch we used a course filter first, then pressed the very slightly waxy results through a fine filter. The latter approach, we decided, although adding another stage to the process, was by far the easiest and quickest in the long run, and we only needed to scrape the coarse filter once.
It is worth mentioning that extracting honey, especially in this way, is a very messy business. No matter how careful we were, we ended up with honey all over the place. We were also feeling rather sick from sampling rather too much of our own product, but it is so hard not to when it is dripping from the press. When cleaning the filters, we washed them with cold water – Dad knew from previous experience that, although it seems obvious to wash in hot water to dissolve the honey and wax, in practice, molten wax ends up blocking the filter and is very difficult to clear, whereas cold water very effectively washed the remaining honey and wax out of the filters.
In total, we jarred just over 23 lbs of honey. We did this in two batches, as the honey from each hive was slightly different; one super was taken slightly earlier in the season and so was a little milder in flavour. Both honeys were, however, exceedingly rich and delicious. One of the joys of extracting our own honey is seeing the range of qualities – flavours, colours, fragrances, and textures – that come at different times of the year, depending on the flowers available to the bees at the time. There really is no comparison between the honey we extracted today and anything I have bought, whether from farmers’ markets, delis, or the supermarket.