Honey extraction

Frame of sealed honey
Frame of sealed honey

The bees in the long deep hive have been busy and we expected to take the first honey last week, but found that it was not quite ready. The bees process the honey until the water content is just right, when it will store indefinitely, and then seal it with a wax capping, at which point the beekeeper can raid the hive and steal all of their hard work. With our bees, we leave them a hive full of honey and only take a modest surplus from the supers that they would not use during the winter. It is quite normal practice to take so much honey that the bees then need to be fed with large amounts of sugar syrup or fondant. We do not like to do that, thinking that they do better when they have honey to feed on rather than a substitute. That means, though, that we get a smaller crop than we could get, but we are only hobby beekeepers and there is no need for us to take everything.

This week, we found ten super frames that were in a fit state to be extracted. One can expect to get around 2.5 lbs of honey per frame; a standard size honey jar is 1 lb, so we hoped to see around 25 jars worth. With ten frames per super, they are well spaced, so the bees tend to build the comb out quite deep. On the other hand, a couple of the frames were not completely filled. We took the frames that were sealed, leaving half a dozen that still need another couple of weeks, carefully shaking off the bees, and placed them in a food grade plastic crate. We put fresh frames in their place and closed up the hive.

The characteristics of the honey depend on the flowers from which the nectar was gathered. Some sorts, such as heather honey, are very reluctant to leave the comb and, on a small scale, may be pressed out, which I wrote about here last year. This first crop, though, is quite runny and ideal for extracting with a centrifuge. The equipment consists of a large barrel with a framework inside to hold the frames. A handle or motor is used to spin the frames – thankfully, we had a motor so it really is quite an easy task. The honey spins out of the frames and runs down the wall of the barrel, gathering in a channel at the bottom. A tap at the base is used to pour off the liquid honey.

First, the wax cappings must be cut off the honey comb. There are special knives designed for this very purpose, but it was so warm that we found a serrated bread knife more effective on the soft wax. We supported the frame on a piece of batten over a clean bowl, angled the frame slightly so that the wax drops away, and carefully cut away the cappings, trying to take as little as possible whilst still uncovering each cell. Once the extractor is fully loaded with frames, they are spun, slowly at first, but increasing in speed, until all of the honey has left the comb. Some fiddling with the frames is sometimes needed to make sure the extractor is evenly loaded, otherwise there can be a lot of vibration.

The honey pools in the base of the extractor. At this stage there is quite a bit of debris, including lots of wax, so this needs to be filtered out. The first stage is to pass the honey from the extractor through some coarse filters into a food grade bucket below. This removes most of the wax but can still leave some undesirable particles in the honey. We have a stainless steel tank into which the honey can be filtered further. A tap at the base of this tank allows the honey to be taken off into the jars. We tied some filter material to the top of the tank and poured in the coarsely filtered honey and allowed it to slowly drip through.

At this stage, one would ideally leave the honey in the tank to settle for a couple of days so that all of the small bubbles in the honey rise to the surface, before the honey is poured into the jars. If bottled immediately, these bubbles form a little foam around the rim and on the surface. This is just cosmetic and, as the honey is for our own use and we wanted to get the job done in one day, we poured it into the jars straight away.

The ten frames from this year gave us exactly 25 jars. We then took a look at some frames we had from last year that we never got around to processing. We pressed the heather honey that came towards the end of the season, but there were eleven frames left from the summer. We had expected this to be solid in the comb, but found that it was still quite runny. Whilst we had the equipment out, we extracted these frames as well. Only a very small amount was crystallised. We processed this in the same way and filled another 27.5 jars.

This year’s honey is perhaps the best I have ever tasted. It is 100% pure honey and as we have not used heat in processing it, all of the floral components that are lost in the commercial product are still there. It is incredibly fragrant and quite different from what can be bought in the supermarket. That from last year was almost identical; perhaps a little richer and slightly less floral, but very fine indeed.

All being well, we should get some more to process later in the year, and probably another batch of heather honey to press at the end of the season.

The finished product
The finished product

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