Harvesting Honey

The following is courtesy of John Caldeira, Dallas, Texas, USA. The original can be found on his website at www.outdoorplace.org/beekeeping/.

18 Things a Beginning Beekeeper Should Know to Help Things Run Smoothly on Extracting Day

The following suggestions are offered for the benefit of beekeepers with a few hives who do not have a permanent honey house. They are meant to supplement the information in books where everything seems so simple and easy. Many beekeepers, including myself, have learned some of these self-evident truths the hard way.

  1. Honey is sticky. It will drip. Every doorknob, shoelace, telephone and radio button that is touched while uncapping or handling wet frames will become sticky. Walking spreads the honey around on the floor.
    Solution:A bucket of water to rinse hands and a dishtowel are essential in the extracting room, especially if you are married and want to stay that way. Turn on the fan and radio, and get everything else ready, before getting all sticky. The garage, basement, barn or porch are usually better places to extract than the kitchen, providing you can keep the honey clean. Watch the kids.
  2. Bees in the extracting room are attracted to light.Straggler bees left in the supers will find their way into the extracting room and will tend to fly towards a window or light bulb.
    Solution:A small exit near the top of a window will allow them to return to their hives if they are nearby. If the hives are not nearby and you have a lot of bees in the room, hanging a few drawn frames near the top of the window with a caged queen will provide a place for them to settle and create a nice nucleus colony when you’re done. A vacuum cleaner hose is an alternative. Don’t extract directly under the only light bulb in the room.
  3. Bees away from their hive are not inclined to sting.Bees carried into the extracting room in supers are normally extremely gentle, with no brood or queen present. However, they are very adept at stinging the finger that accidentally crushes them while picking up a frame or super. Beware.
  4. Household items can serve as good alternatives to supplies found in beekeeping catalogs.
    • A serrated bread knife makes a good uncapping knife. Use a sawing motion. No need to heat it. Change directions if it catches the wood. Some beekeepers really like using a hot-air electric paint stripper to quickly melt the cappings, but I haven’t tried it.
    • Kitchen strainers, nylon paint strainers, and women’s nylon stockings can serve as good honey filters. Clean ones, of course.
    • Tupperware and Rubbermaid both make good plastic containers to hold honey and cappings. Honey is acidic, so don’t use items such as aluminum and galvanized steel that will react with the honey acids. Stick with plastic, stainless steel or glass.
      While there is a good household substitute for most extracting equipment, there is no good substitute for a good centrifugal extractor.
  5. Let the honey settle.Honey that rests for a few days after extracting will not leave tiny bubbles around the rim of a jar. Be patient. Almost all debris left in the honey after filtering will either float or sink within a few days. A spigot just off the bottom of a container will prevent both floating and sunken debris from being accidentally bottled.
  6. If there is no nectar flow, bees will rob honey. If the honey in an extracting room is more appealing than local flowers, the neighborhood bees will try to feast on it and tell all their friends.
    Extracting is best performed in a closed screened room such as a garage, basement or barn, or outside after dark. I heard a story about a guy that brought some supers into his basement to extract the next day, but he left a window open. The next day he found that his bees had brought half the honey back to their hives.
  7. Uncapping is easier with only 8 or 9 frames spaced evenly in a 10-frame super.The thicker comb means almost no scraping with the fork. After bees have drawn out the foundation the first season, return only 8 or 9 frames into each extracted super to make the next crop easier to uncap. Uncap all the way down to the wood on the top and bottom bar, regardless of how far the comb in drawn out, so the comb will be nice and even next year.
  8. Propolis sticks to shoes and almost everything else. Extracting is a great time to clean propolis off the box edges and frame-rests, but if they are going to be scraped it is best to cover the floor with old cardboard, newspaper or a plastic painter’s tarp so there won’t be little propolis reminders of the extracting experience. Wax isn’t quite as bad.
  9. Butyric acid (Bee Go) really stinks.It works great, and is the best way for most hobby beekeepers to clear bees from the supers. The bees don’t get as angry as brushing or blowing them, but that smelly fume board belongs behind the garage or near the fence when you’re done. The chemical bottle belongs in a plastic bag inside an old coffee can or something else that won’t tip over; this is stuff you do not ever want to spill. The almond-smelling Benzaldehyde smells better and works okay in cooler weather, but it still belongs outside. Bee escape boards work okay too, if you can install them the day before extracting, have enough escapes for every hive, and don’t have too many holes between the boxes where the bees can enter and rob the honey. My equipment is old and leaks.
  10. Extractors, uncapping tanks and other extracting equipment are best borrowed or shared.Most hobby beekeepers will only use their extracting equipment one or two days each year. The rest of the year it typically gathers dust in an attic, garage or basement. Thus it is very practical and economical for several beekeepers or a beekeeping association to share equipment. The expense is avoided, and it eliminates the need for storage space. So borrow or share, and use some of that money saved to buy a few of the nice non-stick polyurethane candle molds. If you must buy, a good quality hand-crank 4 frame extractor will suit most beekeepers better than 2 or 3 frame models, since it reduces the spinning work and thus greatly shortens the extracting time.
  11. Extracting honey is best accomplished with two people.One person uncapping frames while the other spins the honey. Very efficient and the conversation can be good. It’s not very stressful to a relationship either, unlike hanging wallpaper. If you have clean wax from an earlier extraction, a side candle-making operation is an effective use of time since candles take time to cool.
  12. Warm honey flows best.Warm honey spins out of the comb faster and more thoroughly than does cold honey in an extractor. Warm honey also strains faster through a filter. Honey at 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 c) or higher will be extracted most easily. This is normally not a problem in the summer, but in cool weather a light bulb under a stack of supers overnight can provide a lot of heat if the escape of the heat is controlled. Don’t melt the wax!
  13. Extracted honey absorbs moisture from the air.Uncovered honey also catches insects, so keep the honey covered.
  14. Sufficient honey containers are needed on extracting day.Enough containers need to be on hand when extracting, so it is good to learn how much capacity you’ll need before extracting. In rough numbers:
    • A shallow super will typically yield between 25 and 30 pounds of honey, or 2 to 2 ½ gallons.
    • A medium (6 5/8”) depth super will typically yield between 35 and 40 pounds, or 3 to 4 gallons.
    • A full-depth box will typically yield between 60 and 70 pounds, or 5 to 6 gallons.

Actual yields vary due to the number of frames, how well they are extracted, age of comb and other variables.

  1. Wax cappings hold a lot of honey.Wax cappings typically hold 10% or more of a beekeeper’s honey crop. Cappings should be drained of honey through screening. After draining, the cappings wax can be melted into a block. Melting is best accomplished using a solar wax melter, or by heating the cappings in an inch of water in an old pot. Feed the honey-water back to the bees.
    Solar wax melters really do work well – use double-paned framed window glass and build around it. Alternatively, the cappings can be left outside for the bees to feed on and then thrown away.
  2. Utensils that are used with melted wax will not be used for anything else.Melted wax leaves a waxy film on every pot, spoon, dipping cup or strainer it comes into contact with.
    Crock pots with an inch of water are good for melting cappings that have been drained of honey, but the pot will never be the same. Old crock pots are also near-perfect for melting wax during candle making, and they are often available at garage sales. Heat to between 150 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit; no need to boil.
  3. Bad comb and rotten boxes should be replaced while extracting.Extracting provides the perfect opportunity to cull bad combs, frames and boxes that need paint or replacing. Have replacements on hand on extracting day. When short a few frames, frame feeders (also called division-board feeders; the kind that normally replace a frame or two) can be put in the empty spaces in the supers so any burr comb built there will be inside the feeder where it will actually be useful to prevent drowning when it is time to feed.
  4. Let the bees clean the “wet” empty supers after extracting.Whether intending to return the supers to the bees or store them off the hives, the bees do a great job of drying supers after extracting. A stack of supers can be placed on a hive, over an inner cover that has a hole, and they will usually be dry the next day. Best to put them on the hives late in the day, to reduce robbing.

Every beekeeper has unique conditions, and there are many good beekeepers that use different methods, so enjoy experimenting with what works best!