Commercial bee hives, and most backyard beekeepers, use Langstroth (American standard) hives with frames lined with pre-pressed wax comb. This allows the bees to spend less time making wax and more time filling the hive with honey. To harvest this honey, keepers usually take out the honey-filled frames, run a de-capping knife down either side to cut off the white beeswax caps, run a knife or comb rake down across the cells to start the honeyflow, then place the oozing frames into the extractor. The extractor is closed, on some models it is heated, and then started. The frames whirl around the inside, using circumfugal force to get the honey off of the comb. The heated sides allows the honey to flow down through screens into a collection chamber. The frames with their cells can then be re-used into the hive for several years before the wax needs to be replaced. There are different scales of extractors, from a home-made one that holds two frames and is run with a drill motor, to large extractors that hold many frames and are heated so much that the honey runs like water. Extractors don’t work very well with frames that don’t start with pre-pressed comb, or Top-Bar Hive frames because the comb is too brittle to be reused.
There are a growing number of people who are not only pursuing organic beekeeping, but going to natural beekeeping. What is the difference? Organics don’t use pesticides to kill mites or treat the bees for various problems. To kill mites, they dust powdered sugar over the frames filled with mite-laden bees. The powdered sugar not only makes the mite’s sticky feet unable to stick, but also forces the bees to groom themselves more, which knocks the mites off and down through a bottom screen on the hive where they can be done away with. Natural beekeepers allow the bees to take care of themselves, using as little interference as possible. By observing what requirements the bees need to survive, by location of the hives and by not over-harvesting the honey, natural beekeepers are more in tune with their bees. For instance, the pre-pressed cells on wax foundation is larger than the larvae cells that bees would normally make. Varroa mites, a terrible scourge of bees, like the larger cells. If bees are allowed to festoon and make their own smaller-celled comb, there are fewer mites because the mites reproduce better with larger cells.
Naturally formed comb doesn’t work well in an extractor, so there are two things a beekeeper can do with it. One is to cut it up and sell it as pure honeycomb. The second is to crush it and allow the honey to drip through a mesh screen into a collection bucket. The latter is the process that we do, since we don’t have a lot of hives. Even with one hive, this process is a long one and physically demanding. As with all honey collection, it is best done on a warm day so that the honey will flow.
The following photos are from a honey harvest last summer from our hives, and also from a wild swarm that I put into a hive just a couple of weeks ago (see my blog post Moving Bees on May 5th).
To crush comb, first we get our basic equipment. You need a long flat pan with sides, a potato masher, a spatula and a knife. You also need a clean food-grade bucket with a spigot on the bottom and a screen on the top and a lid. You can buy these, and believe me they are worth the price.
If you don’t want to buy the bucket, you can always do what we did for our first honey extraction. You put clean buckets on the ground between two chairs, over which is suspended a sturdy and steady pole such as a broom. Once the comb is mashed, you put it either into layers of cheesecloth, or into cheap paint strainer bags sold anywhere paint is sold. Then you suspend it over the buckets and let it drip. If you squeeze it, the honey becomes darker. The cons of this are that dust will settle in the open buckets, and the chance of knocking the broom down is always a threat. Even on hot summer days, the dripping may take a week or more until almost all the honey is extracted. That is why covered screened buckets with bottom spigots are so worth the little extra money.
Cover the floor with newspapers, put some wet paper towels close by, put on some lively long-playing music and go to.
First, remove a frame of comb and cut out the cells into the crushing pan. I stand the empty frames up on another pan which will catch the drips. Using the potato masher… start mashing.
The goal is to crush the comb enough so that all the honey will drip out of it, taking pollen with it. Since you won’t be heating the honey artificially, and will only be screening once, most of the pollen and all the good vitamins, minerals and anti-bacterial goodness will flow right through and not be destroyed or screened out.
When that frame is thoroughly mashed, scrape it into the screen that is on top of your bucket… making certain that the spigot is tightly closed. Then start with the next one. This process will take some hours to do, even with two working on it.
When the strainer becomes full then you can give it gentle stirs with a soft spatula, so you don’t tear the screening, or if you have another bucket put a lid on the full one and move on. Place full, lidded buckets in a warm area safe from ants where the sun can help with the warming and dripping process, without destroying the good stuff through heating.
When your bucket fills up with honey, then its time to decant. I use sterilized Mason jars with screw-on lids. Just open the spigot and be ready for honey to flow. Be ready to shut the spigot off quickly and wait for the inevitable drip.
Honey should be kept in a dark cabinet, not in the refrigerator. It is naturally anti-bacterial, and has been used for centuries on wounds. It will not mold. It may crystallize, which is a reaction to the ambient temperature, since bees keep their hives between 91 and 97 degrees F. There is nothing wrong with crystallized honey; if you would like it liquid again, set the jar in a pan of hot water, or microwave it briefly.
Once you are done extracting, you can set all the equipment and pile of discarded crushed honeycomb (unless you have other plans for it) out in an ant-free place near your hive for the bees to clean up.
The honey from our hive is very light in color and flavor, although it crystallizes within a couple of months (no problem there… it is also called creamed honey). The honey from the swarm that was in the nursery containers was almost caramel-like in color and consistancy, and had a darker flavor. Avocado honey is often dark, and there were many avocado trees in the area of the swarm.
Crushing may be time-consuming, and not practical if you have a lot of hives, but for those of us with a hive or two it is worth the time and effort to not heat our honey and let it drip. Anything worthwhile is worth the time and effort it takes to do it. Just always, always, always be sure to allow the bees to keep at least one whole full super of honey for themselves, rather than robbing their honey and substituting it with sugar syrup. Hopefully you wouldn’t put soft drinks in your infant’s formula bottle, and neither should you give sugar -devoid of all the miraculous properties that honey has for the bee’s existance – as a substitute food for your bees. Bee a good bee parent.