The Processing of Honey

If the world were perfect, supers would be removed and taken to the honey house, to start the processing.  Here is this real world the honey can be left in the super too long.  Then you have several dangers to consider.  Honey remaining in the super can be subject to robbing, by insects or mice, damage by wax moth, and fermentation.

Supers can be stacked in a garage, an outdoor workshop or a room indoors, provided it is clean, dry and protected from excessive heat.  Stored honey can be tainted by the odors from paint, chemicals and even cooking.

The stored supers with honey are still at risk of dangers from ants, earwigs, bees and wasps.  Plus physical and chemical changes can take place in honey that has been in storage for a prolonged length of time.

The main factor in honey is the water content.  Honey with more than 21% water content with the exception of heather or clover honey is not fit for sale, except for industrial use.  Honey when exposed to the air will attract moisture from the atmosphere and in very dry, warm atmosphere, the honey will lose water, and the quality will improve.  Sign to watch for are watery honey running from open cells, bubbly honey, and honey weeping through cappings.  One or more cells in this condition in a super will not ruin the lot.   You have not wasted your time extracting it for human consumption.  However, the bees will readily take it back as a feed, with no ill effects.

A honey room for the purpose of processing honey has some requirements.  First thing is hygiene; Floors and surfaces need to be washable.  A toilet facility needs to be available along with washing facilities.  Hot and cold water may not be imperative, but are strongly recommended.  When family and friends extract honey only for consumption and not sold on the market, the odd bee wing or lump of wax is not a disaster.  However, when it comes to honey for sale, if unsatisfactory in any way, can bring a visit from a Trading Standards officer to scrutinize every part of the operation.  If keeping bees and wasps out is a difficult task, to may be worth doing this process at night when the foragers are not flying.  After working during the night, all the honey can be packed away, supers sealed and equipment washed before enough bees discover the feast.

The thickness of liquid honey changes with temperature- the higher the temperature, the runnier the honey.  The lower the temperature the thicker the honey making it difficult or even impossible to remove from the extractor.  As a rule of thumb the temperature should range between 70°F and 95°F.  The frames will empty quickly and setting or “ripening” is more, thorough.  Air escapes easily with less froth, and heavier particles drop quickly.  The honey room layout should be planned so that there is an easy flow from one task to the next.  Lifting and moving of supers and frames should be minimized.

Honey and wax will inevitable reach every corner of the room, floor, door handles, taps-anything touched by foot or hand will be sticky.  Throughout the processing, keep handy one bucket of warm soapy water for washing surfaces.  This will help keep the mess under control, and another container for washing hands and utensils.  Wax is removable with a sharp stick when the room is cooler.

As a beekeeper just starting out it can be extremely confusing with all the hives, frames and even bees, and that doesn’t even include the honey extracting equipment.   For a beekeeper with only one hive it may not cost effective to lay out the money for elaborate equipment.  It is perfectly practical to enjoy the honey crop using basic kitchen tools.  Before a super is put on the hive in the spring, the decision has to be made how to harvest the honey.  The options are:

  1. Cut comb honey.
  2. Section honey.
  3. Extracted honey.

Cut comb honey is cut out of the frame and packed in 8 oz. and 12 oz. pieces.  It is eaten with the wax comb, and is one of the best ways to present honey as aromas and flavors are unimpaired by extracting and heating.  Granulated honey in comb is not very attractive to most customers.  

To the beginner who does not have access to an extractor, this method is attractive, because a very small amount of equipment is required.   To cut comb honey the super frames should be fitted with “thin super ” or “extra thin” foundation.  A whole sheet is usually used for each frame.   A 25 to 50 mm deep full-width starter strip may be used instead.  Cut comb containers commonly used can comfortably hold a comb about 40 mm thick.

Examine the frame before cutting to decide which side of the comb has the better appearance.  Lay the frame on a clean tray, and the whole comb cut out of the frame with a sharp knife.  Only the best parts of the comb can be used.  The hollow parts at the edge should not be used and uncapped cells kept to a minimum.  A sharp kitchen knife, a cheese wire, or a stainless steel comb cutter can be used to cut the combs.  All portions of cut comb should stand on a grid to let the honey drain from the outside cut cells.   A piece of comb honey swimming in its container in liquid honey is poor presentation.  Because heather honey is a gel it can be packaged straight away.  The best storage for comb honey is in a deep freeze, in special plastic boxes, where comb will keep indefinitely.  Freezing packaged comb honey will also kill any wax moth eggs and larvae.    Comb honey stored in any other fashion must be examined regularly for signs of deterioration.  Another development of comb honey is chunk honey.  Chunk honey is a piece of cut comb is put in a jar and surrounded with a clear runny honey, producing what is am attractive presentation.

Wax cappings are a valuable by product of extracting.  After cappings have dripped dry, wash them in water to remove all honey.  Melt the cappings, strain the wax through nylon and pour it into bread pans or a similar mold.  Supply companies can render you beeswax bricks into new foundation at considerable savings.

An experience bee craftsman accomplishes section honey.  Section honey is the finest and traditional way of presenting honey.  There are tricks and quirks to this method that demand great attention.  If you are interested in learning the craftsmanship of this type of honey presentation, you will have to get specialized books or literature on the subject.  It is so detailed it can not be covered and given the justice it deserves in a small publication.

It is possible to extract honey without the assistance of a centrifugal extractor, by just using basic kitchen implements to cope with one or more supers.  It will be time consuming, sticky and inefficient, but if it means that the beekeeper’s family can obtain some benefit from his or her obsession, it will be worth while.

This method of extraction requires that the comb, cappings, cells, and honey to be scraped from the frame.  A large table spoon or serving spoon handled carefully will allow the foundation to be left intact, while both sides are scraped reasonable dry.  A few holes here and there will not matter to the bees who will patch it up later.  The honey and wax should be mashed up in a clean basin or bucket, then tipped into a sieve or similar strainer and left to drain for at least overnight, but possible even for days.  The wax left in the strainer will still contain a lot of honey, which is best fed back to the bees, by diluting with warm water, and putting the mix, wax and liquid, into any kind of feeder.

The warmer the honey the easier it runs.   So prior to the extracting it is best to warm the honey.  A pile of supers with a large amount of honey will not warm up enough by simply bringing them into a warm room for an hour or so.  It might take as many as two days to do the job.  The moisture content of the honey will be reduced during a warming process.  To accomplish the warming of the honey, it is possible to pile the supers in staggered stacks with a fan heater directed towards them.  There are some drawbacks to keep in mind.  They are:

  • Heating will remove some of the compounds that give the honey its unique flavor and aroma.  Prolonged heat can darken and damage the honey.  There are tests to be used to distinguish overheated honey.
  • The wax will soften making uncapping more difficult, with cell walls dragged along by the knife.  This will happen at 400°C, at 450°C combs will soften and collapse, and at 630°C wax will melt.

Each frame is lifted from the super with one lug located on a bar over a bucket or tray or tank.  The capping is then removed by using a cold knife, cappings scratcher, cranked uncapping fork, or electric knife.  The amount of honey mixed with the wax cappings will vary, depending on the method used for the uncappings.

  • The simplest way, is by uncapping into a bucket, basin or uncapping tray and then by gravity straining with a strainer or sieve.  A filter bag, tailored to a 70 lb. plastic tank is typically used.  The honey left in the wax cappings can be washed out and used for making mead (a honey wine) or fed back to the bees.
  • Using a heated tray while uncapping, the wax and honey can be separated and processed at the same time will cut out a lot of the sticky work.  The stainless steel tray has an electrically heated water jacket.  Honey will run down the surface, while the wax is held back and gradually melts.  The honey and the wax will end up in the same bucket.  The wax solidifying and floating on top of the honey will separate the wax from the honey.

There are other processes for separating honey and wax that require elaborate equipment.


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