Honey Harvest 2017

Great things often come from small beginnings.  Such was the case with my honey harvest this year.  This honey harvest is one for the books.  You’ll recall the winter loss of my amazing blue queen who produced gentle, diligent bees that provided a wonderful honey harvest last year.  It was a sad affair for me, but from it came something good- a new hive, once small that became strong and good tempered.

To get fifty pounds of honey from a hive is a gift.  To get 100 pounds of honey from one hive, unthinkable to me.  Yet that was the case with that hive that began small, making a queen from brood I shared from the blue queen last year, a new leader from the blue queen’s lineage that overwintered and found her stride in the spring.

I’d like to say, “This is how it happened,” if for nothing else than to be able to replicate this season, but with honey bees, all we can do is support their efforts as best we can and hope that it works out for the best.  They do the work that matters, that’s why they are the “worker bees!”  With beekeeping, there are lots of factors completely out of our control.  This season, factors fell in line just right for me.

That colony built up fast and furious in the spring, with notes of the blue queen’s calm demeanor in this hive.  It’s apparent even now as I work my bees post harvest.  The hive from the blue queen’s lineage requires little smoke while the newer hive that I started from a package, building up beautifully with the abundant resources provided them, just doesn’t contain the same type of honey bee.  Those bees are much more easily agitated by my inspections.

 

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Four supers above the queen excluder were packed full of honey for harvest by mid June.  I did not harvest any honey from the smaller, new hive despite their robust build up because I supplemented them with sugar syrup so I’d not know what was sugar and what was honey.  I don’t take honey from first year colonies anyhow, preferring to let them build up and go into winter as strongly as possible for best outcomes.

 

The established hive had the benefit of coming out of winter with honey stores, barely taking any sugar water that I offered, rather finding pollen and nectar and building up bee volume as nature intended.  They had another benefit, that of worked comb in which to store their foraging finds.  Building wax comb uses a lot of energy and resources; having drawn frames at the ready makes for more efficient work.

And then there was the nectar flow.  It lasted a long time with a strong tulip poplar bloom.  It was extremely good to my honey bees.  They zealously foraged for nectars and stored them up quickly, the frames of liquid gold glistening in the sun when I removed them for inspections, priding me in the girls’ work.

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This frame of nectar was already being capped mid April!

We were down to our last 4 oz. hex jar of honey when we extracted.  The honey this year is darker than that of last year.  I’ve been saying it’s because of the strong tulip poplar bloom which lends to a darker colored honey, but in all honesty, there’s no telling where my honey bees go and what they bring in because they are flying insects that will go where they choose.  I do know that the hives are fortunate enough to have age old tulip poplar trees in the woods next to their hives from which to forage.  When the tulip poplar bloom arrives, I joyously watch them exit their hives, navigate and then head up 70 feet to the tips of the many tulip poplar trees where the blooms reside.

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Color and taste vary in honey depending upon where honey bees forage.  This is even the case for individual beekeepers who maintain hives in the same location from year to year because blooms vary from year to year, largely due to weather fluctuations.  This year’s tulip poplar bloom was long and robust which I believe reflects the darker color of this year’s honey on the left vs that of last year’s honey on the right.

While $10/ pound may seem high to some, when you consider the sticky work involved in extracting and bottling honey as sanitarily as possible and combine that with the costs of beekeeping, both tangible in the form of bees, equipment and nutrition along with the intangible like stressing over management options and planting for the pollinators, then the price tag seems quite reasonable.  If there’s any doubt, opening a jar of local, raw honey, seeing the pollen and tasting the flavorful honey settles the matter.  Even with close to 100 pounds of honey, I was able to sell most of it in short order via friends after a Facebook posting.  The rich taste of the nectars, slowly savored on a spoon or on top of toast or yogurt delights me this summer, especially when combined with the spoils of my garden.  Once the school year begins, my children will benefit from a teaspoon of honey every morning to support their immune systems.

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Breakfast like this is so gratifying:  freshly made yogurt topped with honey from my hives accompanied with homemade bread worthy of the delicious blackberry jam I made with the bumper crop of blackberries we’ve been enjoying this summer, courtesy of the bees.  Knowing that my blackberry bushes are an important foraging source for honey bees makes it that much sweeter!

While the honey harvest is what beekeepers anxiously await each year, it is not without a lot of work.   This is fitting since anything worthwhile takes effort.  The honey bees worked so diligently to bring in their nectar, all the while maintaining their brethren, both girls and boys, unselfishly sustaining life, so a little work on my part is only fair.  And let us not forget that each teaspoon of delicious, nutritious raw honey takes the work of twelve honey bees.  A single pound of honey requires honey bees to visit 2,000,000 flowers.  It is a treat indeed!

The extraction and bottling process of honey at my house this year:

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Twenty five frames of honey here waiting to be extracted here.  In total I extracted 35 medium frames.  How did I get this honey from the bees?  I inspected each frame, looking for at least 80% capped frames, that is, honey capped in wax.  This is how we know that the nectar is honey and that it is properly cured.  Fortunately, my girls diligently capped their honey left to right, top to bottom, leaving little question that it was ready.  I gave each ready frame a solid shake into the hive and carefully, gently brushed the bees off of the frames with a bee brush, placing them one by one into an empty hive body with a screened inner cover to keep interested parties away from the bounty.  It’s a slow process, but it works fine for me.
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This is what we want to see:  honey capped side to side, top to bottom, indicating it’s ready.  Uncapped honey leads to fermentation over time.
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A beautiful frame of honey ready for harvest.  Thank you, honey bees!
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In order to harvest the honey in the extractor, the wax cappings need to be removed.  I have tried different ways, but go back to using a serrated knife to remove thin layers of wax.
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The wax layers are very thin to preserve the comb which the bees can reuse.  I take my time, slicing just below the surface to remove very thin layers that are almost transparent, working over a cookie sheet to catch drips.
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Uncapped frame, ready to be spun out in the extractor.  It may not look like much but between the two sides, there’s probably about three pounds of honey here.  Cranking the extractor takes a lot of arm work to spin out all of the honey.
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The liquid gold slowly exiting the extractor and luxuriously pooling in the strainers before filling the pail below.  I use two strainers to remove wax and other hive debris.
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Periodically, these wax pieces that were jostled loose from the spinning process need to be removed from the strainers to enhance straining. 

 

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Those bits of wax pieces drained through a colander left me with this honey.
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Here are the cappings I cut from some of the frames draining as well.  I like to keep this honey for our own use, just straining once through a colander, wax pieces remaining.  I find this chunky honey to be tasty on toast.  It’s amazing how much honey will drip overnight.  The two bowls of wax cappings easily added four more pounds of honey.
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Plastic laid on the table to catch drips during the extraction process yielded delicious honey for the honey bees to drink up.

 

 

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Some people bottle right away.  I let my honey sit, sealed in the buckets for a few days to allow the air bubbles to rise to the top which is what you see here after a week.

 

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I sacrificed one beautiful frame, cutting the comb for jars of chunk honey.  This was from a foundationless frame that the girls drew out in the spring, making cutting easy.  While many people like to eat chunk honey, enjoying the taste and benefits of the wax with the honey, I do not like to sacrifice much worked comb because the bees use a lot of resources to build it.  Recall that the bees were able to build up bee volume and nectar stores quickly in the spring because they already had worked comb to fill.  Drawn frames are worth a lot to beekeepers and bees alike, as a result the cost of chunk honey is high.
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Bottling is the fun part.  The work prior to this is complex.  Extraction is sticky but exciting.  Beekeeping is humbling and not always fruitful.  I harvested just over 100 pounds of honey from one hive this year and enjoyed using a variety of vessels for storage.  I put the bulk of my honey into classic one pound jars, filling 75 jars just like this one.  The remaining honey went into other vessels to be used mostly as gifts.
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This is a muth jar which holds one pound of honey.  After bottling, I sealed them.  I charge a bit more for these because the bottles are more expensive and they make good gifts.  They sold out in a wink.
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These hex jars are my favorite.  I bought them in two sizes, this larger 190ml size and the smaller 4oz hex version that works so well as gifts.   And of course, you need different labels for different jars but that’s fun too!  That’s my image on the label.  I grow a lot of anise hyssop and once the flow is over, bees of all varieties are grateful for the abundance my large patch affords them, storing up more nectar for the winter, carrying the herbal properties of this particular nectar to their hive.  I like this label because it’s shows my honey bees on my plants and that the bees can look quite different from one another because of the mixed genetic pool of Apis mellifera.

 

“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think.  Because although eating honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”             -A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

 

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This girl is feasting on Asclepias tuberosa, butterfly weed, not to be confused with butterfly bush.  I love these milkweed plants because they provide nutritious nectar to my honey bees during the nectar dearth and then attract monarchs later in the season, working  nicely in my landscape as both food source to wildlife and beauty to humans.

 

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